Some Possible Paper Topics in Behn's Oroonoko (2nd Half) For another attempt to address this same set of issues, click here.
1) Social Paradox I: What binaries anchor this book's cultural values? Behn writes confidently of Oroonoko as a hero of the European sort, but then she uses him to distinguish a different kind of value system (not lying, not torturing or abusing slaves, etc.) from the "Christian" and "European" cultural norms in Surinam. Is Oroonoko really "one of us," Behn's readers back in London, or some other "them" as Behn sees him, or as we now see him using 21st century mores? This topic implies a Structuralist method if you are looking for the underlying structural rules that enable people to operate the "normal" value system, or a Deconstructionist method if you want to see how the text (and the adept reader) can subvert the "normal" value system.
2) What should we make of Behn's intentional ironies [e.g., "the captain (his friend)," 2191]? How far is she going when she has her hero bid farewell to the treacherous captain with thanks for introducing him to the Christian god by which he swore (2192). What about the clear implication, by Oroonoko to Trefrey, that Trefrey ordinarily ought to have raped a female slave he found attractive (2195). Remember, O is talking, unknowingly, about Imoinda! Behn tells us, "The company laughed at [Trefry's] civility to a slave" (2195). Does Behn expect "us," her readers, to laugh, too? Paradox and irony are tools that New Critics sometimes say an artist uses to resolve tensions in the text so that the work can express some more profound meaning.
3) Social Paradox II: Trefrey, "a man of wit and learning" and a slave master (2192). Think about Oroonoko's maxim, "A man of wit could not be a knave and villain" (2193). That's our hero talking (see Paradox I). Consider the evidence of the text as it supports or subverts his maxim. Then there is "Behn," the character, as she describes her own role in subjecting Oroonoko to continued slavery. She distracts him from rebellion once Imoinda's pregnancy has made him determined to flee or rebel. She tells him tales of Romans (including Hannibal?) and "nuns" (saints' lives?) as part of a deliberate strategy to encourage him to tolerate his servitude. What is that but betrayal of her hero? Is that ironic? (See #2 and the critical methods suggested in 1 and 2, above.)
4) Slaves in Love: When Romance again intrudes upon the historical narrative, Oroonoko and Imoinda are reunited by chance/destiny/fate and they fall passionately into each other's arms, pledging to live happily (as slaves!) in their love for each other. Think about John Donne ("To the Sun Rising," "Canonization," etc. etc.) and the conceit that love will make all horrors seem delightful. Think about Satan and his rebel angels in Hell. Think about Mary Astell on the folly of marrying only for love. What is Behn saying about love? (See #2 above.)
5) Behn's Fictions and Fantasies: Between 2198 and 2205, she suddenly shifts narrative modes from historical fiction or autobiography (closely modeled on facts one can confirm by other means) to outright Romance. That jams together claims that are simultaneously historically verifiable (Trefrey, and "Lord ________ [Willoughby] of Parham," the trade of the colony to the Dutch in 1667 [for Manhattan!], the electric eel!) and the most unlikely flights of fancy (that she was the daughter of a man destined to be governor of thirty-six islands and the colony of Surinam, though we cannot find a trace of her birth origins, the "tigers" [OK, call them jaguars!] Oroonoko kills so handily including the one with seven bullets in its heart). What is she doing to our sense of historicity, of human identity, of cultural values? (See #1, 2, 3, 4, above.)
6) Social Paradox III: Are we the spectators upon wonders, or are we the marvels others gaze upon? When they visit the Indians, the nearly naked Indians (in Central American heat and humidity) cry out upon seeing their heavily embroidered clothing and heavily piled hairdressing, "Tepeeme," which is helpfully translated as "Numberless wonders!" (2202). From the "normal," Behn and her brother and maid have been transformed into marvels (See #5 above). Which are "we" and which are "they"? (See #1 above.) What are the fads of English fashion (2202) compared with the "gabble" of Indian observers (2203)? (What the heck, see all of the above.) This connects to Post-Colonial literary theory and Post-Structuralist analyses that challenge the priority granted to the point of view of the European Colonialist (often male) vs. the African/Amerindian/etc. Colonized (often female) point of view. Hmmm...what about Imoinda's "point of view"? Feminist critics would ask, "where is the woman?"