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THEMES IN APHRA BEHN’S OROONOKO

INTRODUCTION

Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave is a short prose fiction which was published in
1688. In this work, Behn gives us an account of the African prince Oroonoko whom she
meets at Surinam where he is sold as a slave by the Britishers. This prose piece can be
divided into four major sections. The first one is a description of the life in Surinam where
the Britishers live in harmony with the natives of the land. Then in the second section we the
life in Coramantien where we meet Oroonoko, his tribe and his love, Imoinda. The third
section deals with the events that happened when Oroonoko is tricked into slavery and
brought to Surinam by the Britishers. The final section is all about Oroonoko’s rebellion and
his execution.

Oroonoko is a novel that has been read under numerous interpretations by different critics.
Emily Anderson, in “Novelty in Novels“, talks about the ‘novelty of interpretation’.
According to Anderson, Oroonoko can be considered as a tool for ‘individual interpretation’.
This myriad reading of the text, although interesting and enthralling, brings with it drastic
changes in the themes according to the way in which the reader wishes to read the text.
Although the themes are explored individually, they often intertwine with each other and can
only be best understood as a whole. This interconnection along with the dualities involved
with each theme is what makes the reading of Oroonoko difficult as well as fascinating.
THEMES IN OROONOKO
Female Narrative Voice

Epistolary tone and Spectatorship: Oroonoko begins with first person narrative of Behn and
the tone invites the readers into the story much like a daily conversation. The epistolary tone
resembles that of a travelogue even though this is a prose fiction and thus consist elements of
fiction within the story. This effectiveness of the narrative, according to Marta Figlerowicz,
can be attributed to Behn’s use of ‘spectatorship’. Figlerowicz, in her piece “Aphra Behn’s
Oroonoko and Narration through Theater”, observes that the element of spectatorship
strengthens the narrative by providing the touch of ‘immediacy and subjectivity’, especially,
as it is consistently seen throughout the novel. The readers, instead of being told, are
constantly shown characters, places, and events. As a result, we become ‘witnesses’ and
‘active spectators’, inside the narrative and thus get away from being just a passive recipients
of it. This feature of spectatorship not only validates the narrator and the narrative, but it also
makes the ‘exotic accessible and believable’.

Ambiguous and Intrusive narration: The narrator feels free to interrupt the story when she
wishes; providing the readers sometimes with additional information and sometimes with her
own opinions. She gives the readers the reason for her stay at Surinam despite the fact that
Behn, as a character in the story, has nothing to offer other than her narration. In Oddvar
Homesland’s article, “Aphra Behn’s ‘Oroonoko’: Cultural Dialectics and the Novel”, he
reveals the fact that the narrator is ambiguous about author’s intentions and political
inclinations. Homesland says that “on one hand, the narrator seems a self-professed
conservative and on the other she supports ‘mercantile expansion’” These kinds of
ambiguous views are seen in various parts of the novel.

Views on slavery: Behn speaks about the brutality of slave trade and the pathetic conditions
of slaves but never shows the desire of outlawing it as a practise. Throughout the novel she
shows no signs of discomfort on the fact that these slaves have to leave behind their families
and even their own identity because their native names are often ‘barbarous and hard to
pronounce’. As a narrator, Behn never condemns slavery but as an author she provides more
than enough instances of the horrors of slavery. Nevertheless, one can never say that the
author was against slavery as such because she also shows us the side of Oroonoko who
freely indulges in slave trade without a second thought. However it all comes down to the
critic and his view of reading the text. Derek Hughes, in his essay, “Race, Gender, and
Scholarly Practice: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko”, concludes that “Oroonoko has been viewed
too often through the lens of ideology and not enough through that of fictional literature.”
Fact or fiction: In the essay "Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Oroonoko", Robert Chibka
compares the duplicity Prince Oroonoko suffers at the hands of the white man with the
duplicity the readers suffer at the hand of Ms. Behn. Throughout the novel there are instances
where we question the authenticity of facts in the absence of narrator’s eyewitnesses.
Although Oroonoko is said to be a prose fiction, there are definitely elements which fuel the
facts. Chibka also emphasises the fact that some of the critics have a “critical obsession” with
author’s life and the narrator’s truth claim regarding the novel which is an ignorance of her
true literary skills.

Racism and Slavery

Barbarisms of Colonialists: The whites punish Oroonoko in the most savage manner
possible. They tied him on poles and whipped him till his flesh dripped with blood. Their
brutality is further exemplified in these lines, "When they thought they were sufficiently
revenged on him, they untied him almost fainting with the loss of blood, from a thousand
wounds all over his body...and led him bleeding and naked as he was, and loaded him all over
with irons and then rubbed his wounds, to complete their cruelty, with Indian pepper which
had like to have made him raving mad" (67).

Fair treatment: Trefry, despite being a plantation owner, treats his slaves in a just and fair
manner. He decides to be nice and kind to them instead of being cruel like many of his fellow
Britishers. But his treatment of Oroonoko is again different from the other slaves even though
Oroonoko was brought to Surinam and sold as just another slave. The difference, perhaps,
lies in the fact that Oroonoko was not just a slave; he was a ‘royal slave’, about which Behn
says, “he suffered only the name of a slave, and had nothing of the toil and labour of one, yet
that was sufficient to render him uneasy.” This not only brings out the partial treatment of the
slaves but also the fact that Oroonoko has a paradoxical notion when it comes to slave trade.

