Ernest A. Baker (essay date 1905)

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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...

(This entire section contains 1750 words.)

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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 in a touching scene, and are suffered to be re-united. Oroonoko distinguishes himself by his virtue and prowess. But he quickly finds that his tyrants promise freedom to himself and Imoinda merely to delude them into good behaviour. He flies into the wilderness at the head of a body of slaves. The planters follow, the blacks fling down their arms, and Oroonoko surrenders on the assurance that they shall not be chastised. The white governor is a scoundrel. The magnanimous negro is put in irons and tortured. Imoinda is set apart for a worse fate. But she prefers to die at his beloved hands, rather than bear dishonour. Oroonoko, with Roman fortitude, slays his wife, and with the stoicism of the Indian smokes a pipe of tobacco while his captors execute him piecemeal.

The Fair Jilt; or, the Amours of Prince Tarquin and Miranda, also purports to be a recital of incidents As trea herself had witnessed. 'As Love,' it begins, 'is the most noble and divine passion of the soul, so it is that to which we may justly attribute all the real satisfactions of life; and without it man is unfinish'd and unhappy.' She hardly succeeds in proving the divinity of the passion she portrays. Miranda is only a false name for a Beguine at Antwerp, who had many lovers; Tarquin is the real name of a German prince, the most illustrious of her votaries. It is the story of a fair hypocrite, whose beauty drives men mad. Miranda, whose raging fever of desire reminds one of Phaedra, being repulsed by a handsome young friar, falls back on the device of Potiphar's wife, to secure revenge. This episode is full of force and vigour; but Tarquin's subjugation to the enchantress, his complaisant obedience to her criminal schemes, which is offered for our admiration as an example of the illimitable power of love, does not strike us so. Passion, Mrs. Behn maintains, condones everything. There is nothing too heinous, too flagitious, to attain a sort of dignity if done in the cause of love. Tarquin attempts to assassinate the Fair Jilt's sister, and is deservedly condemned to death. The novelist depicts him as a martyr, and has a tear to spare even for the more culpable Miranda.

At last the bell toll'd, and he was to take leave of the princess, as his last work of life, and the most hard he had to accomplish. He threw himself at her feet, and gazing on her as she sat more dead than alive, overwhelm'd with silent grief, they both remained some moments speechless; and then, as if one rising tide of tears had supplied both their eyes, it burst out in tears at the same instant: and when his sighs gave way, he utter'd a thousand farewells, so soft, so passionate, and moving, that all who were by were extremely touch'd with it, and said, 'That nothing could be seen more deplorable and melancholy.'

All that can be said in comment is, that there have been novelists since Mrs. Behn who have written stuff that is quite as false, lurid, and depraved, and readers who have gushed over it. Only the sinners begotten of later romancers do not sin with such abandon. Astrea has never lacked successors, though the cut of her mantle has been altered to suit the changes of the mode.

The omnipotence of love is again the theme in another 'true novel,' The Nun; or, the Perjured Beauty, in which a similar heroine is also the villain of the plot. Astrea frankly accepted Charles the Second's well-known opinion as to the frailty of woman. 'Virtue,' she makes one of her characters say, 'is but a name kept from scandal, which the most base of women best preserve.' But Ardelia does not even trouble about appearances. She is one of those passionate, insatiable, capricious women who play a leading rôle in every one of Astrea's comedies, and are always drawn with energy and truth because their author's heart was in them. The plot is worked out with great ingenuity in this story, and also in a later one, The Lucky Mistake, in which the reader is kept in the titillations of suspense to the final page. In the last-named, also, there is some attempt at character-drawing.

Oroonoko was not the only novel in which Mrs. Behn tried to portray ideal feelings and elevated morality. Agnes de Castro is a sweet, sentimental tragedy, which at least has the merit of being free from errors of taste. Agnes is maid-of-honour to Donna Constantia, wife of the Prince of Portugal, and has the misfortune to be loved by her mistress's husband. But there is no foul intrigue in the story. Don Pedro struggles honourably against his passion: 'his fault was not voluntary': … 'a commanding power, a fatal star, had forc'd him to love in spite of himself.' The Princess is so high-minded—after the seventeenth-century pattern of high-mindedness—that she admits his innocence 'I have no reproaches to make against you, knowing that 'tis inclination that disposes hearts, and not reason.' Her complaisance goes so far that she even conjures Agnes not to deprive him of her society, since it is necessary to his happiness. But the truce is brought to a fatal ending by the malice of an envious woman, who persuades Constantia that the lovers are guilty, and so breaks her heart. The novel is painfully stilted, and reads like the discarded sketch for a tragedy, which had been worked up to suit another style.

