Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688)

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."

Form: prose.  Behn's narrative sets up some nice issues for the literary analyst that might be useful for final paper topics.  Click here for short paragraphs on several of them.

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."  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 narrative.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. 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 classical literature?
    • 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 minds we 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 Polyphemus).

    • How does that shape Behn's description of the narrative's "villains"?
  2. 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 author worth?  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.
  3. 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 Amerindian peoples. 
  4. For another angle on her construction of the Amerindians, consider the publication date of Oroonoko 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 text!).
  5. Another way to read the 1688 publication date is to see Behn, the Royalist, writing in London at the time of the 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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 [2167].)
  8. 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? 
  9. 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?

  10. 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 human relationships?

  11. Reading Aphra Behn's Oroonoko 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?
  12. 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 oppressed.  For "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, The Pro-slavery 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-slaveholding 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).
  13. Slavery is neither "natural" nor inexplicable to social and economic historians.  It's a typical example of an "overdetermined" cultural phenomenon that happened because of a confluence of multiple causes, many of which might have been powerful enough on their own to bring it about.  That explains, in part, why abolition of the practice was so difficult.  Here are some events which resulted in the explosive growth of the slave trade between Africa, Europe and the New World.

    9.  By far the best source available in Goucher's library is this collection of recent scholarship on Behn's work:

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.
x1 > Main Collection 826.4 B419S CHK THE SHELF
Also of interest, is this biographical study of Behn:
AUTHOR Todd, Janet M., 1942-
TITLE The secret life of Aphra Behn / Janet Todd.
PUB. INFO. London : Andre Deutsch, c1996.
DESCRIPT [x], 545 p., [32] 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.
ISBN 0233989919.
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,

Main Collection
940.21 S941

For some additional topics that might produce final papers, especially related to events in the second half of Oroonoko, click here.

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.