Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)
Demaria, p. 245
Chaps. 5 and 6
DUE: Post #8 Scotland and Ireland group
Also read the introductory statements for Behn in Demaria.
The novella or novel for this week introduces many important themes and issues
-- social, political, philosophical and formal. We will simply have to
choose what is most intriguing and compelling about the work. I would
like to discuss the issues of political authority in tension with personal
sovereignty (see Locke from earlier in the semester). Also, the book
raises an interesting question about the nature of virtue: is this an
innate or in-born quality of nobility and honor, or is it the product
of education, environment and social factors? We might contrast the
nobility of Oroonoko or the innocent native Indians with the moral
corruption of the "civilized" colonialists.
Additionally, the form of the prose narrative is significant.
With this work we are introduced to the early British novel, and
in it we can see the competing influences of the French romances
and the empirical scientific discourses (cf. Sprat). As a work
of literature, Oroonoko abides by the critical expectations
for entertainment and enlightenment. We will look at the ways in
which the narrator attempts to establish truth while keeping the
entertainment of her readers in mind.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
Behn wrote the novel or fiction, Oroonoko
for publication in 1688, the year before her death.
And although she claims in her dedicatory letter to
Lord Maitland to have written the work in a few hours,
she was known to have told the story many times before.
Behn was an engaging storyteller (and poet and dramatist)
and Thomas Southerne claims that she "told the story
much more feelingly" than she wrote it. Southerne was
impressed by the story, and he turned it into a play
which ran as a popular production throughout the eighteenth century.
In 1688, Behn needed money; she was old and very sick
and had made many enemies at court because of her satire.
She was strictly royalist (in favor of the Stuart monarchy),
and at the time she wrote the novella, the unpopular Catholic
King James II was on the throne, soon to abdicate ingloriously.
Although she claims to have written Oroonoko to
divert the people, it is far more likely that she put it
into print to earn much needed money. She also rarely published
any work for pure diversion that did not also offer a bold
political or social message. What does the story suggest
about monarchy? About proper political authority -- who has
it? what are the qualities of it? About religion and
According to Maureen Duffy, one of Behn's biographers, Behn
was in Surinam in 1663; at that time it was a British colony.
It was acquired by the Dutch in 1667 -- note the narrator's
dissatisfaction regarding this -- (the British, by the way,
gained Manhattan Island in the exchange). Surinam became
Dutch Guiana, which became independent in 1975. It is located
on the northern coast of South America.
Coramantien is the name for the country now known as Nigeria
. In Yoruba -- one of the native languages of that area --
Oro is the name of a god.
From Vincent Carretta's Unchained Voices: An Anthology of
Black Authors in the English Speaking World of the 18th Century
(U Kentucky P, 1996):
Throughout the eighteenth century "slaves were imported directly
to the colonies from Africa, especially to the sugar-growing
plantations of the West Indies, where the very high mortality
rate meant that the native slave population was not self-sustaining.
By 1750, the majority of slaves in British North America,
on the other hand, were native born, with the population growing
by natural increase. Mainly because of disease, before the
widespread use of quinine, Europeans were restricted to factories
(trading posts) on the coast of Africa, and were dependent on
Africans for the maintenance of the slave trade. Without the
complicity of their fellow Africans, very few Black slaves could
have been exported to the Americas. Much was made of the
differing suitability of the various African peoples for
enslavement: some African nations were seen as too warlike,
for example. Because many slaves, and most in the West Indies,
knew from their own African experience that being Black was
not equivalent to being enslaved, the fairly frequent West
Indian slave revolts were almost always led by non-Creole Black
Africans, for whom freedom was a memory of the recent past
rather than a dream of the distant future" (1-2).
How does the novel represent slavery? Note that people from
all three racial categories (White-European, Native Indian,
Black-African) participate in slavery. What are the acceptable
conditions of slavery in the novel? What are the unacceptable
conditions? How does this vary according to race? to religion?
to economic or social status?
Pay particular attention to Oroonoko's attitudes toward slavery.
How do they differ from the first half of the novel to the end?
What changes Oroonoko's opinion of slavery? Examine Oroonoko's
speech to the slaves capable of fighting on p. 452-3. What
argument does he make for revolt? What does this suggest
about the condition of slavery?
Carretta suggests that slavery in the first half of the
eighteenth century was perceived to be a economic concern
rather than a moral one. Also"during the eighteenth century,
slavery was not strictly defined by White ownership of
Black workers" (3). There were various forms of enforced
labor for white people, including Scot miners, indentured
servants, and transported criminals. "The enslavement of
Christian Europeans by Moslem African Whites on the Barbary
Coast or by Moslem Turks in Asia was a major concern during
the period, getting more treatment in print before 1770
than the condition of Black African slaves" (3). Being black,
then, was not an automatic or assumed condition of slavery.
"Social status could supercede race as a defining category" (3).
In what ways does Behn represent social status superceding race
as a defining category of slavery?
Perhaps more problematically, in what ways does Oroonoko defy
his own African identity? Examine the description of his
appearance and education on pp. 424-425.
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?
The narrator's role in the plot becomes more important in
the end of the novel. How consistent is she in her
representation of herself? Is the poor female author
the same as the charming lady friend of Oroonoko? What
might account for any disparity?
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?
What is the primary conflict that drives the first half of
the plot? Describe the characters of Oroonoko and Immoinda.
How or why do they fall in love? How does the narrator characterize
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 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?
Back to Top of Page
Back to 3230 Syllabus