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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 12

Oct. 11: Aphra Behn, Oroonoko

Reading Assignment:

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

The second class on Oroonoko will continue our focus on heroism, but the context shifts to one of slavery. What does it mean for the Royal Prince to be a slave? How can a hero be a slave? We will examine some of the narrative features, including the use of realism (in contrast to the dominant tropes of romance in the parts of the narrative placed in Coramantien) and the tragic ending.

Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:

The second half of the novel is characterized by a striking verisimilitude or realism. We might understand this to include: representations of a recent past, recognizable setting, plausible narrative in chronological time, based in fact or "news," having ordinary or believable characters. How does the second half of the story demonstrate these things?

Why does Tefry treat Oroonoko so freely? What does it mean to endure "no more of the slave but the name"(2194)? Why, eventually, is this insufficient for Oroonoko?

Why do the colonists change Oroonoko's name? What is the significance of Oroonoko's Christian name -- Caesar? (2193) Note also that Caesar was a common name for Charles II in the poetry of the era.


After Oroonoko is "betrayed to Slavery" a curious thing happens. Everyone around him recognizes the prince within the slave. How do they recognize his "quality"? What does this suggest about nobility? How do the African slaves of Parham House treat Oroonoko? Why? Is this related to heroism? How or why not?

Compare the case for Imoinda. Why does she appear to live in luxury, with all her cooing lovers and her very own shock dog? How does she avoid becoming the subject of sexual violence (which the men readily talk about)? (2195)

Note the complexity of their response to one another: "They soon informed each other of their Fortunes, and equally bewailed their Fate; but, at the same time they mutually protested, that even Fetters and Slavery were Soft and Easy, and would be supported with Joy and Pleasure, while they could be so happy to possess each other, and to be able to make good their Vows" (2196). Comment.

What changes when Imoida becomes pregnant? Why can't their love survive in Surinam?

Note the narrator's attitude toward Oroonoko/Caesar: "After this, I neither thought it convenient to trust him much out of our view, nor did the Country who feared him" (2198). Why is this so? What does it indicate about the narrator?

Note the level of grim violence that lies just beneath the surface of civility she constructs in the novel. How do you explain, for instance, the description of the voluntary dismemberment of the native Indians? What do they accomplish by such display? Why does the narrator include this? pp. 2204.

Examine the development of Oroonoko's insurrection, pp. 2205-7. Why do the African slaves initially object to the revolt? What role do the women play in the failed revolution?

What is the significance of Oroonoko's diatribe against Christianity on p. 2208-9? Why does he eventually yield to Byam? What happens as a result?

What are Oroonoko's reservations regarding taking revenge on the colonialists? Why does he eventually decide to kill Imoinda (2212)? Consider Behn's characterization of Imoinda's choice to die. What are the implications of this action? In what sense is it justified? In what sense can it never be justified?

Again, we are struck by the gruesome reality of Imoinda's death. How does this aesthetic of realism (horror) fit with the earlier exaggeration of romance? What is the effect of this graphic description? (2212-3)

Similarly, Oroonoko's self-mutilation is graphically described (2214). Is this an act of heroism?

How do you understand the narrator's abandonment of Oroonoko/Caesar in the end? (2214)

What are the implications of the form of execution Oroonoko undergoes? What purpose does it serve the colonies? 6. In what sense oes Oroonoko become "exemplary" in the conclusion of the novel? What is he a symbol of? (2215)

Evaluate the closing lines of self-reflection and praise for Oroonoko and Imoinda (2215).


Remember that Behn's story of the Royal African Slave was written in 1688, about events that ostensibly took place nearly three and a half centuries ago. As such the story represents a distant and unfamiliar past. Still, the quality of Behn's writing allows the twenty-first century reader a sympathetic identification with its characters. What does the story have to say to you, today's reader? What thematic, historical, or literary value does it impart?

How does this literary work fit into our discussion of heroism in this class? To what extent (and more importantly why) is Oroonoko a hero? How does Immoinda figure in the context of heroism? Is she heroic? Why? How does this work, published some twenty years after Paradise Lost comment on Milton's representation of heroism?

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