Oroonoko Summary

Oroonoko is a novel by Aphra Behn in which Prince Oroonoko of Coramentien becomes a slave in a British colony and leads an unsuccessful revolt.

  • Oroonoko's grandfather, the elderly king, wants to marry Oroonoko's wife, Imoinda. When she refuses to denounce Oroonoko, the king sells her into slavery.
  • The captain of a slave ship tricks Oroonoko and his army into boarding the vessel. Oroonoko is taken to the British colony of Suriname and sold into slavery.
  • Oroonoko and Imoinda are reunited in Suriname.
  • Oroonoko leads an unsuccessful slave revolt. In despair, he kills Imoinda and unsuccessfully attempts suicide. He is then executed.

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743

Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, a True History, Behn’s most significant novel, resembles The Fair Jilt in that she attempts to achieve verisimilitude by first-person commentary and an abundance of concrete detail. She asserts at the outset that the story is factual and claims to have known the characters and witnessed much of the action. She injects numerous details to enhance the realism, foreshadowing the narrative technique of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. She describes, for example, South American creatures such as the armadillo and the anaconda, and her account of the indigenous tribes idealizes their primitive and simple lives in the wilderness.

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The narrative has two distinct parts. The first, set in the African country Coramantien, introduces the young prince Oroonoko, grandson of the country’s aged king. Oroonoko is a Restoration love-and-honor hero, capable of intense passions. In love, Oroonoko knows no half measures, for Behn embraces the assumption of heroic love that great love implies a great soul. A man of natural nobility, he is not a primitive, but a well-educated, charismatic youth who can read Latin and French and speak English. He achieves rapport with all types of people, including the natives of the New World.

Trouble in his native land begins when he falls in love with Imoinda, the beautiful daughter of a general who has sacrificed his own life in battle to save Oroonoko’s. After Oroonoko has secretly married Imoinda, his aged grandfather, king of Coramantien, decides to make her his wife and summons her to the palace. Deprived of his wife for months, Oroonoko conspires with friends at court to arrange a clandestine meeting. When the king discovers this, he decides to sell Imoinda into slavery because of the betrayal and tells Oroonoko that she has been put to death. The king refrains from taking action against Oroonoko because he is too powerful and too valuable.

Oroonoko, reminiscent of Achilles, withdraws from his role of military leader, depressed over his loss, until an attacking force endangers the country. He throws himself into the conflict and leads the king’s forces to victory. Shortly thereafter, he is enslaved by a treacherous English captain, who lures him and his companions aboard a slave ship under pretext of holding a celebration. During the voyage across the Atlantic, the captain shows himself capable of other treachery and duplicity.

Oroonoko is sent to the English colony Surinam and assigned to a plantation supervised by Trefry, an educated Englishman. When he reaches the plantation, Oroonoko discovers to his amazed delight that Imoinda is living on the same plantation. The two are reunited and live in happiness together for a time. When Oroonoko learns that Imoinda will bear his child, he decides not to permit the child to be born into bondage. A natural leader, he persuades other slaves and their families to flee with him by night into the jungle. A militia pursues and either captures or kills most of the unarmed slaves. Last to be captured are Oroonoko and Imoinda. Their captors vacillate about their punishment. Trefry is inclined to be merciful, but Byam, a cruel master, is unforgiving and punitive. When Oroonoko realizes that he will have to endure further punishment, he kills Imoinda and afterward is captured in a paroxysm of grief. He recovers from his own attempted suicide and stoically endures slow death by dismemberment at the hands of his captors.

Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, a True History remains significant in the development of the novel for its narrator persona and for its use of concrete details to enhance realism. The narrator assures the reader that all the account is true and claims periodically to have encountered Oroonoko personally at specified points in the action. The abundant details are highly specific, though sometimes inaccurate, as when Behn attributes a length of thirty-six yards to an anaconda or describes tigers in Surinam.

Thematically the work touches on values that are typical of Behn’s fiction, including the right of women to select their spouses, opposition to slavery, and condemnation of the slave trade. The work also includes a celebration of the primitive, though this celebration is qualified. The indigenous people of Surinam are admirably adjusted to life in their environment, but they are not so adaptable as the highly educated protagonist. Above all, the novel is an account of the hero who upholds the ideals of civilization among Europeans who are, for the most part, evil.

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