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 5: “Left to himself…” to “…getting towards dusk” (pp. 172-180)
Despite Cereno’s words about the crew’s ill temper, Delano resolves to talk with one of the sailors. He spots one sailor engaged in a task apparently too menial for him, beneath his station: “tarring the strap of a large block.” Delano decides the sailor must be at this task because he has been involved in some wrongdoing. Instead, then, Delano approaches another sailor who is inspecting rigging—again, it seems to Delano, a task that is beneath him. Delano attempts to talk to this sailor, but as the sailor grows more quiet, the slaves grow more talkative. Easing his anxious thoughts by watching slave mothers sleeping among their children, Delano, leaning against the carved balustrade (shipboard staircase railing), falls when it gives way. The incident causes Delano to wonder if Cereno is not, in fact, plotting against him.
Back on his feet, Delano talks with a sailor who is tying ropes into an intricate knot. When Delano asks what the knot is for, the sailor replies with enigmatic and ominous words, “For someone else to undo.” He abruptly tosses the knot to Delano, urging him to cut it quickly; but all Delano can do is stand still, silent and confused. An African requests the knot from Delano, then dismissively tosses it overboard.
This section gives the reader a further glimpse of the wrong-headed importance that Delano places upon rank and station. When he sees Spanish sailors occupied in such business as tarring straps and splicing rigging, Delano does not see these actions for the clues to the mutiny that they truly are; rather he decides that the sailors must be performing these labors as penance for wrongdoing. Yet again, Delano is given the opportunity to discern the truth of his situation; yet again, he fails to seize it.
Also of note in this section is the way in which Melville draws on a time-honored metaphor, quite appropriate to the machinations taking place aboard the San Dominick and in the midst of which Delano is, unwittingly, involved: the game of chess. Author David Shenk has pointed out, “Anyone in need of a dynamic symbol to explore and convey elements of war, competition, hierarchy, political power, battle for resources, control by a higher power, meritocracy, the nature of thought, futility, abstract movement, complexity, or infinity had [in chess] a choice vehicle standing by for metaphoric flight” (Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, Doubleday, 2006; p. 73).
Clearly, readers can sense by now that many of these dynamics are at play in Melville’s narrative; and so, again, it is entirely appropriate that the narrator should describe the Spanish sailors after the slave uprising as “stray white pawns venturously involved in the ranks of the chessmen opposed” (p. 173). (Clearly, the traditional colors of the opposing “armies” of chessmen, white and black, add power to the metaphor in the racially charged context of Benito Cereno.)
Delano’s reflections on the mothers with their children are one example of the “noble savage” motif in the novel. Within the context of Benito Cereno, it is ironic that Delano—as we have previously argued, a symbol for the young republic of America, committed to notions of equality—should regard the slave mothers as little better than animals—loving, yes, and protective, but also little more than animals. It is, of course, no greater an irony than the fact that slavery did exist in the country until the Civil War. The brief scene may thus be read as another subtle critique of his nation by Melville.
The scene in which Delano leans on the rotting balustrade and falls when it collapses is far more significant for what it says, symbolically, about the “new world”’s view of the old than for its function in the plot. Like the San Dominick as a whole, the balustrade is inwardly rotting. It is in decay—just as the “new world” views the “old.” Notice further the kind of language that Melville uses just prior to this incident: Delano feels “a ghostly cat’s-paw” of wind against his face, and “the state-cabin door… [appears] calked fast like a sarcophagus lid” (p. 175). This is the language of death, and the narrative is associating with Cereno, his ship, and by extension the Old World.
The question remains, of course, given Delano’s utter blindness to the truth of his situation—the “Gordian knot” which the sailor’s literal knot symbolizes (see pp. 177-178)—whether the New World has any more or better life to offer. For when Delano catches that sailor’s knot—which could symbolize not only the status of the mutinied ship but also the “knotty problem” (not Melville’s terms) of the slave trade, or of the relationship of the New to the Old Worlds—the American captain does nothing. Delano’s fundamental problem is that “he [strives], by ignoring the symptoms, to get rid of the malady” (p. 179). He is in denial of the truth—a dangerous situation for any individual or any nation. He, and the young republic he represents, is “a child” indeed (p. 179).