Behn, Aphra: Oroonoko
Aphra Behn: Oroonoko 1640?–1689
(Pseudonym of Aphra Johnson or Aphra Amis; also Aphara, Ayfara, and Afray; also wrote under pseudonyms of Astrea and Astraea.) English novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, and translator.
The following entry presents criticism of Behn's novel Oroonoko (1688). See also Aphra Behn Poetry Criticism.
Oroonoko is Behn's best known work and critics consider it her best book—the novel which earns her a place among the most noted writers in English literature. The book is set in Surinam and chronicles the struggles and ultimate destruction of the title character, an African slave. Oroonoko represents the ideal man and is often regarded as the first "noble savage" character in English literature. Through her work in Oroonoko Behn is credited with adding realism to the novel genre and advancing its development.
Behn is believed to have been the first woman to earn her living as an author. After the death of her husband, Behn was engaged by Charles II to spy on disaffected British citizens in Antwerp, Holland. She returned to England destitute and spent time in a debtor's prison. Looking for a means of making a living, Behn turned to writing, primarily plays. She soon developed a reputation for writing material as bawdy as that of her male counterparts. As a supporter of the Tories, Behn was prohibited to write for the stage from 1682 until 1688. During this period she wrote Oroonoko, which critics have considered far superior to her plays. Behn claimed that the book resulted from events which she experienced as a young woman in Surinam. According to Behn, her father was appointed to a junior position in the colonial government but while en route with his family to the colony he died. The family spent several months in Surinam before boarding a returning vessel. Behn filled her novel with remarkably detailed and realistic descriptions of the area, the people, and colonial life, supposedly based on her first-hand observations. However, at the turn of the century scholars refuted Behn's claim, arguing that she had never been to Surinam and that she based her novel on secondary sources. Despite these factual uncertainties, it is apparent that the novel reflects Behn's social and political philosophies, especially her pro-Royalist stance. She died in 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Plot and Major Characters
Oroonoko is the tale of an African prince, himself engaged in the slave trade, until he is captured and sold into slavery in Surinam. When his West Indian lover, Imoinda, becomes pregnant, Oroonoko cannot face the idea of his child being born into slavery and he escapes. The eponymous protagonist is often considered the first example in English fiction of the "noble savage." Deriving from the philosophical ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this concept supposes that members of preliterate and so-called primitive cultures exist in a state of grace and possess innate virtue. The novel juxtaposes Oroonoko's views and concept of honor with those of the colonists who ultimately betray and kill him.
Although Behn has attracted much critical attention as an early and very popular woman writer, critics have focused almost exclusively on Oroonoko, especially noting its realistic tone, unprecidented for romantic fiction in Behn's age. Myra Reyonlds has written: "At a time when French heroic romances, with their high-flown adventures, unreal characters, and stilted dialogue, were the only works of fiction, Mrs. Behn's short, simple, vigorous, and affecting story of real life comes with a startling sense of novelty." Until the twentieth century it was assumed that this realism sprung from Behn's personal experiences; however, in 1913 Ernest Bernboun argued that Behn had never been to Surinam and that the novel was based on secondary sources. The debate over its varacity continues in the late twentieth century. In 1988 Katherine Rogers placed the argument in new light, writing that Behn's true accomplishment was "imaginative creation building on a foundation of fact, which probably included personal experience." Recent scholarship has also revised the earlier assumption that Oroonoko is one of the first anti-slavery novels. Anita Pacheco has argued that the significance of the protagonist is not that he is a slave, but rather that he is a prince. Other critics agree that the book must be viewed as a political defence of pro-Royalist sentiment in Restoration England.
SOURCE: Introduction, in The Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn, George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1905, pp. vii–xxi.
[In the excerpt below, Baker argues that Oroonoko represents the ideal man, and that through her novel Behn condemns European civilization.]
It was the truth and power with which she recounted what she had herself witnessed in Surinam that has singled out for permanence the best of her novels, the story of the royal slave, Oroonoko. We need not give ear to the whispers of a liaison with the heroic black. A very different emotion inspires the tale, the same feeling of outraged humanity that in after days inflamed Mrs. Stowe. Oroonoko is the first emancipation novel. It is also the first glorification of the Natural Man. Mrs. Behn was, in a manner, the precursor of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre; and in her attempts to depict the splendour of tropical scenery she foreshadows, though feebly, the prose-epics of Chateaubriand. There is fierce satire in Oroonoko. Who would think that Astrea, who entertained the depraved pit at the Duke's Theatre, could have drawn those idyllic pictures of Oroonoko in his native Coromantien, of the truth and purity of the savage uncontaminated with the vices of Christian Europe, or have written such vehement invectives against the baseness and utter falsehood of the whites?
