Benito Cereno

This was my first college English essay. It is very long and lumbering. My English teacher gave me lots of help with it. Plagiarize it, and I will not be responsible for what your English teacher does to you. Enjoy!


Innocence Indeed?:

Innocence’s Dual Actors in Benito Cereno

Joanna D. ENGL 2130, Spring ’11

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It (1623)

In Benito Cereno, Melville establishes contrasting forms of innocence. Innocence of mind lacks knowledge of wrongdoing, and, as a result, may commit and excuse heinous crimes. Innocence of action understands that to accomplish a greater good, a lesser evil must sometimes be committed. For example, Captain Delano is too naïve to see the slave revolt because he imputes black people with good. Babo is innocent of wrongdoing because he realizes the white people will do further wrong to his fellow slaves unless he revolts. Yet neither party is truly innocent; Captain Delano has no qualms about slave trading, and Babo pretends to be a slave to play on Delano’s misconceptions and to manipulate his actions. Delano and Babo are representatives of the white and black people. Delano sees the black people as absolutely good, animals incapable of evil, and the whites as the perpetrators of evil. However, as Melville demonstrates by continually using darkness and shadows to imply evil, white people also see all dark people as immoral. Babo realizes that white slave laws make it impossible for anyone but the whites to escape slavery and still be seen as “moral” without buying their “freedom.” In addition, Babo possesses a black double-consciousness, realizes how Delano perceives black people, and is able to use Delano’s prejudices to his advantage. In Delano and Babo, Melville presents dual, but not identical, shades of innocence—innocence of knowledge and innocence of action—and argues that innocence is not binary. Innocence of either thought or deed does not mean goodness because true innocence does not exist. Nor does race imply morality, as the white people’s racist laws as well as their conflicting perceptions of blacks demonstrate. The morality of thought, action, and race is made of shades of gray, not black and white, so there can be no pure innocence of both thought and action. Thus, every person who appears completely innocent must be acting. Delano is inwardly innocent, but outwardly, a slave trader. Babo is outwardly innocent, but inwardly, he stages a revolt. Melville illustrates his dual innocences with this charade.

Both kinds of innocence depend on the presence of morality, of absolute right and wrong. If deeds and the thoughts that lead to the deeds are neither absolutely good nor absolutely evil, than a person cannot be absolutely innocent. Innocence of either mind or deed may exist, but shades of evil will taint the dual form of innocence. Race implies that people will treat one another according to their race, thereby eliminating equality as a greater good for the dominating race, and making ignorance of evil impossible for the subjugated race. Thus, the very idea of race, a binary, makes binary innocence or guilt impossible for either race, Morality concerns the existence of absolute good and evil. But if absolute good or evil cannot exist, then there is no true innocence. For example, while the slaves might be innocent of wrong in revolting against their masters, they violate their innocence of mind by concealing their revolt. Melville illustrates the gradients of good and evil,

Everything was mute and calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl,kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come. (109-110)

Everything is gray. Gray represents areas of uncertain moral values, and the continued use of gray throughout the passage emphasizes morality’s deceptive nature, and foreshadows evil and foul play. The sea, “undulated in long roods of swells,” ever-moving, seems to stand still. Like the sea, morals appear to be fixed, but are in constant flux. Like the sea, morals seem to be set, but are as malleable as soft lead. Even the sky, as changing as the sea, is a “gray surtout.” Morals are a gray surtout, a tight-fitting overcoat that seems to restrict, but can be taken on and off with the merest shrug of the shoulders. Like the sky, morals are also full of gray vapors, semi-translucent barriers and nuances of moral dilemma that appear clear, yet confuse the eye and hide such hazards as rocks, reefs, and wrongdoing. Kin to these vapors are the gray fowl. These foul barriers do not sit still, but are in continual “troubled” flight. Just as the birds oscillate back and forth, so morality of a situation alters in relation to the circumstances of the situation. Just as “troubled” birds oscillate, so the black people change their identity back and forth to escape their troubles. Race, a binary sustained by the white people, determines that the black people cannot find a middle ground. Blackness is seen as fundamentally evil, as Melville illustrates by his use of shadows, which are traditionally associated with deeds of darkness and “shady” characters. Even so, both parties are “troubled” by the gray of the situation, and, though they may not realize it, “kith and kin” to one another as the gray fowl are to the vapor. Thus, the story blends good and evil, compromising the innocence of the characters in thought as well as action, while still preserving some innocence in both the black people and the white people.

