Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, or The Royal
Genre: the work's genre is still debatable,
but it claims to be a memoir and travel narrative (of Behn's years in the colony of
"Surinam," later called Dutch Guiana), as well as the biography of Oroonoko,
whom his captors called "Caesar."
Characters: "I," a character in some sense modeled on the real-life
Aphra Behn; Oroonoko, an African prince and later a slave to the English who called
him "Caesar"; Imoinda, his lover, also enslaved and sometimes called
"Clemene"; Jamoan, an opposing warrior chief who, conquered by Oroonoko,
becomes his vassal; the King of Coramantien, whom Oroonoko serves and later
betrays, and who betrays him; the slave-running English ship captain; and various
English colonists, especially the supposedly sympathetic plantation overseer named Trefrey,
the colony's deputy governor named William Byam, the gallant Colonel Martin,
and "Bannister, a wild Irishman" (1910). Some of these
characters (e.g., Baym) have been identified as historical figures who were in
the English colony at the time of the events Behn narrates.
Summary: The prince, who has gotten to know Behn while he is a slave in Guiana
and she is a sympathetic listener, tells her his story. Successful in battle, he
falls in love with a young woman who also catches the eye of the king. Having
pursued their love surreptitiously, the couple is discovered and Imoinda is sold into
slavery. Oroonoko, a slave-owner himself, despairs and nearly is
defeated in battle by Jamoan's army, but he is roused to martial prowess by the pleas of
his own troops. Lured upon an English ship by a captain with whom he previously had
bought and sold slaves, Oroonoko and all his men are betrayed and taken as slaves to
Guiana. There he is reunited with Imoinda, and his noble bearing attracts the praise
of all who know him. However, circumstances force him to rebel against his masters
and to lead an army of ex-slaves to seek their freedom. His capture, his murder of
his own wife, and his torture and execution by the English slave-owners end Behn's
Issues and Research Sources:
Reading Aphra Behn's
sometimes provokes a "been there, done that" reaction born of students'
sometimes uninspiring high-school introductions to the history of African-American
slavery, and to be fair, most school systems do give the topic a solid work-out as opposed
to other huge, soul-destroying cultural dislocations like the deportations of the
"Acadians" to Louisiana, the construction of "reservation life" for
Native Americans, and the exploitation of Chinese-Americans in the far West.
However, for those of us reading Behn in Towson, MD, Oroonoko's story has an
often-overlooked but immediate significance because
Goucher College is
located on formerly slave-worked land, part of the Hampton Estate,
in 1790 the largest house in America and just a short walk away across a field now severed
by I-695's river of traffic.
Click here for a
list of the 338 slaves, from "Adam" to "Isaac Wilson," inventoried in
the 1829 will of their owner, a governor of Maryland.) How does literature affect
the cultural acceptability of social institutions that later eras come to consider
immoral, even inconceivable? How are we to read literature that takes for granted
phenomena we find terrible? Does the literature, itself, partake of that terror, or
is it defended by Sidney's principle that it might move us to virtuous action,
even if the
motive was not part of its author's intention?
While we're thinking about
American slavery, it might be a good time to note the energetic efforts of
pro-slavery authors who sought to answer Abolitionist arguments against the
custom. The artful use of language to create and support morally
repugnant results is one of the most painful truths a survey course like
this must confront. Art can serve oppressors as well as liberate the
"The Voyage of the Sable Venus" and "A Negro Festival," engravings depicting
slavery as beneficial for the African slaves, in Bryan Edwards' The
history, civil and commercial, of the British colonies in the West Indies
(London: J. Stockdale, 1794), click here. Click here for a link to one of the library's Rare Book
Collection copies of pro-slavery tracts,
argument : as maintained by the most distinguished writers of the southern
states, containing the several essays on the subject of Chancellor Harper
[and others] (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Richards,
1852). For a non-slaverholding Northern
Episcopal bishop's ingenious use of the Bible to defend slavery, and to
blame the Civil War on "ultra-abolitionists," see
John Henry Hopkins'
A scriptural, ecclesiastical, and historical view of slavery, from the days
of the patriarch Abraham, to the nineteenth century. Addressed to the Right
Rev. Alonzo Potter ... (N.Y.: W.I. Pooley, 1864).Slavery
is neither "natural" nor inexplicable to social and economic historians.
Here are some events which resulted in the explosive growth of
the slave trade between Africa, Europe and the New World.
