by Rebecca MacRae
In Benito Cereno, Melville toys with the reader’s perceptions through his depiction of the peculiar activities aboard the Spanish slave-ship the San Dominick. Captain Delano, a Massachusetts whaling-ship captain who happens upon this ship, is but a spectator observing a performance staged by Don Benito, the few remaining Spaniards, and the controlling slaves. To the unobservant onlooker, the San Dominick appears to be operated by a Spanish captain in charge of a white crew assisted by slaves. In reality, we discover that roles have been reversed. The slaves have revolted and in fact control the ship and their Spanish masters. The reader observes the orchestrated charade through the Delano’s limiting perspective, discovering the truth as he does and then through the testimonies presented during the Deposition at the novella’s conclusion.
By exploiting Delano’s expectations of the roles he believes the two races should naturally play, Babo, the rebel slave leader, conjures the masterful illusion of a normally functioning ship. Every character enacts a role coordinated by Babo. But although Babo plays such an instrumental role in the orchestration of the story, Melville never gives Babo a direct voice with which he can communicate his intentions and motivations explicitly to the readers. He does not give a testimony as Don Benito does through the Deposition following the narrative. Instead, we see him only through the eyes of the narrator, and we cannot perceive him clearly because of the layers of deception that shroud the San Dominick. However, through the scene in which Don Benito seemingly confronts Atufal, the supposedly mute slave who supposedly attempted to revolt, Melville offers a fleeting glimpse into the three components of Babo’s character: the actor playing the role of faithful slave, the director of the illusion, and the forceful insurgent.
Previously to this scene, Melville establishes Babo’s character as Delano perceives him based on his physical appearance and affectations. Physically, Babo possesses a modest figure robed in clothing reminiscent of that of a humble servant: “The servant wore nothing but wide trowsers, apparently, from their coarseness, and patches, made out of some old topsail; they were clean and confined at the waist, by a bit of unstranded rope, which, with his composed, deprecatory air at times, made him look something like a begging friar of St. Francis” (47). Nothing in Babo’s costume draws the attention of others or triggers suspicion about his true identity. Melville does not describe aspects of his figure, such as his height or build, suggesting that Babo appears unremarkable. He does not intimidate or draw Delano’s attention.
When Don Benito introduces Babo, he describes Babo’s faithfulness in servitude during the trying times they faced. But Babo quickly evades the compliment, saying “Ah, master…don’t speak of me; Babo is nothing; what Babo has done was but duty” (46). Thus Babo enforces his humility as would be proper for a slave to do. As he speaks, Babo “bows his face” and addresses himself in the third person, further objectifying himself and denying credit for the actions for which Don Benito praises him. A close reading of these words with an understanding of Babo’s other roles in the story reveals that Babo characterizes himself in this slave role. When he says that he is “nothing…but duty,” Babo speaks the truth. When he plays the role of a slave, Babo is in fact playing nothing but an empty role of duty. This role of slave is the exterior mask that disguises Babo’s true identity.
As a result of his façade of servitude, Babo is overlooked by Delano until he assumes authority in presenting Atufal. Where before Babo had made an effort to blend into the background, here he injects himself into the main action. Even the unperceptive Delano notices Babo’s stronger presence and becomes “somewhat annoyed by these conversational familiarities” (52). One can envision Babo directing the production. First he gathers his actors on stage with the “dreary grave-yard toll” (51) and cues the entrance of “the moving figure of a gigantic black, emerging from the general crowd below…an iron collar about his neck, from which depended a chain, thrice wound round his body” (51). With his principal in place on stage, director Babo sets the scene he is trying to create by saying, “How like a mute Atufal moves” (51). Although Atufal is neither a mute nor prisoner in reality, he effectively performs “like a mute” and “like a brave prisoner” (51).
Once Babo convinces Delano of the scene of “mulish mutineer” he prompts the progression of the scene and cues Cereno’s line by saying “See, he waits your question, master” (51). As a good director does, Babo then lets the scene play out without interference. Afterwards, Babo explicitly guides Delano’s interpretation of what he just witnessed. Giving the back-story to the scene, Babo says, “proud Atufal must first ask master’s pardon. The slave there carries the padlock, but master here carries the key” (52). The narrator acknowledges Babo’s influence over Delano: “His attention thus directed, Captain Delano now noticed for the first time that, suspended by a slender silken cord, from Don Benito’s neck hung a key ” (52). Babo identifies these blatant symbols for Delano and underscores the seemingly normal power relationship between master and prisoner-slave. Thus we see Babo the director successfully orchestrate his first illusion and convince Delano of his grand deception: a conventional power relationship.
Far more subtly, by presenting Atufal, Babo also presents himself. This scene is Babo’s most personal scene and is the only moment when Babo talks about his personal history. When helping Delano understand this scene, Babo says: “Those slits in Atufal’s ears once held wedges of gold; but poor Babo here, in his own land, was only a poor slave; a black man’s slave was Babo, who now is the white’s” (52). Upon first reading, this statement seems to distinguish Babo and Atufal through his comparison between king and slave. However in logistical function, this statement also serves to connect the two characters. Atufal may have been a king, but here he appears purely as a slave, an equal to Babo. Although they are not physically similar, Babo’s truest identity is what the image of Atufal represents: a strong leader of his people. By orchestrating the rebellion, Babo becomes a king of his people.
Like Atufal, Babo never speaks through his own voice in the story; he too is a mute. In the conclusion Melville alludes to the connection between Babo and Atufal by offering an image of Babo similar to that of Atufal. After the declarations and the legal Deposition, the narrator suggests that the concluding events which are described occur in reality rather than within Babo’s illusion. The narrator describes Babo as “put in irons in the hold” (107) and says that Babo “uttered no sound, and could not be forced to” (107). This image reflects the image of Atufal that Babo himself offered to Delano but here, Babo has become Atufal. Thus in these final pages we see Babo’s true identity. Although he may have failed, Babo possesses the “royal spirit” (52) of a leader.
Melville reveals Babo’s character through a series of unveilings in order of increasing veracity until the conclusion, in which we see Babo in his most dehumanized form. After presenting the superficial Babo as an actor wearing the mask of a subservient slave, Melville humanizes Babo by then delving deeper into his genuine nature and showing Babo as the director of the scene of Atufal’s presentation who deftly manipulates Delano’s notions of identity to convince him of the illusion. However, Melville seems to show Babo in his most genuine form as a model rebellious leader though the image of Atufal, Don Benito’s testimony in the Deposition, and Babo’s horrific fate at the story’s conclusion. The final image of Babo’s executed body completely dehumanizes him, reducing the complex character Melville constructs throughout the story to a mere head grotesquely fixed on a stake.
Babo will be remembered only as a figurehead in the events on the San Dominick; we will never know his true identity. Observation of Babo’s behavior alludes to different aspects of Babo’s identity, yet Babo himself confirms nothing. Thus Melville seems to suggest that true identity cannot be pieced together based on the perceptions of others; it can only be conveyed through direct communication. Regardless of his complexity of character, a mute remains a figure and nothing more.
Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. Ed. Wyn Kelley. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s Press, 2008.
Rebecca MacRae, a member of the class of 2014, is a Course 9 major who on day hopes to apply her Brain and Cognitive Science knowledge to the field of medicine. From Sherborn, Massachusetts, Rebecca loves to travel and never travels without a good book in hand. She thanks Ms. Tousignant of Phillips Academy for giving her the tools both to appreciate and analyze everything she reads. She thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to hone her literature analysis skills in Writing about Literature under the careful instruction of Professor Kelley.