The black people demonstrate innocence of action both in their motivations and their actions, which are justified though tainted with deception. Innocence of action measures whether the good of an action outweighs its evil. By definition, innocence of action involves compromise and gray areas. The African women understand that an action may be innocent without being naïve. The women represent their race when Captain Delano observes,

As if not at all concerned at the attitude in which she had been caught, delightedly [the black woman] caught the child up, with maternal transports, covering it with kisses. There’s naked nature, now; pure tenderness and love, thought Captain Delano. [. . .] like most uncivilized women, [the black women] seemed at once tender of heart and tough of constitution; equally ready to die for their infants or fight for them. Unsophisticated as leopardesses; loving as doves. (175)

Quite obviously, the black woman loves her child—motherhood transcends all boundaries. As Delano observes, even “dumb” animals lay claim to these emotions: doves personify peace and leopardesses personify fiercely protective motherhood. The African woman shows Captain Delano her motherhood during the slaves’ charade to vindicate the revolt, which does not appear innocent outside the context of the black people’s suffering. However, the ends justify the means. Melville further verifies the black people’s innocence of action by his use of the word “uncivilized.” This word implies not only the lack of all the good associated with civilization, but suggests an absence of the evil of civilization as well, the noble savage, as it were. The women are unsophisticated and unadorned, but possess innocence of action in the absence of compliance with society. Likewise, Babo acts justly when he initiates the revolt but must take advantage of Delano’s—and white society’s—sense of black and white morality in order to conceal the revolt. Babo displays the woman’s motherhood and unsophistication, not only to vindicate the revolt, but in order to portray them as the innocent black beasts Delano believes them to be. Babo realizes that he cannot and will not appear innocent under a law made by whites—that man-made morality is an illusion. Thus, Babo conceals the mutiny from Delano and choreographs Cereno’s, Delano’s, and the former slaves’ performances with threats, masterful acting, and meticulous rehearsal in order to follow a higher law. Along with the rest of the black people, Babo acts justly in revolting and even in lying by pretending to be a faithful servant because he prevents the white people from doing his people further and greater wrongs. The black people’s actions are unavoidably tainted gray because higher law and man-made law conflict: although the deed is right, its concealment is not. However, to the black people, who were ready to die in the fight for their own and their children’s freedom, gaining freedom for themselves and their children from the atrocities of the white people justifies the heavy toll of losing naiveté by plotting and concealment.

Though they commit atrocities against the black people, the white people other than Cereno also have a form of innocence: an innocence of the mind. They see morality in terms of black and white. Babo destroys this innocence in Cereno when he revolts, revealing his and the other slaves’ humanity and the crime Cereno has committed by enslaving them, though the laws of the time permit it. On the other hand, Delano represents the innocence of the white race:

Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine. (110)

Captain Delano does not realize the extent of humanity’s capability for evil. He sees little “malign evil in man.” As he is a man, this statement includes himself. Even so, when he offers to buy Babo from Captain Cereno (168), he sees nothing wrong with the offer. He requires “extraordinary and repeated incentives” to recognize evil in one man and does not recognize the evil of slavery in his entire race. Although Delano is undertaking a morally wrong act when he attempts to buy Babo, Delano reasons that slavery is moral because slavery is legal, demonstrating his binary morals. Delano’s intent is not evil. Indeed, “Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs” (121). He is benevolent, but he does not see the black people as people—in need of help or philanthropy—but as Newfoundland dogs, the same words he uses to describe his rowboat, “Rover” (184). In fact, he sees the black mother as a leopardess and a dove, not as a human mother like his own. While he treats his fellow men as animals and does them gross wrongs, in his mind he has done nothing wrong. He does not know any better. Delano’s morality is gray, but his naiveté is pure, which leaves his deeds stained with evil. Captain Delano bears no malice, though he accedes to grievous harm. Cereno, however, is no longer naïve and cannot unconsciously commit evil any longer. When Babo revolts, he reveals that he is human enough to think rationally and fight for his freedom by putting on a charade, taking away Cereno’s innocence of mind. The white people are only partially innocent—innocent of mind, but not of deed—until their error is revealed.

Despite partial innocence of thought or of deed, neither Delano nor Babo is entirely innocent. Whether or not they realize it, both are acting the innocent. Delano has no idea the amount of evil he commits by cooperating with the rest of the slave-trading world and thinks himself completely blameless. In contrast, Babo realizes that he skirts wrong when he reasons that the ends justify the means and that he must lose his naiveté yet act naïve in order to do good. This realization allows Babo to use his pretense of a, “humble servant” to manipulate Delano, and, in a way, to be more honest to himself about his actions’ morality than Delano can be when he refuses to see that morality is a spectrum, not a contrast. Babo engineers a play on the ship in which the cast conform to Delano’s exaggerated ideas about the innocence of “niggers,” and Benito Cereno appears to be the deceiver:

Don Benito’s story had corroborated [. . .] the very expression and play of every human feature, which Captain Delano saw. If Don Benito’s story was, throughout, an invention, then every soul on board, down to the youngest negress, was his carefully drilled recruit in the plot: an incredible inference. And yet, if there was ground for mistrusting his veracity, that inference was a legitimate one. (164)

The “expression and play of every human feature” confirm Babo’s story, but what is the face for if not to express? Nearly everyone can control their expression to some small degree. The word “play” only emphasizes that the face is an act, whether or not the actor is fully conscious that he acts. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “express” comes from the Latin for “to press out.” Thus, while the emotions may press themselves to the surface, those inside may also press outward to manipulate the expression as they wish. While the black people are outwardly innocent of evil, inwardly they manipulate their faces. Babo is outwardly innocent, but inwardly, he directs a play.