- Among other sources, Behn's invention of Orooonoko draws upon
many previous genres
of narrative fiction which predate the modern novel, which has not yet been
invented. Among the important precursors of the modern novel is the
medieval romance. We have encountered, in the "Wife of Bath's Tale," an
example of the
medieval chivalric romance. It's a parody, and it's in verse, as many
romances were written, but it has many of the major elements: a knight on a
quest leaves the court and encounters adventures in the forest; a lady's
plight requires justice; a mystery must be resolved; the aristocratic values
which define courtly life (e.g., "gentilesse") are tested and questioned.
In that case, however, the female teller reverses many of the medieval
romance's conventional roles so that the knight is rescued by the lady, his "gentilesse"
is tainted by the rape, and her ugliness is mere illusion (like her later
beauty?--what DOES the "loathely lady" really look like?). Romance is
one of the models for how to write prose fiction which were available to Behn,
but as is typical for early women writers, she cannot simply pick up the genre
given her by men and adopt its conventions without changing them.
Nevertheless, she does adopt many of the romance's typical features.
- How does Oroonoko's life also resemble romance, especially considered in the light of
- How does this shape Behn's characterization of the Prince and his beloved, their
enemies, and the various trials they endure?
- Behn's series of references to the execution of Charles I punctuate
the text with linkages to Oroonoko's condition as a prince first unjustly
imprisoned and then executed by men far inferior in character. This
nostalgic imprint of the old regime's passing might show us a profound
split in English culture caused by the civil war's aftermath, but it also
demonstrates some crucial social characteristics of
might call "modern" in their attitude toward novelty, fashion, and other
forms of change. What is Behn's attitude toward these concepts?
For instance, both romance and epic heroes sometimes face foes described as monstrous
(Beowulf and Grendel, Byrtnoth and the Viking "feondes," Odysseus and
- How does that shape Behn's description of the narrative's "villains"?
- Oroonoko is
perhaps the most "modern" work in the 211 syllabus. In
addition to being a fusion of various previous genres of literature (see
above), it bears clear traces of Behn's past success as a dramatic poetic, writing for the stage. It also
captures in peculiar clarity
the transition from
tradition to mode-ern times. I deliberately misspell "modern" (not old
fashioned, up to date, contemporary) to get you to see its connotation, "mode,"
as in trend, fad, fashion. Pursuit of change, rather than resistance to
change, marks those who have accepted that change is not only inevitable but
good. Try to hold the terms
"modern" and "traditional" in tension, siding with neither one, and see what
advantages each kind of culture offers its participants. Many things you
adore probably come from succumbing to the lure of the modern, but Behn's text
will help you see what you have given up to get them. Among the terrible
phenomena modern thinking makes "normal" are
various strategies of
commodification. That is, things, persons, and even ideas can become
saleable commodities in a world marketplace that reduces all relationships to
trade. What are you worth? What am I worth? What is this
course worth? What is your
favorite book or
What is English
literature worth? If the answers come too easily to you, think again.
The "modern" is thinking for you. If you resist too readily,
be careful what
traditions you would maintain.
- Aphra Behn's Oroonoko poses some unique challenges for interpreters of
English literature. Ordinary readers can allow themselves to be carried
along by the narrative and fall under the spell of Behn's unusually
candid-seeming narrator's persona. The English majors, suspicious as they
are of literary effects until they understand how they are produced, will
relentlessly "look at the man behind the curtain" and seek the strategies by
which Behn constructs her "we" and "us" and "them" (and even "'em"--she
writes informally as a sign of her intimacy with us, her "we"). Who the heck
are "we" for Behn? Hint: "we" don't live in or near Towson, Maryland, and that
matters a great deal to Behn and to "us" because where "we" live is the
center of the "world." One way to analytically challenge the
narrator's power over us involves noting the degree to which "we" are the
secret subjects of this narrative. Behn's view of "our" culture
often sounds like More's "Hythloday" in his view of the decadent behavior of
Christian Europeans when compared with the nobility of the African or
- For another angle on her construction of the Amerindians, consider the
publication date of Orronoko and compare it with the publication
dates of Milton's Paradise Lost. Do you see points of
comparison, especially in Book IV? How else would Behn and her readers
know what life in Eden was like unless Milton had told them? Genesis
is singularly uncommunicative about matters beyond Adam and Eve's relations
with God and the serpent (not even identified with Satan in the biblical
- Another way to read the 1688 publication date is to see
Behn, the Royalist, writing in London at the time of
Glorious Revolution. James II (Halkett's "Duke of York") is
forced to abdicate and Parliament offers the throne to Prince William of
Orange and his wife, Mary, both distant relations to the royal family from
the Netherlands. William and Mary accept the rule of England with
significantly reduced royal powers, making a great step toward the current
balance of power in the English government, today.