It must be confessed that, apart from Oroonoko, Mrs. Behn's fiction is of very little importance in the history of our literature. Her best work was put into her comedies, which contain, not only much diversion, but also strong, and perhaps too highly coloured, pictures of the manners and morals of the pleasure-seekers of her time, in all classes. Unfortunately, it would be difficult indeed to compile even a book of elegant extracts that would give the modern reader any adequate idea of their merits, without either emasculating them altogether or nauseating him with their coarseness.


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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 Bernbaum (essay date 1913)

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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 probable than in the first part."2 And Mr. E. A. Baker, editor of Mrs. Behn's stories, concludes: "It was the truth and power with which she recounted what she herself had witnessed in Surinam that has singled out for permanence the best of her novels."3

If, remembering these opinions, we read Oroonoko itself, we come now and then upon incidents that surprise us. Mrs. Behn tells us of a monstrous tiger which had long infested Surinam, and had been repeatedly shot quite through the body, but without effect until the mighty hunter Oroonoko slew it; and "when the heart of this courageous animal was taken out, there were seven bullets of lead in it, the wound seamed up with great scars, and she lived with the bullets a great while, for it was long since they were shot."4 Elsewhere she writes: "Sometimes we [four women and two men] would go surprising, and in search of young tigers in their dens, watching when the old ones went forth to forage for prey; and oftentimes we have been in great danger, and have fled apace for our lives, when surprised by the dams."5 Those who know anything of the dreaded jaguar of South America can hardly believe that such visits of a pleasant afternoon were ever regarded by the colonists as suitable diversions for ladies and gentlemen.

Mrs. Behn's sensational description of her hero's attempted suicide likewise gives us pause. We are told that Oroonoko, after remaining beside the dead body of Imoinda, in agony of spirit and without food, for eight days, roused himself on the approach of his pursuers, defiantly "cut a piece of flesh from his own throat and threw it at them," "ripped up his own belly, and took his bowels and pulled them out," and still had strength enough to drive his knife into the heart of an onrushing opponent. Yet Oroonoko did not die. His captors carried him a long distance to the plantation, "laid him on a couch, and had the chirurgeon immediately to him, who dressed his wounds, and sewed up his belly, and used means to bring him to life, which they effected." "In six or seven days he recovered his senses; for you must know that wounds are almost to a miracle cured in the Indies, unless wounds in the legs, which they rarely ever cure."6 In such instances we may surely suspect that Mrs. Behn is more desirous of magnifying the strength and bravery of her hero than of narrating experiences veraciously. The exaggeration or improbability we see in them is, however, insufficient to destroy, though it may impair, her reputation as a realist. In fact, incredible as seems the recovery of Oroonoko from such frightful wounds, we cannot disprove its possibility. Though similar cases are rare, medical literature records a sufficient number to compel reluctant belief.7 At any rate, the dubious episodes which I have pointed out do not seem to have disconcerted the admirers of Mrs. Behn, and were presumably dismissed from their minds as inconsiderable deviations from the truth. They remark upon the significance of her calling Oroonoko, not a novel or tale, but a "history," and of her opening it with these words:

I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure; nor, in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him: and it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues; there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention. 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 received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself.8

This statement of her intention is generally accepted as sincere. Oroonoko's history, says Professor Canby, "I can only believe after many readings, she wished to set forth with a reasonable degree of truth." The resulting vividness of her story he graphically describes as follows:

