Literature

Aphra Behn: Oroonoko

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor oroonoko
The school year has already started and one of my courses this semester is about British Literature of the long 18th century.
The first book that we had to read for this course was the book that I am writing a blogpost about today; Oroonoko by Aphra Behn. For those of you who do not know the story, here’s a short synopsis from Goodreads:
When Prince Oroonoko’s passion for the virtuous Imoinda arouses the jealousy of his grandfather, the lovers are cast into slavery and transported from Africa to the colony of Surinam. Oroonoko’s noble bearing soon wins the respect of his English captors, but his struggle for freedom brings about his destruction.

(source of the picture is wikipedia)

“Why Cindy?! Why would you want to devote an entire blogpost on a book that is only about 40 pages long in your Norton Anthology? What could possibly be so interesting about this thing?” You might wonder. Well, I wondered the same thing and then I had my tutorial. For some reason, this book caught my interest for a couple of reasons, and those reasons are actually what this post is going to be about.

Now, what will this post look like?:

  • First of all I will look at the writer: Aphra Behn. Who was she? What did she do for a living?
  • Secondly I want to look into the work itself. What genres does it contain? How can this work be seen as a basis for what later became the novel as we know it?
  • Thirdly I will talk about the contents of the book. How does the book treat themes of monarchy, slavery and gender relations?

These questions are based on the questions that were given to me in preparation of my tutorial. When I find a sources that I think is useful/fun to read I will add a link in the post, most of my information comes from the tutorial or additional findings.
I do not pretend to know everything. So if you find any mistakes in my work, do mention it to me so that I can adjust my error 🙂


 Aphra BehnPortrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

The woman who is depicted on the portrait here –>
is Aphra Behn. (Source: Luminarium.org). She was born in 164o and died in the year 1689.

There is little known for certain about her earlier years. What we do know is that she hadn’t been a playwriter and a novelist until her first play was performed (The Forced Marriage, 1670).
Before that time, she lived in Suriname, and she is known to have taken the name of a man who was considered to be her husband (source: poetryfoundation.org). Whether he was her husband or not is still a point of discussion. Behn is known to have been a royalist, and it is possible that she was employed by King Charles II as a spy around 1666, in Antwerp (Belgium). She wasn’t paid for her services to the King, and was imprisoned because of her debt. Once she was released, she began to write for a living. In his article Novels on the market, William B. Warner states that there was more than one reason by Behn started to write novels.

“Several factors led Aphra Behn to turn from writing plays to writing novels. With the intensification of the political turbulence around the issue of Protestant succession to the throne after 1683, Behn, as a dedicated party writer, found the theatre closed to her.” pages 87-88.
Warner also says the following about her writing:
Critics have suggested how Behn’s Love Letters, aswell as her most famous novel,
Oroonoko (1688), lend themselves to reading as a political allegory of the betrayal of a monarch by his people. But even Behn’s novels of amorous intrigue, which have no
overt political reference (The Fair Jilt, Agnes de Castro, The History of the Nun: or,
the Fair Vow-Breaker, all 1688)involve an ethos of power, rivalry and cunning consonant with the diplomatic and military manoeuvring of the early modern
state. p. 91.

Oroonoko

The book

This book is about diverse as can be. It contains multiple genres and was even a basis for the prose fiction and later novels. Prose fiction was still up and coming at the time. It was a new development and it was possible that her contemporaries wouldn’t accept this (especially not from a woman in a world that was dominated by men at the time). There is an abundance of different genres that are represented in the book, and surprisingly several of them draw on the medieval genres. There are characteristics of the medieval romance, biography/hagiography and maybe even a hint of epic. Then there are also traces of a travel narrative and lastly realism.

“I was myself an Eye-witness to a great Part of what you will find here set down; and what I could not be Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself, who gave us the whole Transactions of his Youth: And I shall omit, for Brevity’s Sake, a thousand little Accidents of his Life, which, however pleasant to us, where History was scarce, and Adventures very rare, yet might prove tedious and heavy to my Reader, in a World where he finds Diversions for every Minute, new and strange. But we who were perfectly charm’d with the Character of this great Man, were curious to gather every Circumstance of his Life. The Scene of the last Part of his Adventures lies in a Colony in America, called Surinam, in the West-Indies.” Oroonoko (First page after the introduction and letter to her Lord. Source: The Gutenberg Project)

I am showing this, because this fragment contains at least two apparent genres that are present in the book. The most apparent genre is the biography/hagiography. As is done with a hagiography, she will be telling about the history of Oroonoko, containing his life and suffering.
Also in this short fragment, it is noticeable that this book contains the genre of Realism. At the very start, the narrator already proclaims that she was an eyewitness to a great part of what she wrote down, claiming that the has known the man himself. In doing so, she sets a believable foundation for the rest of her book. Who would not believe a story that was told by an eyewitness, right? Throughout the text there will be moments of ‘truth’, were the narrator portrays a detailed image of the environment or certain event.

