Obliviousness And Ignorance in Benito Cereno By Herman Melville

Categories: Short Story

“His glance called away from the spectacle of disorder to the more pleasing one for him, Captain Delano could not avoid congratulating his host upon possessing such a servant, who, though perhaps a little too forward now and then, must upon the whole be invaluable to one in the invalid’s position. ”

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville is a novella about the revolt on a slave ship that was captained by Don Benito Cereno. Melville presents a naïve protagonist who stumbles upon the violent rebellion but fails to have recognized the ‘horrors’ that have occurred.

Though slavery is a prevalent theme in the novella, ignorance is a reoccurring motif that frustrates readers to no end. Like Oedipus in Oedipus Rex, both Oedipus and Delano are the source of their own undoing, or in Delano’s case, near-undoing.

In Benito Cereno, Captain Delano and his crew, who aboard a sealer ship, spot another ship called The San Dominick. Because of Captain Delano’s ‘good nature’ he views the ship as one in distress and goes out to help them.

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As time passes by on the San Dominick, Captain Delano has the suspicion that something is wrong with the captain but cannot exactly pinpoint what that is. When he sees two slaves violently fighting a sailor, he immediately indicates this peculiarity to Benito, who conveniently starts having a coughing fit in that moment. Having then forgotten about the slave fight, Captain Delano watches as Babo, the black slave, revives his master, and even comments on how great Benito’s servant is.

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However, being the obtuse person that he is, Delano misunderstands exactly what is happening on the ship.

Herman Melville portrays one of the reasons for Captain Delano’s obliviousness to the fact that Babo is very loyal to Cereno. He does so through his diction by using words like ‘invaluable’ to describe Babo and ‘invalid’ to describe Benito. Both words start with ‘I’, giving the odd connotation that both are compatible with each other. This alliteration also is used to emphasize those words. For instance, the use of the word ‘invaluable’ shows how important and faithful Babo is to his master and dismisses any scruples Delano has about the slight chance that there is a slave revolt in process. It also emphasizes the word ‘invalid’ which Melville uses quite often to describe Benito, to rationalize the necessity for a faithful servant such as Babo. What is actually happening in this scene is that Benito is creating a diversion, under Babo’s supervision, so that Delano does not realize the reverse role between the slaves and the sailors. But why is he unable to penetrate the pantomime aboard the San Dominick? At the start, Melville describes Delano’s character as one of a “singularly undistrustful good nature…such a trait implies, along with a benevolent, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine”.

Clearly, it is implied that his good nature is the source of his obliviousness to what is really happening on the San Dominick. However, does his ‘good nature’ mean good by nature or a good nature that is forcefully put, almost like a façade, in order to control his actions and be more optimistic. Throughout the novella, Melville presents instances where Delano is very aware of his surroundings, specifically when he spots the slaves as they “dashed [a sailor] to the deck”. However, in many instances he actively dismisses the idea that any thing out of ordinary could be happening and that some events are just a result of Captain Benito’s weakness as a captain. This means that Benito might be consciously acting and making assumptions that nothing is wrong on the ship to maintain his forceful ‘good nature’. Another instance where we see this forceful ‘good nature’ playing out is after he feels as though everything is staged and convinces himself to keep a benevolent mindset: “Though ashamed of the relapse, he could not altogether subdue it; and so, exerting his good nature of the utmost, insensibly he came to a compromise”. Here he is ashamed of the fact that he had suspicions about what is going on in the San Dominick.

Melville uses the term ‘good nature’ in a way that doesn’t mean an inherent goodness but rather a form of restraint and forcefulness. It becomes something that Delano has to control and act upon, as he must ‘exert’ his good nature. Thus, Captain Delano may not truly be oblivious to what is happening but is just making a conscious effort to keep a positive mindset in which he rationalizes many things to blind him from any clues that may lead him to uncover the truth. Perhaps he exerts such ‘good nature’ because he believes that men are a product of their actions and he wants to be a good man away from any notion of evil.

As implied before, Babo and the other slaves on the San Dominick had taken over the ship and forced Captain Benito to act like the leader in order to gain resources from Captain Delano’s ship. Even though Captain Delano boards the ship to help the Spanish sailors onboard, he fails to see though the blacks’ charade due to a conscious rejection of what is really happening to keep up his actions of ‘good nature’. If only Captain Delano had followed through with his intuition instead of trying to subdue it under the pretext that it was not of ‘good nature’ to have suspicions, the revolt could have been less violent than it needed to be.

Works cited

  1. Melville, H. (1855). Benito Cereno. Putnam.
  2. Fischer, E. (1968). The Mutiny Aboard the San Dominick: An Episode in the Racial Mythology of the United States. American Quarterly, 20(4), 698-719. https://doi.org/10.2307/2710878
  3. Leitch, V. B., ed. (2001). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st ed., W.W. Norton & Co.
  4. Hooper, G. B. (2012). Historical Heteroglossia: Melville's Benito Cereno and the Discourse of Slavery. Studies in American Fiction, 39(1), 19-38. https://doi.org/10.1353/saf.2012.0004
  5. Allen, E. (2014). Herman Melville: Moby-Dick, Benito Cereno. Routledge.
  6. Smith, C. A. (1978). The Limits of Whiteness: Irving, Melville, and the Drama of Slavery. Callaloo, 1(3), 65-79. https://doi.org/10.2307/2930098
  7. Ruffin, K. C. (1995). Telling the Difference: African American Literary Responses to the Literature of the Slave Rebellion. American Literary History, 7(2), 282-296. https://doi.org/10.2307/490055
  8. Spangler, G. W. (2006). Melville's Voice of Democracy: Benito Cereno as Antebellum Political Rhetoric. Journal of American Culture, 29(3), 277-291. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1542-734X.2006.00364.x
  9. Reichardt, M. (2018). Benito Cereno and the Slave Trade: A Study of Melville's Use of History. University Press of Kentucky.
  10. McWilliams, J. (2000). The Politics of Manhood in Benito Cereno. American Transcendental Quarterly, 14(1), 53-68. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27922824
Updated: Feb 14, 2024
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Obliviousness And Ignorance in Benito Cereno By Herman Melville. (2024, Feb 14). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/obliviousness-and-ignorance-in-benito-cereno-by-herman-melville-essay

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