'These people represented to me,' she said,...
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SOURCE: "Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko" in Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge, Ginn and Company Publishers, 1913, pp. 419–34.
[In the essay below, Bernbaum addresses the question of realism in Oroonoko, concluding that much of Behn's material came from secondhand sources.]
Historians of the novel assign to Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko a place of distinct importance in the development of realism. They concede that those parts of the narrative which recount the adventures of Oroonoko in Coramantien are full of romance, but maintain that his subsequent slavery in Surinam, his reunion with his bride Imoinda, his insurrection, and his violent death, are on the whole delineated with fidelity to fact. "Imagination," says Professor Canby, "colored the heroic life of the slave as well as the romantic intrigue of the negro prince," but only, it seems, in a few negligible respects; the rest is considered "truthful, touching, and vivid."1 If we ask why Mrs. Behn writes romantically about Coramantien, and realistically about Surinam, we are reminded that she had visited the latter country but not the former. "The localities considered in the second part of the story," explains Professor Siegel in his monograph on Mrs. Behn, "she knows from her own observation; in the events she has to some extent participated; her description is consequently far more credible and...
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SOURCE: Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea, Gerald Howe Ltd., 1927, p. 92.
[In the excerpt below, Sackville-West argues that Behn limited herself to exotic subjects instead of depicting life in her native Britain.]
Some concluding estimate of Mrs Behn's work [is] inevitable…. Her work has been kept subordinate to her life and to her personality, yet neither life nor personality can be of much interest save in relation to her accomplishment. That she went to Surinam, and cut a figure as a wit in London, is very well, but what has she left behind her that is of any real value? That she opened the way for women as writers, is her principal claim on our gratitude, but still we ask what quality besides courage entitles her to a place in English literature? And instead of extolling her gifts in the management of the comedy of intrigue, we shall do much better to avow frankly that Mrs Behn, given her natural talent, prodigally wasted her opportunities.
For the pity is that Mrs Behn, as a novelist, thought her London experiences beneath the dignity of her pen. She had been granted that gift of God, a free, rapid, and colloquial style, and she neglected to turn it to its best advantage. She trifled with French and Spanish authors, she who might have had honest speech with her countrymen. Of what use to us are these Isabellas, Belvideeras, Rinaldos, and Gonzagos? They get into cupboards, they...
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SOURCE: "New Evidence of the Realism of Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko," in Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Vol. 74, January-December, 1970, pp. 437–44.
[In the following essay, Hargreaves addresses the question of Behn's claims of travel to Surinam, arguing that new evidence suggests she did travel there.]
In 1688 Mrs Aphra Behn, England's first professional woman writer, published a prose tale entitled Oroonoko, or, The Royal Slave. Her use of first-person narration provided an immediacy and verisimilitude which captured the fancy of the reading public, and the work has remained in print through centuries to the present day. It was a superior piece of writing, and scholars and critics eventually assigned it a position of importance as an early example of the use of realism in the developing forms of prose fiction. Realism has been defined in several ways, but in this case it is clear that much of the realistic effect was gained by Mrs Behn's claim, in many places through the piece, to have been eye-witness to events which she related. At one point, for example, she stated:
My stay was to be short in that Country; because my Father dy'd at Sea, and never arriv'd to possess the Honour design'd him (which was Lieutenant General of six-and-thirty Islands, besides the Continent of Surinam) nor the advantages he hop'd to reap by them; So that though we were...
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SOURCE: "The Earliest American Novel: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 38, No. 4, March, 1984, pp. 384–414.
[In the following excerpt, Spengemann argues that Behn's efforts to create a novel popular with the public resulted in a noteworthy and remarkable work.]
Reading Oroonoko, as we necessarily do, in the light of all the prose fiction produced over the last three centuries, we tend automatically to think of Behn's work as a novel and then, with Clarissa and Moby-Dick and Ulysses in mind, to dismiss it as a very imperfect example of the genre. Although perhaps unavoidable, this ahistorical view begs its own question: why should we so readily attach the name "novel" to a work written at a time when the various things we understand by that word—the form itself, the world it describes, its peculiar language, the readership to whom it speaks—did not yet exist, were only in the process, so to speak, of being invented? When, "never rest[ing] my Pen a Moment for Thought," Behn composed her history of the Royal Slave, she was not trying to write a novel and failing. As one of the newly emerging class of professional writers created by the decline of aristocratic patronage after the Civil War and the rise of a new audience of book buyers, she was simply trying to earn a living by composing, from the literary materials available to her, a story...