Contradictive perspective: Oroonoko’s perspective of slavery is quite contradictory. Talking
about his slavery practises in Africa he justifies it as the fate of men honourably taken in war.
He never gives a second thought to the fact that the slaves he took honourably in war are the
ones he sold to the British for his own profit. But when Oroonoko finds himself as a slave in
the British colony, he tries to rebel without regretting for the slaves he had kept himself.
Oroonoko, himself, kills Imoinda so that she won’t have to face the horrors of slavery with
the notion that it is better to die than to remain as a slave but this notion of his is absent when
he followed slave trade himself.

Anti-colonialism, Honour and Betrayal

The superiority of natives lie in their innocent nature which is a stark contrast when set
against the corruption of the colonialists. The natives are represented as having basic human
virtues of modesty and creative artistry. In the first few paragraphs, the narrator goes on to
give us an interesting and vivid description of their artistry skills as well as their exotic life.
Few paragraphs into the novel, we also find the extreme modesty with which they approach
their lovers. Eventhough it is their part of lifestyle to be practically naked, they never are
accused of any indecent or improper behaviour. They are also said to possess basic surviving
skills, lost from the hands of the Europeans due to their technological advancements, which
helps them procure food.

The superiority of Europeans is seen in every part of the novel where slavery is depicted,
especially in Surinam, their colony. The narrator tries to control Oroonoko’s fading belief in
the promised freedom, through the stories of Christianity and faith. Even though she insists
on keeping the faith, these conversations take place in a larger context of betrayal which is
yet to come. Oroonoko runs on the motif of honour and betrayal binging out the contrast
between European disloyalty and the African prince’s honour. Laura J. Rosenthal says,
“Coramantines practise slavery as an expression of their rigid hierarchy and warrior
culture...but even this practice honours differences in rank, for Oroonoko at one point
befriends rather than enslaves the noble general he has defeated”(152). The same comes in
light when Oroonoko starts the revolt wherein he questions the honour of the colonialists by
asking, “Have they won us honourably in a battle?”

In Oroonoko, the dual personality of the characters ends up betraying Oroonoko. Oroonoko is
twice betrayed by the British slave trading captain who promises to free him when they touch
the next land and instead sells him to a British plantation owner Trefry who is truthful and
kind but lacks the courage to help him and thus, remains passive and helpless. Trefry also
treats the Negro-slaves different form Oroonoko. The deputy governor of Surinam, Byam
also pretends friendship with Oroonoko but later orders him to be whipped and executed
without a second thought. The author herself is guilty of this dual personality. Eventhough
she vows to help him, she runs away at the first sign of trouble. Her two-faced beliefs come
to surface when she tells Oroonoko of her undying devotion which is immediately followed
by the lines "I neither thought it convenient to trust him much out of our view, nor did the
country who feared him" (48). The only character who is exceptional to this dual personality
is Banister, "a fellow of absolute barbarity". He despises Oroonoko to death and tells him
that, “he will die the death of a dog”. In reply the African prince says that he has finally heard
a white man tell the truth.
CONCLUSION

Oroonoko is certainly a prose fiction that can be read under different interpretations. With the
change in the perspective of interpretation, the themes also vary accordingly. Despite these
variations, the basic ideas or the central themes remain almost similar throughout all the
readings. Oroonoko is not just a story of a ‘royal slave’; narrated through the eyes of a
woman, Oroonoko also depicts a female’s views on colonialism. Slavery and racism make up
the other important themes. Although Oroonoko cannot be read strictly as an abolitionist
novel, it manages to shed some light on the brutalities of slave trade and on the
discriminations based on race. The repeated betrayal of native’s honour by the colonialists
throughout the novel, gives the novel a new reading as a text focusing on anti-colonialism.
Even if Oroonoko is read ignoring these inherent themes, Aphra Behn will still be celebrated
for her prose fiction as it is considered one of the first fictional-prose work in English
literature giving Behn the title of being the first professional female novelist. With these
themes included, Oroonoko becomes one of the masterpieces written in the early 17th century.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Rosenthal, Laura J. ‘Oroonoko: reception, ideology, and narrative strategy’(152). The
Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Spencer, Jane. Aphra Behn’s Afterlife. New York: Oxford University Press,2000.

Articles

Anderson, Emily Hodgson. “Novelty in Novels: A Look at What’s New in Aphra Behn’s
Oroonoko.” Studies in the Novel 39.1 (2007): 1-16. Print.

Chibka, Robert L. “’Oh! Do Not Fear a Woman’s Invention’: Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction
in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30.4 (1988): 510-
537. Print.

Figlerowicz, Marta. “’Frightful Spectacles of a Mangled King’”: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko
and Narration through Theater.” New Literary History 39 (2008): 321-334. Print.

Homesland, Oddvar. “Aphra Behn’s ‘Oroonoko’: Cultural Dialectics and the Novel.” ELH
68.1 (2001): 57-79. JSTOR. Web. 13 Jan 2010.

Hughes, Derek. “Race, Gender, and Scholarly Practice: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Essays in
Criticism 52.1 (2002): 1-22. Oxfordjournals.org. Web. 18 Jan 2010.

Web Pages

‘Oroonoko.’ GradeSaver. 1Oct 2017. <http://www.gradesaver.com/oroonoko>

https://wmich.edu/dialogues/texts/oroonoko.html

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