Analyze Behn's Oroonoko as a construction of place and representation of
Behn's novella ties together our themes of heroism and place, and we will use this to gain a clearer
understanding of England's place in the world in the late seventeenth century. Please
review the ideas in Withers and Ogborn from January's reading.
To start we will examine the novel as representation of place, focusing on the framing place of
London (opening pages), the context of Oroonoko and Imoinda's love affair in Coramantien, and
finally the tragic ending in Surinam.
We will also focus on the character of Oroonoko and questions of heroism. Consider earlier readings,
including the heroic poems
Paradise Lost and Absalom and Achitophel, to frame your understanding of
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:
Consider how the narrative constructs the places of London, Coramantien and Surinam. Remember
that places are constructed as products of human meaning, resulting from the intersections
of people, geographical locations, things in time. The narrative represents a period of
great global change, as witnessed by the travel of our main characters. Consider how
the narrative develops each place uniquely.
The opening pages focus on a London audience. 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 next part of the story
takes place in Coramantien and is characterized by romance conventions. This is a Eurocentric
representation of West Africa.
We might understand romance conventions as: 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 Coramantien sections of the novel? Note in particular
the description of the Otan, the characters and their behaviors. Note
also the role of war and warriors.
What happens when the English ship comes to port (see pp. 2200-2201)?
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" (2201). What does this mean?
Why does she write it?
Note the difficulty of the "Middle Passage" for Oroonoko and his friends.
How might we understand this in terms of place-making in the Atlantic Enlightenment?
The Surinam section 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?
2. Heroism and Slavery
Why does Tefry treat Oroonoko so freely? What does it mean to endure
"no more of the slave but the name"(2205)? 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? (2205) Recall that naming in place conveys power. This passage is particularly
important in terms of the text's place making and Behn's intentions for her text.
Note the complexity of Oroonoko and Imoinda's 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" (2207). 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"
(2209). Why is this so? What does it indicate about the
narrator and her place in Surinam?
Note the level of grim violence that lies just beneath
the surface of civility Behn constructs in the novel.
How do you explain, for instance, the description of the
voluntary dismemberment of the native Indians? Why might the narrator
include this? pp. 2215. Can you relate it to her characterization of Oroonoko later
in the book?
Examine the development of Oroonoko's insurrection, pp. 2217-18. Why
do the African slaves initially object to the revolt? What role do the women
play in the failed revolution?
Revenge is central to the classical heroic code, which Milton rejects. What are Oroonoko's
reservations regarding taking revenge on
the colonialists? Why does he eventually decide to kill Imoinda (2223)?
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?
How do you understand the narrator's abandonment of
Oroonoko/Caesar in the end? (2225)
What are the implications of the form of execution Oroonoko
undergoes? What purpose does it serve the colonies? In what sense is this an act of place-making?
Evaluate the closing lines of self-reflection and praise
for Oroonoko and Imoinda (2226).
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.
Furthermore it records or imagines a specific place of transactions in history. We
can find Surinam on a map, and we can learn about its history of colonialism and post-
colonial development. The impact of colonialism changed the world we live in. How does
this story help you understand the world?
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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