Whether he knows it or not, Delano acts for Babo. Granted, much of Babo’s directing is focused upon preventing Delano from recognizing the slave revolt, but Babo encourages other kinds of acting. Delano acts, not only outwardly, as the man “innocent” of wrongdoing, but inwardly as well:

The whites, too, by nature, were the shrewder race. A man with some evil design, would he not be likely to speak well of that stupidity which was blind to his depravity, and malign that intelligence from which it might not be hidden? Not unlikely, perhaps. But if the whites had dark secrets concerning Don Benito, could then Don Benito be any way in complicity with the blacks? But they were too stupid. Besides, who ever heard of a white so far a renegade as to apostatize from his very species almost, by leaguing in against it with negroes? (180)

Delano’s use of the word “shrewder” is revealing. “Shrewd” means not only clever, but mischievous and cunning. In his assertion that the white people are “by nature” shrewder, he assents that the outward natural state of the white people is evil. In his thoughts, Delano subscribes to the belief that the black people are too stupid to revolt, yet later remarks of Babo, “This is an uncommonly intelligent fellow of yours, Don Benito” (215). Delano voices an obvious flaw in his own viewpoint when he asserts that a white person must be a “renegade” to side with the black people against the white.Under Babo’s watchful eye, he swings back and forth between extremes trying to determine the truth, confused by the fluctuating morality of the situation. He acts, if only audible to himself, the part of a critic, but his decision whether to attempt to overcome the coup or refrain is also an act, because his decision affects his future actions and the entire crew of the San Dominick. Babo’s control comes from his ability to conform to Delano’s ideas about black people, freeing Delano from the guilt of seeing the slaves as people, a luxury Cereno is denied, while simultaneously, allowing Babo to hide his actions. “In Whiteface, Blackface, and ‘Benito Cereno,’” Jason Richards argues that Babo acts like the stereotypical “blackface” performer in order to use Cereno as a “whiteface” while simultaneously manipulating Cereno and Delano to act like “blackfaces.”

[Delano] is primarily an observer, who blindly watches the masquerade Babo arranges for him. Given the pleasure he draws from seeing the servant coddle his master and the slaves hard at work, Delano dearly resembles a minstrel-show audience, marveling at the reenactment of southern slavery. [. . .] Babo, of course, turns these minstrel conventions to his advantage. By playing to Delano’s racialist sensibilities, he eases the captain’s suspicion that the blacks are part of a coup. (79-80)

Richards finds Delano an audience to the play that Babo conducts, manipulated by each plot twist—which is true. Naïveand trusting, Delano watches the show. Babo controls what he sees, but Delano’s ability to interfere is the reason the show must be conducted. The slaves don’t mind being seen in revolt, as they demonstrate at the end of the novel, but so long as Delano can interfere, they must seem inwardly innocent because Delano is an actor. He who acts in the play of life must also watch it unfold around him.

Life is a play. Innocence is merely the way in which one acts in it. Delano does not realize he is in a play, that there is a spectrum of good and bad acting, or even that race does not affect the ability of an actor. Like Delano, who is naïve but not righteous, the actor may really believe what he is saying, though the substance of a speech be false and badly worded. Babo, however, who directs the play and helps pioneer black acting, realizes that each detail affects a performance. Like Babo, who is not naive, but justified, the actor may not believe the speech, but endeavor to make the most convincing speech possible. The method does not affect whether the actor acts. He cannot help acting. The play is not reality, though reality is a play; because moral perfection is impossible, the actor will never both believe exactly what he says or act exactly how he should, though he has instructions to create reality in the script. The point is to try.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno” The Piazza Tales. 2005. Project Gutenberg. Web. 17 Feb 2011. <>.

Merriam-Webster Inc. “Express.” Merriam-Webster. 13 Aug. 2010. Web. 17 Feb. 2011.<>.

Richards, Jason. “Melville’s (Inter)national Burlesque: Whiteface, Blackface, and “Benito Cereno.” ATQ21.2 (2007): 73-94. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 10 Feb. 2011. (79-80).


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