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SOURCE: "Usurpation and Dismemberment: Oedipal Tyranny in Oroonoko" in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, 1986, pp. 30–6.
[In the following essay, Houston discusses the construction of the text and some thematic contradictions inherent within Oroonoko.]
May we assume for the duration of this paper that texts are produced by a collaboration of the conscious, the unconscious, other texts, and the institutions that shape individual life. Perhaps we may also say that literary texts come into existence as verbal representations of ideas and images that are not fully accessible to consciousness. Thus texts will reveal, not only fully accessible material whose imaginative or fantastic nature has been mediated by generic conventions, rules of grammar and discourse, and secondary revision in a number of forms. These texts will also display traces of material that has barely sneaked by the censor, that by devious methods has insinuated itself into our perception, that signals its partiality by the peculiar characteristics of contradiction, reversal, doubling, and other a-rational techniques of representation.
A focus on this kind of work in the construction of imaginative texts seems to me particularly appropriate to Oroonoko for two reasons: the text is marked by extraordinary excess and by systematic contradictions, both of which emphasize the power of the unconscious...
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SOURCE: "Histories of the Individual," in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 90–128.
[In the following excerpt, McKeon explores the issue of authenticity in Oroonoko, arguing that Behn idolizes Surinam.]
No mode of discourse is more likely to avail itself of the "strange, therefore true" paradox than the travel narrative, one of whose cardinal conventions is to expect the unexpected.47 And many of the travel narratives of this period have recourse to this most daring, and most dangerous, claim to historicity. Vairasse d'Allais has his publisher remark that
the Histories of Peru, Mexico, China, &c. were at first taken for Romances by many, but time has shewed since that they are verities not to be doubted of.
It is an idle humour in any of us to despise or reject strange Discoveries … If any thing is here related of this Country or People seemingly beyond all possibility, we must know, that as this People have the advantage of living in the earthly Paradise, they have knowledges of Nature and natural Effects, which look like Miracles.
As this argument implies, the relativizing effects of travel need not lead us to conclude that nature itself is relative to climate and custom. On the contrary (as another writer suggests),...
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SOURCE: "Fact and Fiction in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko" in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 1–15.
[In the essay below, Rogers argues that Oroonoko is a creative treatment of facts derived from Behn's personal experiences.]
In 1913 Ernest Bernbaum gleefully exposed borrowings and inaccuracies in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko so as to show that Behn could not have been an eyewitness to the events, as her first-person narrator claimed.1 In accordance with the general tendency of male-dominated criticism at the time to sneer at pioneering women writers, he presented this as evidence of personal untruthfulness in the author. In reaction, Behn's two recent feminist biographers, Maureen Duffy (1977) and Angeline Goreau (1980), have accepted the tale as reliable autobiography. Both interpretations are too extreme, and both distract from Behn's actual artistic achievement: imaginative creation building on a foundation of fact, which probably included personal experience. This was, of course, no more dishonest in her than was Daniel Defoe's development of the real adventures of Alexander Selkirk into the fictionalized ones of Robinson Crusoe. The factual elements in Behn's romantic story are her use of a narrator much like herself and a wealth of local color detail from both Surinam and Africa.
Behn's first-person narrator claims that she went to...
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[In the following excerpt, Hobby analyzes Behn's portrayal of women in her writings.]
SOURCE: "Romantic Love-Prose Fiction," in Virtue of Necessity: English Women's Writing, 1646–1688, Virago Press Limited, 1988, pp. 85–101.
… Aphra Behn's stories map out a world of female possibilities and limits: a bleak world, since the options open to her heroines are shown to be few indeed.24 It is rescued from despair only by the sparkling courage and daring of her women protagonists, who with great determination negotiate their way through a universe where men have all the power.
Her most well-known story, Oroonoko, sits uneasily in my account of female romance in other respects, but it nonetheless exhibits some central features of the genre. The tale's two main protagonists are startlingly beautiful, and they maintain an undying love despite opposition from a tyrannical parent. The heroine's bravery in battle and her subjection to the ever-present threat of rape also bear the hallmarks of Behn's special vision of femininity. Nonetheless, my attempt to reduce the novel to such factors distorts it. Its central characters, Oroonoko and Imoinda, are Black slaves, and Behn's presentation of a slave rebellion and white racism introduces a further set of issues which cannot be fitted into my argument. Both I and others need to rethink our work on white women's writing to take...
