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Before the truth surrounding the strange fate of Benito Cereno becomes apparent, Herman Melville effects an intriguing juxtaposition between Don Benito and Babo while the latter adheres to the toilette of his “master.” Captain Delano, while watching this masquerade of owner and slave, congratulates the slave on his mastery of the razor, brush and comb without realizing Babo’s deadly control over the weakened captain. Melville describes the barber’s scene in the cuddy with utmost care and illustrates Babo’s role as an impromptu gentleman’s valet with intricate detail. Though Melville reaches a climax in the narrative with the slave revolt, the reader is yet unaware of a mutinous plot or dangerous threat while Babo attends to the needs of Don Benito. In this passage, however, Melville foreshadows the treacherous by proffering agency unto Babo and leaving the fragile Don Benito in a realm of dependence and fear. Without divulging the premise of the climax, the hegemonic relationship of Babo and his feigned master is overtly demonstrated by Melville’s dramatic details, yet left unexplained until the actual rendering of the slave revolt. By placing the master and slave in traditional roles while inverting the actual control of master over slave, Melville enshrouds the scene with unease by placing Babo into a sphere unaccustomed by his race.
Throughout the entire narrative, Babo often speaks for Don Benito, supports him physically and emotionally, and, most importantly, deftly plays the act of a subjugated man. Captain Delano does not doubt the legitimacy of Babo because Melville so convincingly places the slave into the position of dutiful servant and humble inferior. Moreover, when Babo begins his toilette of Don Benito, the narrator comments profusely on the slave’s capacity for “avocations about one’s person” (73). He continues, “most Negroes are natural valets and hairdressers, taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castanets, and flourishing them apparently with almost equal satisfaction” (73). Since the narrator places Babo in such a “natural” position for a Negro, the reader, as well as the character of Delano, is duped into believing that Babo could not possibly harbor alternative motives. Babo’s attention to the detail of his master’s person, illustrates a stereotypical sphere acceptable for the slave – to break free from that role would require the greatest of imagination on the part of Captain Delano and of the reader. Melville’s description of Babo’s ease with the razor and scissors simply places him within the capacity allotted for a typical slave. Melville tricks the reader by catering to the stereotype of the slave and thus allows the “natural valet” to break free from the slave mould and become the intellectual impetus behind the revolt.
Melville draws Delano into the slave convention so far as to write about Babo and the race as a whole, “[They had] a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture, as though God had set the whole Negro to some pleasant tune” (73). Retrospectively, these words echo with menace. Babo, instead of following the “pleasant tune” of his race as described by Melville, shifts from the position of slave to that of master. Rather than by manifest force, Babo exerts mastery over Don Benito throughout the narrative while he is fulfilling the role of slave on the surface for the comfort of Captain Delano. As Babo shaves Don Benito, Melville’s description of the typical slave avocation, “the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind” (73) implies the exact opposite of the puissant, intelligent Babo. Captain Delano, falling into the trap of believing in the “docility” of Babo, goes so far as to recall his past experiences in America, sitting in his doorway, watching the movement of the Negroes outside and thinking to himself about how he took to the race as man does to a Newfoundland dog. Melville’s description of Delano’s contentment proximal to what evolves into the formidable figure of Babo, illustrates the author’s use of convention as a literary device. By maintaining a stereotype, Melville draws the reader into a trap of tranquility regarding Babo – a trap that is only realized towards the plot’s crisis.