Other, perhaps less apparent, genres that appear in this excerpt are the medieval genres by referring to Oroonoko as a Hero. The travel narrative genre is ‘previewed’ as it were by the following “The Scene of the last Part of his Adventures lies in a Colony in America, called Surinam, in the West-Indies.

Well, Cindy, thanks for telling us the genres, but what makes this work a novel? Or at least the basis for the later novel? You might wonder. After some browsing, I found the Encyclopedia Britannica and that is where I found some more information about the novel.

Novel, an invented prose narrative of considerable length and a certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience, usually through a connected sequence of events involving a group of persons in a specific setting. Within its broad framework, the genre of the novel has encompassed an extensive range of types and styles: picaresque, epistolary, Gothic, romantic, realist, historical—to name only some of the more important ones. (Source: www.britannica.com)

I think that, considering the characteristics that are attributed to the novel in the fragment above, that it is safe to say that Oroonoko can definitely be defined as a novel.

The contents

In this excerpt there is no denying that this novel is mostly about the aristocracy, honour, loyalty, heroes and villains. This last part is about the contents of the book and will focus on how the themes of monarchy, slavery and gender relations are treated in Oroonoko.

Monarchy

The title alone gives enough information for the reader to know what to expect and what the book is about. Oroonoko is the son of a monarch, but not only that. Had he been described other than he was, there would have been a chance that the novel would not have been accepted. Take a look at the passages below, how is he described to the reader?:

“I have often seen and conversed with this Great Man, and been a Witness to many of his mighty Actions; and do assure my Reader, the most illustrious Courts could not have produced a braver Man, both for Greatness of Courage and Mind, a Judgment more solid, a Wit more quick, and a Conversation more sweet and diverting. He knew almost as much as if he had read much: He had heard of and admired the Romans: He had heard of the late Civil Wars in England, and the deplorable Death of our great Monarch; and would discourse of it with all the Sense and Abhorrence of the Injustice imaginable. He had an extreme good and graceful Mien, and all the Civility of a well-bred Great Man. He had nothing of Barbarity in his Nature, but in all Points address’d himself as if his Education had been in some European Court.” 135, gutenberg.com .

“This great and just Character of Oroonoko gave me an extreme Curiosity to see him, especially when I knew he spoke French and English, and that I could talk with him.”
“He came into the Room, and addressed himself to me, and some other Women, with the best Grace in the World. He was pretty tall, but of a Shape the most exact that can be fancy’d: The most famous Statuary could not form the Figure of a Man more admirably turn’d from Head to Foot. His Face was not of that brown rusty Black which most of that Nation are, but a perfect Ebony, or polished Jet. His Eyes were the most aweful that could be seen, and very piercing; the White of ’em being like Snow, as were his Teeth. His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat: His Mouth the finest shaped that could be seen.”
“The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so nobly and exactly form’d, that bating his Colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one Grace wanting, that bears the Standard of true Beauty. His Hair came down to his Shoulders, by the Aids of Art, which was by pulling it out with a Quill, and keeping it comb’d; of which he took particular Care. Nor did the Perfections of his Mind come short of those of his Person; for his Discourse was admirable upon almost any Subject.”
“and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their Errors, that all fine Wit is confined to the white Men, especially to those of Christendom; and would have confess’d that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince civiliz’d in the most refined Schools of Humanity and Learning, or the most illustrious Courts.” 136, gutenberg.com.

Oroonoko is described in these passages like a European man from court. Nothing about him is un-European and even Christians confess that Oroonoko was capable of reigning well. By portraying Oroonoko in this fashion, he became acceptable to read about since people were able to relate more to him, he was like a European after all.

However, even though this seems strange to us in our time, the image that is given here is quite progressive. Yes, he is made more European, but she is still not writing about one. Behn is writing about completely different people, putting them in a setting that is in the new world rather than Europe. (Later when discussing gender you will see that she is more controversial in that area).

