I guess when I said I would be done with slave narratives as far as the list is concerned, I wasn’t exactly telling the truth since Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko does tell the story of a man who is African royalty by birth but is captured and brought over to the West Indies as a slave. The main difference between this story and the actual slave narratives I have covered is that this one is a work of fiction and Oroonoko could represent several different people.
I would be willing to call this a slave narrative if it wasn’t for the whole fictional part of it…which all of it is. Behn was a political writer of fiction, and while this isn’t really a book about the evils of slavery (another thing that distinguishes it from actual slave narratives), Behn was concerned about the issues of natural kingship and the idea that in order for a place to thrive it needs a strong ruler.
The story could be considered as Restoration literature, as at least half of it takes place in the New World, there are elements of courtly romance between Oroonoko and Imoinda, and it contains a great deal of the heroic tragedy. Both Oroonoko and Imoinda are separately captured and taken to Surinam in the West Indies to be slaves. Before this, Behn tells of the courtship between Oroonoko and Imoinda that takes place before she is summoned to be part of the king’s Otan (a.k.a. harem). Oh yeah, and the king is Oroonoko’s grandfather (awkward!). Only after they are both captured and brought to the New World separately and reunited are they then able to be together. But they are only able to be together as slaves, and not in their previous royal splendor.
The great tragedy of the story is not just in the fact that Oroonoko was of noble African blood and dies as a slave in a land far from home. The tragedy is also in how he died and what he had to go through to even get to that point. Behn writes the story almost as a tribute to him and his noble character. Not only did this man of noble African blood die a slave, but he did so after attempting to lead an eventually unsuccessful slave revolt, and killing a very pregnant Imoinda (she begged for it...after he suggested it) before making a planned attempt on his own life. However, he is ultimately dismembered in one of the most gruesome death scenes I have ever read. Needless to say, he does not die with the dignity that Behn felt someone like him deserved.
One of the more notable features of the novel is Oroonoko’s continuous insistence on the sacred nature of a king’s word and how a king should never betray his oaths. The work is also noticeably anti-Dutch and anti-democratic as Behn believed in monarchy, and was a former spy for Charles II against the Dutch. Also the dominant male leaders of the story are often accompanied by strong female companions. Imoinda, being the best example, is supportive of all of Oroonoko’s decisions, even the one that includes him killing her so that she and her unborn child may escape the bonds of slavery. Also, Imoinda fights by Oroonoko’s side while other women in the story urge their counterparts to surrender.
Several times throughout the story, the features of both Oroonoko and Imoinda are described as European and that both have a definite presence about them. The beauty of Imoinda incites love and lust in all men, white or black, and Oroonoko’s appearance causing almost everyone to see him as a man of leadership. Even though their skin is still dark, their European features give them favor with almost everyone.
Something that stood out to me throughout the whole story, and somewhat bothered me, was the narrative voice. It is a strange cross between third person omniscient and first person, as the narrator could not have been present for absolutely everything Oroonoko went through in order for it to be truly first-person, yet they cannot be completely omniscient as they identify themselves as someone who knew Oroonoko while he was a slave in the West Indies. Also, often while in the middle of describing some of the atrocities that befall Oroonoko, the narrator will begin validate their own lack if involvement in any attempts to help his situation, or explain away any guilt they may be feeling, or any guilt that reader would want to assign to them. Scholars have gone back and forth since the story was written in attempts to figure out if the narrator is supposed to be Behn herself. There are some signs that say yes, and then there are other factual details about the narrator’s life that do not line up with Behn’s. Other scholars attempt to go even further and figure out whether Behn had ever been to the area in which Oroonoko served as a slave, or whether she took accounts and descriptions from others and used them in her own story. But of course, some of her descriptions are just too spot on for other scholars to ignore.
The years 1688 was a time of serious political conflict in England as Charles II had died and James II, who purported Roman Catholicism, had come into power. Oroonoko’s constant reiteration of the sacredness of a king’s word and how it will always be kept had to have struck a chord with those who were suddenly looking for a way to get a new king. Behn was very big on loyalty to the throne and felt that the loss of a king only hurt the country he ruled. This may have been closer to the point Behn was trying to make as opposed to making an attack on slavery, which is what many scholars and critics have wanted to believe the story is about. Most likely, Behn was not necessarily against slavery; otherwise she would not have married a slave trader.
There were numerous slave revolts in the English colonies lead by Coromantin slaves, and Oroonoko is described as being from “Coromantien.” Oroonoko could be representative of the many slaves who have revolted. There were also revolts led by indentured servants, and there is one case of a white man who made a plot very similar to Oroonoko’s and ended up taking his own life while in prison for his attempt.
This is also one of those stories that people have claimed was the first English novel, but as usual, such a claim is hard to sustain. I will probably always think of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones whenever I hear the phrase “first English novel.” I have a hard time calling Oroonoko a novel in general only because it is so short…not that I am complaining about the length, because I am so not.
Next post will be Behn’s bawdy play The Rover, and hopefully after that I will be able to tackle Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World.