The recital of Oroonoko's slavery is too circumstantial to be suspected, before Defoe, of being fictitious. His fortitude, his high spirit, the revolt which he inspired, the brutal tortures he suffered, his fidelity to Imoinda, whom he finds a fellow slave, all bear the print of truth as well as the increase of a romantic fancy. His death is told not only with Flaubertian realism but with the passion of one seeking to expose unjust officials who had been cruel to a friend. Furthermore, it is a real South America, with gorgeous vegetation, Indian villages most anthropologically described, armadilloes, and even electric eels, with a "quality so cold" that the catcher's arm is benumbed. I have seen many early "voyages" to the "other world," as Aphra always calls it, whose descriptions are less specific than the setting of this story.9

The historical bearing of the realistic purpose and character of Oroonoko has not been overlooked. Our attention is called to the fact that when the work appeared, in 1688, romance was the predominant form of fiction. "Of the highest importance for the substance of narrative literature," says Professor Siegel, "is the appearance of Mrs. Behn; for the first time after a long interval, actuality is again emphasized."10 "For making use of incidents of real life in the service of fiction at a time when the heroic romance was at the height of its vogue," says Professor Raleigh, "she deserves all credit."11 These remarks indicate that if there is an error in the commonly accepted doctrine, it affects not merely our understanding of Oroonoko, but complicates one of the most puzzling and important problems of modern English scholarship—namely, the true origin of the realistic novel.

The nature of the foundation on which the prevailing doctrine rests may be revealed by asking some pertinent questions. Were the political and social conditions of Surinam, at the time when these events are supposed to have occurred, such as to render them possible? Can Mrs. Behn's descriptions of the countryside, the climate, the colonists, the slaves, and the natives, be shown to correspond to reality? Surely, until we have satisfactory answers on such points, we do not know the real character of the story. Yet, astonishing as it may seem, these questions, so far from having been answered, have hardly been raised. Mrs. Behn's assurance that she is faithfully recording fact is, as to the principal part of her story, passively accepted even though she is known to be romancing in other parts. Because the narrative is vivid, it is believed true. The fact that an imaginary experience may be as vividly told as an actual one, is ignored. In other words, what in this case passes as literary history rests on the author's assertion and on impressions produced by her artistic power.

Possibly the reason why no real effort has been made to discover whether Oroonoko is based upon actual observation may lie in the fact that there are unusual obstacles to such an inquiry. To determine what the appearance and condition of a small tropical colony really were two hundred and fifty years ago, is in no case easy; and respecting Surinam the ordinary difficulties are magnified. In 1667 it was surrendered by the English to the Dutch; and consequently the English historians neglect the colony because it did not remain British, while the Dutch say little or nothing concerning its history before the time of their possession. Nevertheless, oblivion has not wholly obscured the character of the environment in which Oroonoko dwelt.

Though Mrs. Behn does not mention the date of Oroonoko's sojourn in Surinam, she chances to provide us with information that enables us to calculate it. "Immediately after his time," she says, the Dutch took the colony12—an event which occurred in March, 1667. Furthermore, she tells us that Oroonoko, because of the outrageous injustice of his enslavement, was promised his liberty as soon as the Lord Governor of Surinam, "who was every day expected," should revisit the colony.13 The Lord Governor referred to must have been Francis Lord Willoughby of Parham, a distinguished administrator of several British dependencies in the West Indies, whose headquarters were in Barbadoes. He came to Surinam rarely, his last visit extending from about November, 1664, to May, 1665.14 In July, 1666, he was lost at sea. These data serve to place the action of Oroonoko in the latter part of 1665 and the earlier part of 1666. It may be added that several allusions, in the course of the story, to the lapse of time make it evident that between the arrival of Oroonoko and his death a period of not much less than seven months, and hardly more than nine, must have passed.15 Since all these chronological particulars agree with one another, the problem whether Mrs. Behn's narrative is true reduces itself to the question, Does her account of Surinam correspond with its actual state in 1665 and 1666?