Her royalist opinion is also out in the open in this sentence:

“He had heard of the late Civil Wars in England, and the deplorable Death of our great Monarch; and would discourse of it with all the Sense and Abhorrence of the Injustice imaginable.”

Later on in the story, Oroonoko is said to be worshipped as a king, even though he wasn’t one:

“and from a Veneration they pay to great Men, especially if they know ’em, and from the Surprize and Awe they had at the Sight of him, they all cast themselves at his Feet, crying out, in their Language, Live, O King! Long live, O King! and kissing his Feet, paid him even Divine Homage.” 170, gutenberg.com

Slavery

As one could expect from a book in this time period, slavery is not entirely condemned in this novel. Yes, I said entirely. The narrator distinguishes the acceptability of slavery by looking if the slaves were acquired in an honourable manner (through war), or if they were caught in another way. Were slaves acquired without honour, then slavery was not acceptable.

“For all they took in Battle were sold as Slaves; at least those common Men who could not ransom themselves.” 134, gutenberg.com

The men that the narrator talks about in the sentence above, were captivated after they had lost a battle. In her view, they were captured with honour. This is not just in her view, because the men who were captured by Oroonoko during several wars, were actually those who worked n the property in Suriname when he arrived, who even called him king.

When caught in a different way, using trickery or other methods, the narrator does condemn slavery. It is in this scene that Oroonoko is captured by the betraying captain of the ship where he was a guest:

“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. It may be easily guess’d, in what Manner the Prince resented this Indignity, who may be best resembled to a Lion taken in a Toil; so he raged, so he struggled for Liberty, but all in vain: And they had so wisely managed his Fetters, that he could not use a Hand in his Defence, to quit himself of a Life that would by no Means endure Slavery; nor could he move from the Place where he was ty’d, to any solid Part of the Ship, against which he might have beat his Head, and have finish’d  his Disgrace that Way. So that being deprived of all other Means, he resolv’d to perish for want of Food; and pleas’d at last with that Thought, and toil’d and tir’d by Rage and Indignation, he laid himself down, and sullenly resolv’d upon dying, and refused all Things that were brought him.” 163, gutenberg.com

Gender relations

This last point I want to divide into two different focus points. First the relation between Oroonoko and his mistress/wife/lover, and secondly the gender relation between authors at the time.

  1. Oroonoko and Imoinda.
    In this novel, the relationship between Oroonoko and Imoinda can be defined as conservative. However, this conservativeness gives another point where readers can relate to this couple. Imoinda behaves exactly like she should have been, had she been a European woman. She is also passive, and accepts everything that happens to her. Even in the end, when she dies rather than having to give birth to a child who would then become a slave as well, she accepts this. Oroonoko on the other hand, is actively pursuing her, wooing her from the start. Like her, he also acts in the appropriate manner after he loses her to his king, or believes her dead, he becomes melancholy, sighs and weeps (crying was a manly thing apparently).
  2. Authors
    In a world that was dominated by men, it was difficult for a woman to be considered a good writer of literature. This lack in equality is most obvious in the last sentence of the novel:

    “Thus died this great Man, worthy of a better Fate, and a more sublime Wit than mine to write his Praise: Yet, I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to make his glorious Name to survive to all Ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful and the constant Imoinda.”

    Behn/the narrator can only hope that her reputation is good enough to make her work last for a long time.

I never thought that I would actually come to appreciate this book. I mean storywise it’s not that interesting, but after looking into the history and the story itself, it simply got to me. Yes, some aspects are now to be seen as controversial, but in her time Aphra Behn was a most magnificent woman! She made a living in a world that was ruled by patriarchy and she stayed true to herself. And she did it! She lasted and her work survived centuries against so many odds.

I do hope that you have enjoyed this blogpost about Oroonoko. Have you read Oroonoko? If yes, what did you think of the novel? If no, do you ever want to read it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below 😀 (And remember, I don’t pretend to know everything, so if you’ve found a flaw in my work you only have to contact me so that I can adjust my error :))


Even though my post has come to an end, I have another link for you. This link redirects you to an article Oddvar Holmesland and it is called: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Cultural Dialectics and the Novel. It’s quite interesting, so if you want to spend some more time on this novel, you can simply click the link.

 

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4 thoughts on “Aphra Behn: Oroonoko

  1. You sure turned this into a very fascinating post my dear! Well done!! And I had only ever vaguely heard of Oroonoko but never this detailed obviously ;). I’m definitely intrigued to read the book now (40 pages, heeeuj 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

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