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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 12

Oct. 6: Aphra Behn, Oroonoko

Reading Assignment:

Oroonoko, NAEL 2170-2215
    Due: Post #6 Group A

Our readings for today continue the subject of slavery, although Behn's work is situated about 100 years earlier than Equiano's. We will be discussing the novella over two classes, and so for this first class I'd like to focus our discussion on the first sections, roughly pages 2170-2191. We will consider the narrator's introduction of Oroonoko, his character and his love affair with Imoinda in Coramantien, and his betrayal into slavery, the middle passage and his arrival in Surinam.

Because we will be focusing on the character of Oroonoko, I'd like to center our discussion on questions of heroism. Consider earlier readings, including the heroic poems Paradise Lost and Absalom and Achitophel, to frame your understanding of the heroic. Also, draw on the brief excerpt on heroic writing (pp. 2119-20) by Dryden to understand Behn's technique in constructing her character as a hero.

Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


Based on your reading of Dryden's excerpt (pp. 2119-20) and your understanding of heroic literature from class, what are the aspects of heroic literature that Behn incorporates in her story? In what ways does she characterize Oroonoko as a hero? Initially, reserve your comments for her introduction of Oroonoko and the first half of the story that takes place in Coramantien.

Why do you think the heroic mode was so popular in the period following the Restoration?

How is Behn's hero unique? (Pay particular attention to her description of Oroonoko pp. 2174-5.)

How do we appreciate and understand the heroic today? (We will return to this question when we discuss the second half of the novel as well.)


The narrator: describe the narrative voice. How does the narrator approach her story? What is her purpose in telling the story? What means does she have to establish its truth? Why is this important?

What is significant about the narrator's description of the native Indians? How do the white colonists feel toward them? Why do they treat these people in a way different from their treatment of Africans?

The plot of the story falls into halves. The first part takes place in Coramantien and is characterized by romance conventions. We might understand these to be: distant, exotic or foreign environment and practices, heroes of extreme valor and sensitivity, heroines of extraordinary virtue and beauty, rhetoric of exaggeration, artificiality and formality. How are these characteristics of the first half of the novel? Note in particular the description of the Otan, the characters and their behaviors. Note also the role of war and warriors.

Describe the characters of Oroonoko and Immoinda. How or why do they fall in love? (See pp. 2176; 2179-184.)

How does the narrator describe their love?

What is the primary conflict that drives the first half of the plot? How is political authority represented? Who has the right to rule? What might be the symbolic or political significance of the old, impotent king? In what ways is Oroonoko better suited to rule/ to love?


What is Oroonoko's response to the "death" of Immoinda? How does he recover?

What happens when the English ship comes to port (see pp. 2188-90)? What role does slavery play in the African kingdoms? What role does Oroonoko play in the slave trade? How does the narrative represent this aspect of his behavior?

When the captain tricks Oroonoko into bondage, the narrator plays on notions of bravery: "Some have commended this act as brave in the captain; but I will spare my sense of it, and leave it to my reader to judge as he pleases" (2189). What does this mean? Why does she write it?

Note the difficulty of the "Middle Passage" for Oroonoko and his friends. How does this compare with the description given by Equiano (which would have been published nearly one hundred years later)?

What is the significance of Oroonoko's swearing on his honor (page 2190)? How does this compare to swearing on one's God? Whose vow turns out to be more meaningful? Why?

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