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SOURCE: "Aphra Behn in Search of the Novel," in Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, Vol. 19, 1989, pp. 277–87.
[In the following essay, Zimbardo argues that Behn's skill in using established as well as newly developing styles of discourse is evident in Oroonoko.]
In his brilliant book, The Discourse of Modernism, Timothy J. Reiss traces the development in Western discourse from what he calls "the discourse of patterning" to "analytico-referential discourse," the discourse of modernism that was born in the seventeenth century: "a passage from what we might call a discursive exchange within the world to the expressions of knowledge as reasoning practice upon the world."1 A work of art rendered in the older "discourse of patterning" is what Paul de Man calls a "calligraphy" of emblems "rather than a mimesis."2 That is to say, within the older system of discourse a work of art is the organization of a pattern of emblematic figures or abstract concepts "whose function is 'to guarantee ideal convertibility between the celestial and the terrestrial … the universal and the individual … nature and history.'"3 This is the process that I described elsewhere as the "Imitation of Idea" which obtained in English dramatic art in the decades of the 1660s and early 1670s.4
The newer "analytico-referential discourse" creates distance...
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SOURCE: "The Author-Monarch and the Royal Slave: Oroonoko and the Blackness of Representation," in Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820, University of California Press, 1994, pp. 49–87.
[In the excerpt below, Gallagher discusses the meaning of blackness in relation to European society in Oroonoko.]
Behn's narrators, to be sure, are not the faceless, third-person, omniscient storytellers invented by later generations of writers. In accordance with the conventions of the seventeenth century, almost all of them intermittently use the first person, especially to explain how they came by their knowledge of the story. In the very process of explaining themselves, however, the narrators often become mysterious. The following passage from Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister is typical of these first-person statements: "I have heard her page say, from whom I have had a great part of the truths of her life, that he never saw Sylvia in so pleasant a humour all his life before, nor seemed so well pleased, which gave him, her lover [the page], a jealousy that perplexed him above any thing he had ever felt from love; though he durst not own it."22 At first glance, the passage seems to reveal the narrator; however, it actually serves to obscure her.23 Her information comes from servants, who, moreover, like the page...
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SOURCE: "Caesar's Toils: Allusion and Rebellion in Oroonoko," in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 7, No. 3, April, 1995, pp. 239–58.
[In the essay below, Hoegberg explores the idea of power struggle in Oroonoko, noting Behn's allusions to Achilles and Julius Caesar.]
But those who came prepared for the business enclosed him on every side, with their naked daggers in their hands. Which way soever he turned he met with blows, and saw their swords levelled at his face and eyes, and was encompassed, like a wild beast in the toils, on every side.1
Plutarch's "Life of Caesar"
Included in the new sixth edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko has passed a literary milestone, raising anew the question of how it fits into and plays against the literary "canon" it is more and more coming to inhabit. While Oroonoko's literary indebtedness has often been noticed, critics have seldom examined how specific literary allusions contribute to the novel's structure and meaning.2 Citing English heroic drama and French romance as immediate precursors of Behn's work, they view her either as slavishly derivative or as holding a politically conservative ideology.3 One view produces a picture of Behn as a marginally competent artist following older...
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Baker, Ernest A. "Mrs. Behn and Some English Anti-Romances." In The History of the English Novel, Volume III: The Later Romances and the Establishment of Realism, pp. 79–106. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1950.
Provides an overview of Behn's career and argues that Oroonoko "has made a … mark on literary history by virtue of the humanitarian feeling that pervades it."
Ballaster, Ros. "New Hystericism: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: The Body, the Text, and the Feminist Critic." In New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts, edited by Isobel Armstrong, pp. 283–95. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
Argues that the literary criticism of Oroonoko has shaped contemporary feminist criticism.
Chikba, Robert L. "'Oh! Do Not Fear a Woman's Invention': Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30, No. 4 (Winter 1988): 510–37.
Argues that the question of validity in Oroonoko blurs its significance as fiction depicting ideology.
Duffy, Maureen. "Oroonoko." In The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640–89, pp. 269–83. London: Methuen, 1989.
Discusses the political...
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