Benito Cereno By Herman Melville Summary and Analysis Preliminary Climax

Summary

Delano observes that the San Dominick's only long-boat, which is unseaworthy, serves as a den for a black family. Delano questions Don Benito about the absence of boats. Benito replies that they were destroyed in bad weather. A messenger boy interrupts, announcing that it is twelve thirty and reminding Cereno to retire to the cuddy. While Babo shaves his master, who is draped with the flag of Spain, Delano contemplates what he perceives as Babo's ease with the jobs of valet and hairdresser. As he admits that had anyone but Don Benito told him about the ship's disastrous voyage, he would have disbelieved him, the Spaniard shudders, and Babo draws blood under Cereno's throat. The shaving draws to a close; Delano steps discreetly toward the main-mast, then hears a noise near the cuddy. He turns to find Babo, his cheek bleeding, wondering when his master will recover from his "sickness," which has caused him to punish Babo for a single slip of the razor.


Francesco, a tall steward, announces lunch. Delano and Cereno sit down to fish, pumpkin, beef, and biscuit along with cider and wine; Babo stands behind Delano's chair, in full sight of Cereno's needs. Delano asks for a private conference, but Cereno replies that Babo, who has replaced the ship's missing officers, should remain. The two captains settle a price for the sails; then, shortly before two o'clock, they sit in a cushioned part of the stern while Babo cools Cereno with a feather fan.

The resurgence of a breeze leads Delano to declare that he will pilot the San Dominick into the bay. He returns to the deck, finding Atufal guarding the threshold; he issues orders in his best Spanish, and with Babo's help, he performs what movements are necessary for piloting, then returns to Don Benito's cabin, again encountering Atufal standing outside it. Because of the slaves' diligence, Delano accuses Cereno of being a "bitter hard master," then encourages him to take heart and to share a cup of coffee aboard the

Bachelor's Delight.

Analysis

The use of the flag of Spain as a symbol of the hypocrisy aboard the San Dominick is an ingenious touch. The colorful banner of Spain, with its upper and lower horizontal bars of red flanking a bright yellow band on which reposes an ornate ceremonial insignia, symbolizes the empire that led the early explorers in search of gold to the New World and which, by 1799, had given place to England and America as unquestioned lords of the sea. As Cereno, a pasty-faced invalid swathed in the flag's bright-hued folds, squirms beneath the hands of his effusive body servant, his discomfort escapes Delano, who makes no untoward assumptions about who is really master and who the captive. The ambiguity of these scenes remains untapped until Delano experiences his great coming to knowledge, a cataclysmic enlightenment of the carefully orchestrated dumbshow which has gone before.

On the whole, Melville utilizes his dark drama to raise some disturbing questions about slavery, which, at the time these stories were published, was the subject of much concern as abolitionists became increasingly active. The Underground Railroad enabled streams of runaways to escape their pursuers, and more states entered the Union, threatening the balance between free and slave states. Critics credit the author with verbalizing the potential backlash of slaves who, living within a razor stroke of their owners, had ample opportunity to exact atonement for generations of disenfranchisement.

Glossary

Guy Fawkish like the conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605.

cuddy a small cabin under the poop deck.

Malacca cane cane from a palm native to Malaysia.

Johnson and Byron Samuel Johnson (1709-84) and George Gordon, Lord Byron (1783-1824), both influential English writers.

headsman the executioner who chops off heads of the condemned.

conceits fanciful notions, or whims.

James the First of England (reigned 1603-25) the Scottish James VI, who inherited the throne of England after the death of Elizabeth I and who weathered continual plotting and shifts of loyalty.

Nubian African native.

rajah-looking like a chief or nobleman from India.

saalam (salaam) welcoming gesture or greeting.

Chesterfieldian like Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773), the epitome of gentility, courtesy, and aristocratic behavior.

Canary sweet wine from the Canary Islands.

transom a beam across the stern-post of a ship.

stu'n'sail the studding sail, a small sail beyond the yard of a square sail.

side-light a small porthole.

a-taunt-o in good order.

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At the end of the story, Don Benito remains a prisoner




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