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Free Study Guide-Benito Cereno by Herman Melville-Free Book Notes
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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

The main theme of the novel, good vs. evil, is really the conflict of the plot. Much of the tale centers on the destructive power of evil. The initial evil of the story, and the one that causes all the action, is the institution of slavery. Melville clearly believes that it is wrong for one human being to own another; when this abnormal, inhuman condition occurs, the natural outcome is rebellion, just as the one that happened on board the San Dominick. Evil seems to breed evil, just as violence begets violence.


The central evil of the story is the excessive violence of the slaves during their revolt. They cut some crew members to pieces with their hatchets and throw others overboard. When Aranda is marked for murder, he is brought on deck and killed with the hatchets before all the Spaniards, to teach them a lesson. After his slaughter, he is refused a proper burial at sea; instead, his bones are placed on the bow as a constant reminder to obey the slaves. During the action of the plot, Cereno is constantly threatened and tortured by the evil Babo. The torture is so subtle, however, that Delano is not aware it is torture.

In stark contrast to the calculating evil of the slaves is the naïve goodness of Captain Delano. As soon as he sees the floundering Spanish ship, he goes to offer his assistance, certain that the vessel is in distress. In his goodness and innocence, he is easily duped by the evil Babo and the other rebelling slaves. Whenever he grows suspicious of something on board, he chastises himself for being fearful and questioning. He even searches to find "good" in Babo and compliments him as a faithful and attentive servant.

Because of his goodness, Delano is unable to see the evil that is rampant on board the San Dominick. Cereno and other Spaniards try to drop hints to this kind soul about their condition, but Delano writes them off as mere strange, foreign behavior. When he finally learns about the rebellion when Cereno jumps in his whaleboat, the good Captain Delano acts with speed. He quickly takes Babo prisoner and sends his crew to put down the rebellion on board the Spanish galleon, offering them booty as encouragement.

He is also swift to sail to Lima so the case can be heard before the courts and justice done. In the end, the Africans are convicted and punished for their evil acts of violence. As a result, the theme really becomes the triumph of good over evil.

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Free Study Guide-Benito Cereno by Herman Melville-Free Chapter Summary
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