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 2: “The visitor’s curiosity…” to “ …febrile and transient” (pp. 153-158)
Delano asks Cereno to tell him the full story of how the San Dominick fell victim to such ill fortune. Cereno explains, somewhat haltingly, that a combination of storm and sickness killed many of the ship’s passengers and crew. Cereno credits Babo not only with preserving him but also with enforcing some semblance of order upon the slaves; Babo protests he is only doing his duty.
Babo continues to faithfully attend to Cereno while he spins his tale of the ship’s misadventures. Delano attributes Babo’s ministrations to his acceptance of his proper role as servant (“Faithful fellow!…”. p. 156). Readers, of course, suspect otherwise. Even on a first reading of the text, readers can at the very least suspect that Babo is telling Delano the narrative he wishes to hear—i.e., a black not only acting subservient to a white but also embracing that role. Furthermore, once readers are aware of the story’s conclusion, can properly interpret Babo’s attentions to Cereno as manipulations of the captain, insuring that he tells the story Babo and the other slaves wish him to tell. At some points, Cereno almost lets the truth slip—for example, “Oh, my God! rather than pass through what I have, with joy I would have hailed the most terrible gales…” (p. 155)—but, for now, through Babo’s control and correction of Cereno, the ruse holds. Readers may well wonder about the degree to which, unconsciously, Delano may be a willing participant in his deception. For instance, his reaction to the fact that so many of the San Dominick’s superior officers have been killed is not to question the validity of Cereno’s (and Babo’s) story, but rather to accept their explanation of “luckless fatality” (p. 155) at face value. Melville may not actually want his readers, therefore, to accept Delano himself at face value: as stated above, we see evidence that Delano is smug and self-satisfied—and is thus easily fooled. And if, as suggested in the commentary for the previous section, Delano can be construed as Melville’s symbol for the United States, what implications do his naiveté and gullibility have for America, still, in Melville’s day, a young nation and new power facing an older, larger, more threatening world?
The fact that the true situation aboard the Spanish ship remains unspoken affords Melville, throughout the text, several opportunities to employ irony as a literary technique. For example, in this section, note Cereno’s speech that begins, “But throughout these calamities…” (p. 156). Cereno is ostensibly praising the slaves for conducting themselves calmly and rationally in the face of hardship. In actuality, however, Cereno is telling Delano that the slaves have been carefully plotting and executing their mutiny. “Yes, their owner was quite right in assuring me that no fetters would be needed…” (p. 156)—a further ironic statement, for the slaves have Cereno in “fetters,” metaphorical perhaps but no less real. This speech marks but one of many attempts readers can see Cereno making to reveal the truth to Delano—but, as noted above, Delano stubbornly refuses to perceive that truth. Delano remains blissfully unaware—for example, seeing Babo’s attentions to Cereno as “a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other” (p. 156). “Inexperienced eyes” (p. 156), indeed!