Mrs. Behn's allusions to historical personages and political conditions prove in some respects quite correct. She calls the Deputy Governor, Byam; and William Byam was, as a matter of fact, "Lieutenant General of Guiana and Governor of Willoughby Land" from about 1662 to 1667.16 The only other official whom she names is one Banister, according to her account a member of the Governor's Council.17 The colonial state papers do not contain a list of the councilors, but it is not unlikely that Banister was one of them; for after Byam's departure in 1667 "Sergeant Major James Banister, the only remaining eminent person," became lieutenant governor.18 It is noteworthy that the wars with the Dutch made each of these men known in England. It was Byam who headed the forces that vainly defended Surinam against the Dutch admiral Crynsens in 1667; and it was Banister who, in 1668, made the final surrender of the colony. The latter again became prominent when, in arranging the transportation of the English settlers from Surinam, he quarreled with the Dutch and was imprisoned by them; and in the British declaration of war in 1672 his imprisonment was stated as a casus belli. That Mrs. Behn correctly names these officials is therefore but slender evidence of intimate familiarity with the local affairs of Surinam.

Mrs. Behn's statement that when Oroonoko, seeking freedom, put himself at the head of three hundred negroes, many of the leading colonists pitied him so much that they would not pursue him, is questionable. It seems strange that in a slave-owning community they should have failed to realize that mere self-preservation demanded the crushing of so formidable an insurrection. Another dubious passage is that describing the militia which, under Byam's leadership, set out after Oroonoko:

Never did one see so comical an army march forth to war…. Most of their arms were of those sort of cruel whips they call cat with nine tails; some had rusty useless guns for show; others old basket-hilts, whose blades had never seen the light in this age; and others had long staffs and clubs.19

Shall we believe that Byam, who at this very time had sufficient military forces to carry the war against the Dutch and the French into the enemy's territories, and to capture posts from each of them,20 commanded so ill-armed a rabble?

Likewise difficult to bring into accord with the historical situation is Mrs. Behn's scornful characterization of the Council:

… who (not to disgrace them or burlesque the government there) consisted of such notorious villains as Newgate never transported; and, possibly, originally were such who understood neither the laws of God or man, and had no sort of principles to make them worthy the name of men; but at the very council table would contradict and fight with one another, and swear so bloodily, that it was terrible to hear and see them.21

If such was the real character of the government, we should expect to find that the British colonial office, whose correspondence of this period contains many complaints of maladministration in other dependencies, would have been frequently appealed to by the settlers in Surinam; but the only evidence of that kind appears in a letter of 1662, which charges Byam with an act of oppression—a charge which was apparently dismissed.22 A year later one Renatus Enys writes from Surinam to the Secretary: "The colony is in good order, being nobly upheld by the power and prudence of those at the helm."23 It seems unlikely that men as vicious and unrestrained as those described by Mrs. Behn could have guided Surinam, through all the difficulties of a new settlement in an unwholesome region, to that strength and prosperity which it had attained by 1666.

Our suspicions are increased by Mrs. Behn's parting shot at the Council: "Some of them were afterwards hanged, when the Dutch took possession of the place; others sent off in chains."24 Whereas the other accusations are merely difficult to reconcile with our conception of the general state of affairs; the last one directly conflicts with known historical facts. Under the treaty of surrender, it was explicitly stipulated that the lives and property of every settler should be spared by the Dutch, and that the British should freely depart from Surinam with their possessions. When Major Banister, because of petty interferences with these rights, protested and was imprisoned, Great Britain raised protests which led to a renewal of the war. Had the Dutch treated members of the Council in the violent way alleged by Mrs. Behn, it would certainly have transpired in the diplomatic correspondence which the actual situation developed. In short, we find in the historical background of Oroonoko several improbabilities and one misstatement.

Of the climate of Surinam the characteristics that strike the European visitor are intense heat and great moisture. One effect of the latter is noted by Mrs. Behn in her derisive description of the rusty arms of the militia; but otherwise she seems, for a supposed realist, peculiarly insensible to the true nature of the climate. Though, according to her story, she must have been in the land not less than seven months, she never mentions the rainy seasons. She casually remarks that "the rays [of the sun] are very fierce here"; but the costumes which she and her friends wore on an eight-day river journey, and which excited the amazement of the Indians, may cause us wonder too. "We were dressed," she declares, "so as is most commode for the hot countries, very glittering and rich, so that we appeared extremely fine; my own hair was cut short, and I had a taffety cap with black feathers on my head; my brother was in a stuff suit, with silver loops and buttons, and an abundance of green ribbon."25 The atmosphere in which her story is immersed is best expressed in her ardent words: "It is there eternal spring, always the very months of April, May, and June."26 We are reminded thereby of "the sweet ayre" praised by Raleigh and his immediate followers in those rose-colored passages describing their explorations upon the Orinoco, wherein they mingle enthusiasm and inaccuracy.27