Though Melville maintains Negro slave cliches during the barber scene, he nevertheless creates an unconventional power relationship between Babo and Don Benito as the former attends to his duties as valet. Babo’s grooming actions cause Don Benito inexplicable fear; Captain Delano however, never for an instant, gives the slave the agency of inducing fear in his master. When a bit of blood is drawn, Melville writes of Delano’s interpretation, “Poor fellow, thought Captain Delano, so nervous he can’t even bear the sight of barber’s blood; and this unstrung, sick man, is it credible that I should have imagined he meant to spill all my blood, who can’t endure the sight of one little drop of his own?” (75). Though Don Benito is clearly reacting to some horrible fear or attack of nerves, Delano chastises himself for thinking that the Spanish captain is a murderer, never interpreting the signs as an implication of Babo’s control over his own master. Since Delano’s vision of Babo is that of conscientious, dog-like devotion to Don Benito, the letting of blood during the shaving accident and Benito’s ensuing nerves, points to interpretations other than Babo’s actual command over the situation.
Through language, Melville hints at the actual dominion of the slave; however, Delano only once considers the situation to be somewhat odd. Melville writes, “the idea flashed across him that possibly master and man, for some unknown purpose, were acting out, both in word and deed, nay, to the tremor of Don Benito’s limbs, some juggling play before him” (76). After this “flash” of doubt however, Delano disregards his feeling and simply interprets the situation as odd due to the quaint heraldic shaving cloth draped over the body of Don Benito. After this moment of doubt, Melville again alludes to a perverse power-play as Babo finishes shaving his master: “He sat so pale and rigid now that the Negro seemed a Nubian sculptor finishing off a white statue head” (76). Nothing could be more apparent than the sculptor-marble/master-object parallel in this description – Babo’s command of Don Benito – yet Melville still confounds Delano and the reader by the supposed blood-thirsty intent of the weak Don Benito. In one sentence, Melville demonstrates the power and agency of the slave over the master in a strange inversion of positions. The “Nubian sculptor” has utter control over the rigid white man and, though Babo never once overtly swerves from the path of perfect servitude, exerts complete control over Don Benito during the entire interaction.
After Babo finishes his work on Don Benito, Melville again writes subtly about the control of the slave over his master. Paralleling the metaphor of the sculptor, Melville writes, “all this being done, backing off a little space, and pausing with an expression of subdued self-complacency, the servant for a moment surveyed his master, as, in toilette at least, the creature of his own tasteful hands” (77). The words “at least” signify Babo’s control over Don Benito beyond that of the toilette, though Delano “playfully complimented” (77) him after he ceased his cutting and trimming. Figuratively, the character of Don Benito resides in the “tasteful hands” of Babo. The slave, unbeknownst to the American, has complete command of the situation on the ship. However, through this act of master and slave, Melville hides the true interactions of the pair under the guise of a conventional slave duty. Only once does Delano consider the charade to be eccentric; and, when he does look upon the scene with distrust, he feels a threat from the Spanish captain rather than the dutiful slave.
By placing Babo in the common role of a slave, Melville creates an astonishing climax when Babo unmasks his true position as pilot of the slave revolt. As he strops the razor along the “smooth, oily skin of his open palm,” Melville contains Babo in a role that befits him as a Negro slave. The minutiae concerning the shaving and cutting, places Babo painstakingly into the prevailing character of a slave, and, by adhering to the accepted character, Babo’s intellectual capacity to lead a mutiny is all the more surprising. Melville feeds upon the predominant ideas of the day concerning slavery and uses those stereotypes in the barber scene to further propagate Babo’s typical character. Yet Melville, in turn, takes the slave conventions and uses them as a literary tool to create an non-conformist character of color that breaches convention and attempts to murder the master that he so tenderly cared for. The paradoxical relationship between the two men during the shaving scene tricks both the American captain and the reader into believing that Babo simply maintains the hackneyed images of other slaves of the day. By creating an acceptable slave image of Babo, Melville can create within the slave a concealed character that subverts his own trite role. While Delano watches the scene in the cuddy, Babo plays the perfect valet. However, as Melville describes the slave holding the razor “suspended for an instant” (74) above the terrified Don Benito, the reader receives one glimpse into the physical control of slave over master. By utilizing the cliched master-slave relationship, Melville actually inverts the positions of Don Benito and Babo so that the latter eventually exerts his mastery through violence and action.
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