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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Reading Assignment:

    Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)
    Demaria, p. 245
    Happy Critic 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:



Aphra Behn:

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 religious tolerance?

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 this love?

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?

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