Some of the geographical allusions in Oroonoko are startling. Surinam, we are told, "reaches from east to west, one way as far as China, and another to Peru,"28—which suggests the geography of the sixteenth century rather than that of the seventeenth. Again, we are informed that the Governor commanded a guard to be set at the mouth of the Amazon to prohibit people ascending it—a wild scheme which is conceivable only if we accept Mrs. Behn's statement that the Amazon is "almost as broad as the river of Thames."29 Yet, as the Amazon is over four hundred miles from Surinam, and as the interior regions of Guiana were still unexplored, we may perhaps consider such slips possible even in a visitor to the colony.

The immediate topography of the colony itself, however, we should expect to find fairly distinct and true. Mrs. Behn narrates several journeys on the Surinam, but seems to think the riverside occupied only by plantations. In silence she passes by outstanding features of its shores—the fort, the settlement of Jews, and the town of Tararica, with its hundred houses and a chapel.30 She tells us that the colonists went aboard the slave ship bearing Oroonoko, at the mouth of the river.31 This is possible; but it seems to have been customary for ships to proceed some fifty miles up the river to the good anchorage before Tararica, naturally the local center of the slave traffic. She implies that one of the plantations was near the mouth of the river;32 but we know that the lowest was some thirty-five miles upstream. Indeed, it was because the fort (about fifteen miles from the mouth of the Surinam) was so distant from the settled region that Byam was handicapped in trying to hold it against the Dutch.33 Ignoring apparently the site of the fort, Mrs. Behn says that Oroonoko proposed to lead his fellow slaves towards the sea, a plan that seems hardly in accord with his oft-praised intelligence. When negroes ran away in Surinam, they made for the interior, where their descendants, the "bush negroes," live to this day.

A striking landmark in the country, as she depicts it, is the site of Mrs. Behn's residence:

As soon as I came into the country, the best house in it was presented me, called St. John's Hill. It stood on a vast rock of white marble, at the foot of which the river ran a vast depth down, and not to be descended on that side; the little waves, still dashing and washing the foot of this rock, made the softest murmurs and purlings in the world.34

As any one may observe who compares the geological chart of the Surinam basin in Karl Martin's Niederländisch West Indien with the map thereof in Hartsinck's Beschryving van Guiana, "vast rocks of white marble" have no place in this flat alluvial plain. The nearest approach to such an eminence is the "Parnassus of blauwe Berg," a hundred meters high. But this is composed of dark-colored diabase; and it is ten miles above Marshall's Creek, then the limit of the plantations. When Raleigh penetrated into the interior of what is now British Guiana, he saw afar off "a mountain of chrystal [really of sandstone] like a white church tower of an exceeding height," and other explorers in those parts reported many hills;35 but none resembling Mrs. Behn's description rose in the inhabited district of Surinam. On the other hand, we miss an interesting natural feature of the region which, it seems, should have impressed Mrs. Behn on her journey to a distant Indian village. Travel on the Surinam, soon after passing Sara Creek, about forty miles above Marshall's, becomes very difficult, if not impossible, owing to the falls, of which there are at least twenty-eight.36 Yet though Mrs. Behn traveled by boat eight days to reach the village, she never mentions a waterfall.

It is noteworthy that some of the true characteristics of the country might have been serviceably employed by Mrs. Behn. Since Oroonoko was the leader in the expedition to the Indian village, the obstacles that falls would place in his way should have presented his admirer good opportunities for the further display of his intelligence and strength. She might likewise have intensified our sympathy for some of his hardships by making us realize the humid heat in which they were endured. And the hopelessness of Oroonoko's insurrection would have appeared more poignantly if she had shown him rising, not in a sparsely settled district, but against a well-established community and a respectable military force. Why should an author who had dwelt face to face with these circumstances, ignore and even contradict them?