- Oroonoko's captors name him Caesar.
- What does that name signify to the English in Behn's time or before?
- For instance, how does Shakespeare's Julius Caesar depict that Roman general and
first emperor, and how does the play treat his killers?
- What kind of a drama have his captors created by naming their victim in this way?
- Oroonoko gives his fellow slaves an impassioned speech comparing tolerable and
intolerable forms of slavery (2205-6).
- Upon what grounds does he object to their current condition, and what does this suggest
about Behn's intentions in writing the book? The last few sentences in the Norton
introduction may give you some help .)
- Oroonoko's prolonged suffering near the end of the narrative can take some
modern readers by surprise. To English readers of Behn's era, however,
almost everyone had witnessed or knew someone who had witnessed the public
torture and execution of those accused of crimes against the state. The
typical punishment was "hanging, drawing, and quartering" (hanging until
nearly dead, drawing the body to a block where it would be cut into quarters,
often after the heart or entrails or other body parts had been cut off and
burned before the still-alive victim). The harshness of the penalty has
been explored in Michel Foucault's study of state torture of criminals, Discipline and Punish (Surveiller et punir, tran. and pub. 1979).
However, Behn's probable Catholic upbringing would have exposed her to another
narrative form that described such tortures as evidence of the highest moral
character, the saint's life. The pagan
Roman stoic tradition, which also influenced the Christian ideology of
martyr-saints, similarly praised the willingness to undergo bodily torture to
preserve one's honor or to protest one's innocence. How might that shape
Behn's crafting of the narrative's end, beyond what she might have
accomplished if she wrote merely that "they captured and executed him"?
If we accept Oroonoko's idea of honor as Behn has depicted it, what options
were left to him at that point, even if Trefry had been able to transport him
back to Africa? How could he live in the "New World" he had discovered
he was a part of?
Behn's (1640-89) career
as a playwright was far more important to her contemporary reputation than her
occasional forays in to narrative prose, like
Oroonoko (1688). The book was published a year before she
died, and 18 years after she first began writing, producing, and publishing
plays. See her biographical note (2178-80) and think about her being able
to write "for bread" in the theater that the Restoration had brought back to
life ten years before. (She is a far
different sort of "author" than Halkett or Hutchinson, who wrote for manuscript
circulation!) In addition to her service as Charles I's secret agent in
Europe, she had very practical reasons for her royalist sympathies. On the
question of genre, however, there may be good reasons why she shifted from the
stage to prose narrative to tell Oroonoko's story. One simple one might be
financial--sale of the book to a bookseller provided ready cash and hopes to
sell a new edition, whereas the success of a stage play depended on the vagaries
of audience response, night by night. But her choice to narrate rather
than to dramatize also may indicate something in the matter, itself, that she
might have discovered while retelling the narrative to friends over 24 years.
Do you see passages in the narrative that might have been written for stage
acting, especially when compared with Jonson and Shakespeare? Do you see
passages that would have been almost impossible to dramatically recreate?
Pay special attention to the narrator's voice. It's one of Behn's most
supple, wiley, and effective creations. What does she want readers to
believe about the "I" of this narrative, and what does she attempt to conceal?
Behn's narrative also has had an important "afterlife" as an anti-slavery tract,
although its actual attitude toward enslavement, especially racially justified
enslavement, is far from clear. When Behn was writing, "human rights" as a
concept had not yet been invented. Indeed,
"the Rights of Man"
(pardon the sexist usage) had to wait more than a century to be coined as a term
in public discourse. John Locke's Two Tretises of Government,
which built on Hobbes' thinking to argue that governmental legitimacy depends on
consent of the governed, was published anonymously in the same year as
Oroonoko, and both might be considered in the context of the Glorious
Revolution of that year. James II (Halkett's "duke") over-reached his
exercise of government according to the doctrine of "divine right of kings" and
was exiled, to be replaced by William of Orange (Netherlands) and his wife,
James' Protestant daughter, Mary. How does Oroonoko represent
legitimate and illegitimate authority? Who has the right to rule, and what
are the limits of rule, in nations and other
- 1348-49 Plague strikes Europe
and England, starting in Genoa in 1348 and reaching the furthest counties of
England by 1349. It reduced the number of native peasant and serf (bound
to land) laborers, allowing peasants to demand higher pay for their labor to
plant and harvest crops, which resulted in an increased demand for slave labor.
