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Captain Delano boards the decrepit San Dominick and is puzzled by the poor condition of the ship and the odd behavior of the Spaniards and Africans on board. He offers aid to Benito Cereno, the captain, who is rather lackluster in his gratitude. Delano is not sure whether to trust the story that Benito Cereno tells him about disease and bad weather hampering the ship's progress; but he proceeds to help him anyway, saving him from probable death at the hands of the rebelling African slaves.
The protagonist is really the force of good struggling to overcome evil. Captain Delano is the most obvious force of good in the novel. When he sees the San Dominick aimlessly wandering in spite of the fact that there are people on board, his natural instinct is to go and offer his assistance. Even when he is met with no warmth on the Spanish galleon and mistrusts the stories he is told about the ship, he sends his own men back to bring food, water, and supplies to the starving Spanish crew and African slaves. When he realizes that the slaves have rebelled against Cereno and the Spaniards, he encourages his crew to go on board and fight the evil forces. In the end, Cereno and the ship are saved due to the help of Delano and his men.
Although not as obvious as Delano, Benito Cereno is also a force of good in the novel. He had been a good sea captain who seemed to treat the slaves on his ship fairly. He gains the reader's sympathies because he is the victim of evil, and the rebellion has made him into a pitiful nervous man. He proves his goodness when he jumps into Delano's small boat, not so much to save himself as to warn Delano that the Africans plan to attack his ship.
The forces of evil in the novel are the rebelling African slaves. Babo and Atufal are the most obvious antagonists because they are the ringleaders of the rebellion. Babo, in particular, reveals his evil ways when he orders many of the Spaniards to be killed.
The climax occurs when Benito Cereno jumps into the small boat with Captain Delano and his oarsmen. Babo follows and tries to stab his master, Cereno. Suddenly the mysteries of the day are cleared up for Captain Delano. Babo has kept such close watch on Benito Cereno during Delano's visit, pretending to be a devoted servant, because there is a slave rebellion in progress. Now that Delano knows what is going on, the forces of good can organize themselves to fight the forces of evil.
The plot ends as a tragic comedy. Captain Delano and his crew take Babo captive and save Benito Cereno from probable death at the hands of the Africans on board the San Dominick. Then Captain Delano encourages several of his crewmen to attack the San Dominick, put down the rebellion, and take the ship into port. After Cereno and the ship are saved, there is a trial to ascertain what has happened. The forces of good triumph when the evil ones are punished. Benito Cereno is sent to a monastery to rest and recuperate from his nervous condition. Unfortunately, he is unable to bounce back and dies within several months.