(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Ernest A. Baker (essay date 1905)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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, 'an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin: and 'tis most evident and plain that simple nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and virtuous mistress. 'Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of man: religion would here but destroy that tranquillity they possess by ignorance; and laws would teach em to know offences of which now they have no notion. They once made mourning and fasting for the death of the English governor, who had given his hand to come on such a day to em, and neither came nor sent; believing when a man's word was past, nothing but death could or should prevent his keeping it: and when they saw he was not dead, they ask'd him what name they had for a man who promis'd a thing he did not do? The governor told them such a man was a lyar, which was a word of infamy to a gentleman. Then one of em replied, 'Governor, you are a lyar, and guilty of that infamy.'

It is said further on, 'Such ill morals are only practis'd in

Christian countries, where they prefer the bare name of religion; and, without virtue and morality, think that sufficient.'

Oroonoko is no savage, but the ideal man, as conceived by Mrs. Behn, the man out of Eden; and in him she has an absolute criterion by which to judge and condemn the object of her satire—European civilisation. His bravery, wisdom, chastity, his high sense of honour, are the idealisations of a sentimental young lady, carried away by her admiration for a truly heroic figure, and disgusted by the vicious manners of the colonists, whom she describes as 'rogues and runagades, that have abandoned their own countries for rapine, murder, theft and villainies.' 'Do you not hear,' says Oroonoko, 'how they upbraid each other with infamy of life, below the wildest savages? And shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left, to distinguish them from the vilest creatures?'

The story has the natural elements of drama. Southern wrote a very bad tragedy on the theme of Mrs. Behn's narrative, altering it slightly, and adding a great deal of foulness that is, happily, not in the original. Oroonoko loves the beautiful Imoinda, a maiden of his own race, not the child of a European who has adopted a savage life, as in Southern's play. But when they are on the brink of happiness, the old king, Oroonoko's grandfather, demands her for his harem. Imoinda acts the part of Abishag the Shunamite, and her lover that of Adonijah. The vengeful monarch discovers their attachment, and sells her into slavery. Oroonoko, soon afterwards, is kidnapped, and finds himself in Surinam, where Imoinda is already famous as the beautiful slave, as chaste as she is beautiful. They recognise each other...

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Ernest Bernbaum (essay date 1913)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Victoria Sackville-West (essay date 1927)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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H. A. Hargreaves (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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William C. Spengemann (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Beverle Houston (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Michael McKeon (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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


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Katharine M. Rogers (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Elaine Hobby (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

[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...

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Rose A. Zimbardo (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Catherine Gallagher (essay date 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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....

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David E. Hoegberg (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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"


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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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....

(The entire section is 607 words.)