- 1364 Florence allows unlimited slavery of all but Christians, followed soon after
by Venice and Genoa. Italian slaves are almost all "Caucasian," from
Russia, Anatolia, Thrace and the Balkans.
- 1453 Turkish troops conquer Constantinople (remember the scholars and libraries
which flood Westward, stimulating the Humanist movement?), cutting off the flow of
Caucasian slaves. European slave-holders turn to the peoples of the Sahara and
Sub-Saharan Africa for slaves, especially to support the developing Portuguese and Italian
- 1495 Spanish colonists enslave the inhabitants of the New World for large scale
plantation agriculture and mining.
- 1518 Explorer Bartolomeo de las Casas persuades Charles II to use African slaves
- 1624-1665 development of English sugar-producing colonies at St. Kitts, Barbados,
- 1672 Royal Africa Company established as a monopoly to control slave trade from
Africa to the Carribean, sugar trade from the Carribean to England, and rum trade to the
colonies (the "Triangular Trade").
- 1688 Aphra Behn's Oroonoko published.
- 1808 England abolishes the trans-Atlantic slave trade. After millions of
lives were destroyed, slavery,itself, is abolished in the British Empire (1838--the United
States did not do so until 1865).
9. By far the best source available in Goucher's
library is this collection of recent scholarship on Behn's work:
Also of interest, is this biographical study of Behn:
AUTHOR Todd, Janet M., 1942-
- TITLE Aphra Behn studies / edited by Janet Todd.
PUB. INFO. Cambridge ; New York :
Cambridge University Press, 1996.
DESCRIPT viii, 334 p. ; 24 cm.
BIBLIOG. Includes bibliographical references and index.
CONTENTS Sexual politics and party politics in Behn's drama, 1678-83 / Susan J. Owen --
Popish plots : The Feign'd Curtizans in context / Alison Shell -- Fiction feigning
femininity : false counts and pageant kings in Aphra Behn's Popish Plot writings / Ros
Ballaster -- More for seeing than hearing : Behn and the use of theatre / Dawn Lewcock --
The Rover and the eighteenth century / Jane Spencer -- Aphra Behn : poetry and masquerade
/ Paul Salzman -- For when the act is done and finish't cleane, what should the poet doe,
but shift the scene?' : propaganda, professionalism and Aphra Behn / Virginia Crompton --
Aphra Behn : the politics of translation / Elizabeth Spearing -- But to the touch were
soft' : pleasure, power, and impotence in Th disappointment' and The golden age' / Jessica
Munns -- Who is Silvia? What is she? Feminine identity in Aphra Behn's Love-letters
between a nobleman and his sister / Janet Todd -- Slave princes and lady monsters :
gender and ethnic difference in the work of Aphra Behn / Jacqueline Pearson -- Oroonoko's
blackness / Catherine Gallagher -- Confusing matters : searching the backgrounds of
Oroonoko / Joanna Lipking -- Private jottings, public utterances : Aphra Behn's
published writings and her commonplace book / Mary Ann O'Donnell -- New light on the
background and early life of Aphra Behn / Jane Jones.
LC SUBJ HDG Behn, Aphra, 1640-1689 -- Criticism and interpretation.
Women and literature -- England -- History -- 17th century.
x LOCATION CALL NO. STATUS x
x1 > Main Collection
826.4 B419S CHK THE SHELF
TITLE The secret life of Aphra Behn / Janet Todd.
PUB. INFO. London : Andre Deutsch, c1996.
DESCRIPT [x], 545 p.,  p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.
BIBLIOG. Includes bibliographical references and index.
LC SUBJ HDG Behn, Aphra, 1640-1689 -- Biography.
Authors, English -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- Biography.
x LOCATION CALL NO. STATUS x
x1 > Main Collection
826.4 B419St b
You also might want to explore Maureen Quilligan's essay on Behn and the trade in exotic
New World goods, a work collected in:
TITLE Subject and object in Renaissance culture / edited by Margreta de
Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass.
PUB. INFO. Cambridge [England] ; New York :
Cambridge University Press,
LOCATION CALL NO. STATUS x
For some additional topics that might produce final papers, especially
related to events in the second half of Oroonoko, click
Back to English 211,