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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
FIRST HALF OF NARRATIVE
Cereno and his servant withdraw a short distance and begin whispering to each other. Captain Delano finds this both odd and rude. Then when he sees a member of the crew looking pointedly at Cereno and Babo, he has the distinct impression that the two of them are talking about him. He begins to wonder if Cereno might be insane or an impostor. He then chastises himself for such thoughts, for Cereno is an unfortunate invalid who is probably a reflection of his surname, which means well or good. Delano tries to calm himself down by humming a tune.
When Cereno and Babo quit whispering and return, the captain begins to ask
Delano a series of questions about The Bachelor's Delight and its crew:
Benito and Babo withdraw again to whisper, and again Delano feels he is the subject of their conversation. He is so annoyed that he goes up to the pair and criticizes Babo for being too personal with his captain. As Babo wickedly smiles and peers into his master's face, Cereno says he has complete trust in the servant. Delano leaves the poop-deck, feeling disgusted.
As he departs, Delano notices another finely dressed Spanish sailor who hurriedly sticks some shiny object in his frock when he spies the foreign captain. As the man quickly turns and leaves, as if afraid of being caught in the act of doing something, Delano is filled with misgivings. The constant sound of the hatchet-polishing increases his uneasiness. He then notices that the sea has pulled the Spanish ship away from shore so that he can no longer see his own vessel. Feeling an even greater sense of dread, Delano tries to calm himself by saying that the sick and decrepit crew of the San Dominick can surely pose no real threat. He then imagines that the supposedly dead crew has been hidden in the ship's hold and is ready to burst out and attack him, his men, and his ship. Delano has heard such stories, but really has no faith in them; but he feels that something is not right on this Spanish galleon. As Captain Delano's thinking moves back and forth, he laughs at himself for his fear.
Delano spies his whaling boat finally approaching. He and everyone on board the San Dominick are excited by the sight. Before the boat's arrival, a fight breaks out when two Africans attack a Spanish sailor. Delano is again amazed to see that Cereno does nothing to stop it, but merely grows upset. As usual, Babo tries to calm his master. Delano has a change of heart and is so impressed by the attention that the servant pays his master that he pays him a compliment. He even thinks that he would like to have Babo as his own servant and offers fifty doubloons for him. Babo proudly replies that a thousand would not be enough. Cereno falls into another coughing fit, and Babo hustles him below deck.
Captain Delano wants to ask the Spanish sailors some questions and approaches one seated between two Africans and working on some rigging. Although the sailor is sheepish, he answers all of Delano's questions and confirms the earlier story. When the Africans interrupt and start monopolizing the conversation, Delano leaves and returns to the poop-deck, where he spies a sleeping African woman with a baby playing nearby. As he watches, the woman wakes, picks up the child, and covers it with kisses. Delano is warmed by the sight and notes that all the black women on board are fine examples of uncivilized womanhood.
When Delano sees that the whale boat is still far off, he moves to another part of the deck. He muses about the majesty of the galleon, thinking how grand it used to be. He notes the ship's big, old, rusty chains, intended for business other than that which it is presently does. Delano then spies another Spanish sailor who seems to be gesturing to him; but then he quickly moves away, as if with nervous alarm. Delano walks over to look out to sea for his whaling boat. As he leans on the balustrade, it gives way beneath his weight, the rotten fragments crashing into the water. Captain Delano looks up and sees one of the oakum-pickers peering at him.
Captain Delano is a fine captain of a ship docked in St. Maria harbor. He is described as a man disposed to see the best of things, even though he often overlooks certain obvious details. He is also a kind and concerned human being. When he sees the San Dominick floundering, he goes out to it in order to offer his assistance. What he finds on board is very strange. The ship's captain, Benito Cereno, is a young Spaniard in aristocratic dress that is worn and tattered; he is a reflection of his ship, a Spanish galleon, that was also grand at one time, but is now in disrepair.
Delano offers Cereno his assistance in getting the ship to shore. When the Spanish captain accepts the offer without excitement or gratitude, Delano is puzzled. He is also puzzled by the strange behavior that Cereno displays, for he stutters, repeats details by rote, and often falls into fits. He also does nothing to control the unruly behavior on his ship and allows his servant, Babo, to be grossly familiar with him. When Delano questions him about why the ship is short of crew and floundering, he explains that the San Dominick had been devastated by illness and bad weather.
Babo, the African servant, is described in detail. He never leaves Cereno's side and often acts more like the master than the slave. He is seen by Delano alternately as a demon and as a perfect servant. In truth, he is the ultimate masquerader, controlling his master and the action, while pretending to take a subordinate role. Since Delano does not know the situation on board the San Dominick, he is greatly bothered by the strange relationship between master and servant.
Melville proves that he is master storyteller in this first section, constantly building tension in Delano and suspense in the reader. In retrospect, it becomes obvious that there is a reason for every detail and everything that happens on board the San Dominick. The two masked figures on the back of the ship appear to be an evil satyr and his snake-like, writhing opponent, a symbolic reference to the silent battle occurring on board. The words, "Follow your leader," written at the front of the boat are filled with irony. Since there is a slave rebellion in progress, the Africans are in control and the remaining Spaniards, including Cereno, are in a tight, fearful situation. Babo's looks and whispers to his master are obviously reminders to him that he must not reveal the situation to the visitor, Captain Delano. It is no wonder that Cereno speaks with hesitation and stutters and falls into fits. Unfortunately, the kindly Delano excuses all the strangeness that he encounters, reasoning that it is a foreign ship that has undergone hard times.
Even the setting is carefully chosen to be reflective of the human drama aboard the ship. St. Maria is a desert island, lacking civilization and filled with danger; in comparison, the San Dominick is also a small floating island that is almost deserted, filled with danger, and lacking civilization. The tattered, floundering condition of the ship is a clear reflection of the tattered and floundering condition of Cereno and the other Spaniards on board. Throughout the section, the image and noise of the hatchet- polishers serves to unify the plot and add tension.