Note: Because Benito Cereno is not divided into chapters, this commentary will indicate units of the text by beginning and ending phrases and by page numbers. The page numbers cited refer to the 1998 Signet Classic edition of Billy Budd and Other Tales (ISBN 0-451-52687-2), with introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. The section numbers used in this commentary are not present in Melville’s text.
Section 4: “He had descended…” to “…gently conducted his master below” (pp. 168-172)
Wishing to stay clear of Cereno for a while, Delano returns to the main deck of the ship, where he sees, in the steerage below decks, the Spanish sailor from the mizzen rigging stashing a sparkling item in his shirt. This curious incident again kindles Delano’s suspicions: are this sailor and Cereno conspiring against him or his vessel? As before, however, Delano is able to put these suspicions to rest.
At one point, Delano notices two blacks pushing aside a white sailor who is in their way. Delano protests this breach of order to Cereno, but Cereno is taken at that moment by a coughing spell. Babo administers a cordial to Cereno, and Delano praises Babo for being a faithful servant to his master; in jest, Delano even offers to purchase Babo for his own. But Babo seems to take the offer in earnest, and responds with resentment.
Readers have no doubt noticed by this point that a great deal of the “action” in Benito Cereno is psychological. This section is a further illustration of the inward nature of the story’s plot. Very little happens in it in the way of physical movement, but much happens in Delano’s internal processing of his experience aboard the San Dominick. Delano seems to come so close to guessing the truth of the situation; but, no sooner does he draw near it, than he shies away from it once more. He sees only what he chooses to see: for instance, when confronted with the sight of two blacks pushing aside a white sailor, Delano’s “glance called away from the spectacle of disorder to the more pleasing one before him” (pp. 171-172), namely, the sight (so Delano supposes) of Babo ministering to Cereno—that is, of Babo knowing and staying in “his place” (not Melville’s term) whereas the two blacks mentioned earlier do not.
In this way—focusing on what is pleasing to him and his preconceived notions of order at the expense of what is not—Delano achieves what the narrator describes as “tranquilizing” thoughts (p. 171). More specifically, the narrator calls these thoughts “the American’s thoughts” (p. 171)—perhaps yet another indicator that Delano is meant to be understood as a symbol for America itself. If so, the passage under consideration here might be construed as another comment upon the young republic’s view of itself in the world: “There was a difference between the idea of Don Benito’s darkly preordaining Captain Delano’s fate and Captain Delano’s lightly arranging Don Benito’s” (p. 171). In other words, the text may be suggesting, Americans prefer to see themselves as those in control of the fate of the world, and specifically that of “the old world,” as opposed to those who are controlled. Readers could thus approach Benito Cereno as a text that is greatly concerned with young America’s process of establishing its own identity, and the consequences that this chosen identity may bring with it. Will the new republic engage the world in a clear-eyed, keenly perceptive way (as Delano does not engage the situation aboard Cereno’s vessel), or will it instead turn a blind eye and settle for “tranquilizing,” “pleasing” thoughts—however untrue they may prove? Will a self-satisfied America “laugh” at the old world as Delano manages to “laugh at the strange ship… and almost at the dark Spaniard himself” (p. 170)?