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The major theme of Benito Cereno is good vs. evil. Captain Delano, who offered unsolicited aid to the floundering San Dominick, is the picture of blind kindness. The African slaves, who rebel, seize the ship, and demand to sail back to Africa, are the picture of pure evil. They kill all of the passengers and most of the crew on the San Dominick. Before murdering Alexandro Aranda, they torture him and then display his bones on the bowsprit. They also plan to attack Delano's ship, The Bachelor's Delight.
Although the story is essentially an American tale of the mid-19th century, it should not be read as a pro-slavery story. The evil characters happen to be black African slaves, but they could have been any group who represent evil through their actions of rebellion and murder. Melville is not criticizing the color or origin of these African men; he is criticizing their behavior. At the same time, he is not supporting the institution of slavery. Instead, he implies that the slaves had a reason to demand a return to Africa, for they were "owned," and wanted their liberty. He also implies that these slaves deserved much better treatment than they were receiving. Nonetheless, their treatment did not justify their ruthless actions.
In stark contrast to the evil slaves, Captain Amasa Delano, described as good-natured and stable, is a picture of goodness and innocence. He goes to the San Dominick to offer his assistance, and when he finds the remaining people on board in dire need of water, food, and other supplies, he sends his own men back to his ship to retrieve them. Although he is concerned about the plight of Cereno and "his men," he is too trusting and positive to realize the horror that is happening on board the ship. Each time he has some kind of suspicion, he tries to find some kind of positive interpretation.
In the end goodness triumphs. Because he has helped him and his men, Cereno comes to Delano's aid, jumping into his small boat and telling about the slaves' plan to attack the Bachelor's Delight. In response, Delano sends volunteers to the San Dominick to overcome the evil enemy. After some brutal fighting, goodness is the victor. Then Babo, the personification of evil, is put to death.
Melville often wrote about the delicate brotherhood of man. Many of his stories, this one included, relate a tale of human suffering treated with compassion. In this case, Captain Delano is Benito Cereno's compassionate savior, but Benito Cereno still cannot survive the ordeal of suffering he has endured; he dies shortly after his rescue.
The mood of this tale is largely mysterious. Even though it is told in third person, it is from the perspective of Captain Delano; as a result, much of the action seems to be a mystery, especially since Delano does not understand the bizarre happenings on board the San Dominick and muses about them in the text. The reader does not realize exactly what is going on in the story until the final section, when the deposition of Benito Cereno is presented.
Most of the book is somber, as Delano describes the pitiful conditions of the Spanish ship and its crew. From time to time, however, the book approaches a nervous humor, including the time when Captain Delano observes the Africans polishing and sharpening hatchets and thinks they are quite industrious or when Babo is shaving Benito Cereno, nicking his neck and pointing out the blood with some measure of glee.
The deposition given in the last chapter details the rebellion chronologically and adds to the somber mood. As Delano and Cereno discuss the rebellion, it is obvious that Cereno is not happy to have been saved. He has suffered so much that he looks forward to death; it comes quickly, three months after his rescue. His premature death adds to the somber mood.