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 10: “If the deposition have served as the key…” through “…did, indeed, follow his leader.”
Delano and Cereno share many more and much freer conversations during their voyage to Lima than they were able to share aboard the commandeered San Dominick. Cereno thanks Delano on several occasions, quite profusely, for having saved his life; for his part, Delano attributes all to God’s providence. And yet the experience will forever haunt Cereno: when Delano asks the Spanish captain why he is unable to find joy in bright sunshine and fair winds, Cereno can say only, “The Negro.” As for that Negro whose actions have broken Cereno so, he meets his end “dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule.” Babo’s head is severed from his body, and is impaled in the plaza of a church. As for Cereno, he does not return to the sea, but instead dies three months later.
This brief, concluding section of the novel affords readers a final reflection on blackness as the supposed embodiment of evil, as Cereno tells Delano that “the shadow” forever cast upon him is “The Negro” (p. 225). The conversation is one more piece of evidence often invoked to justify charges of racism in Benito Cereno; as this commentary has shown, however, such charges become more complicated, even if not entirely unjustified, when the work is considered as a whole. In fact, James Miller has suggested that Cereno’s closing lines represent the moment when the character “deliberately severs his link in the common human chain: he refuses any longer to bear the responsibility of his humanhood” (Miller, p. 158). If true, then it is not Babo or any of the blacks who ultimately emerge as the “subhuman” characters in Melville’s artfully constructed and executed text, but its title character himself.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2004, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Baym, Nina, et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Third Edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.
Levine, Robert S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Miller, Jr., James E. A Reader’s Guide to Herman Melville. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Introduction.” Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.