But had the author of Oroonoko really been in Surinam? The Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn, her earliest biography of any length, says that she had been there; and no one has hitherto questioned the statement. How any one can read the Life and Memoirs, including its fantastic account of her meeting a marble platform floating on the English Channel, and place confidence in it, is to me incomprehensible; but this is not the place to expose its general worthlessness. What concerns us particularly is that it draws its account of Mrs. Behn's life from passages in her stories; and that its assertion of her visit to Surinam is not independent testimony but a repetition of the autobiographical statements in Oroonoko itself.37 Of those statements, one—that her father was to have been "Lieutenant General of six-and-thirty islands, besides the continent of Surinam"—has been shown unreliable, Mr. Gosse having discovered that her father was a barber.38 I may add that no hint of any appointment to replace Byam appears in the colonial papers of the period. Though this falsehood has been generally recognized, its full bearing on Oroonoko has apparently been overlooked; for it has not shaken belief in Mrs. Behn's journey. Yet if Mrs. Behn's father was not sent to Surinam, the only reason she gives for being there disappears. Furthermore, if she was not the daughter of the future governor, why was she assigned "the best house in the country"? (We recall that it stood on that remarkable "vast rock of white marble.") Those excursions which she and her friends enjoyed in the royal slave's company, and which constitute so large a portion of the narrative, depended largely upon the confidence placed in her promises by Oroonoko, whom, she says, she "had assured of liberty as soon as the governor arrived";39 and that confidence, in turn, depended upon her being related to the great. It seems as if, when the fundamental allegation is revealed false, the very structure of her "history" crumbles; and as if such a downright statement as Professor Canby's "the royal slave she unquestionably knew, and knew well"40 were made without scrutinizing the evidence.

If we nevertheless find it difficult to believe that Mrs. Behn was not in Surinam, let us tentatively surmise that she was in some way connected with a colonist; and that in Oroonoko she pretended to a more distinguished relationship in order, perhaps, to place herself more plausibly in the center of the events narrated. But that is, of course, an assumption. What we know is that at least one important statement of hers is a falsehood. Her unsupported word that she was in Surinam is therefore untrustworthy unless in our further examination of Oroonoko it shall appear that she reports veraciously facts which only an eye-witness could have observed.

Mrs. Behn speaks of a considerable number of the animals of Surinam. The buffalo and deer she merely mentions; but she gives correct though brief descriptions of the armadillo, the "cusharee," the marmoset, and some strange flies.41 Of the "tigers," that is, jaguars, which Oroonoko delights to hunt, her accounts are exaggerated; one of them "was about the height of a heifer"42—hardly a realistic description. Oroonoko's adventure with a "numb eel" is sensational. He is angling on the shore, when the eel takes his hook and sends its electric current through the line and rod to his hand. He bravely grasps the rod harder, faints from the shock, falls into the water, and is carried a league down the river. As he floats past, some Indians seize his body, and from it receive a strong shock. "By that they knew the rod was in his hands which with a paddle they struck away, and snatched it into the boat, eel and all."43 She adds that the eel was "a quarter of an ell about,"—some eleven inches. The size of the eel, the duration of its electric charge, and above all the circumstance that it does not shock by direct contact but sends its current through the fish line, are more than questionable. Yet the truth remains that with the exception of the cayman, the most interesting animals of Surinam are in a manner known to the author. We should revive our faith in her credibility, were personal observation the only means by which she could have learned the fauna of Surinam.

In 1667, George Warren, who had lived three years in that colony, published a little pamphlet, now rare, entitled An Impartial Description of Surinam. Herein its fauna is likewise described, and here too the cayman is the only important animal omitted. With the single exception of the marmoset,44 every animal that Mrs. Behn describes is described by Warren. For example, the latter says of the armadilloes:

They are short legged, have three claws upon their feet, are headed like a hog, have no teeth and but very little mouths; they are defended all over, save the head and belly, with an armor as it were plated, scarce penetrable by a lance, unless it happen in a joint. They burrow in the ground, and had they not quite so strong a smell of musk, would be no contemptible meat.45

Compare Mrs. Behn:

The very meat we eat, when set on the table, if it be native, I mean of the country, perfumes the whole room; especially a little beast called an armadillo, a thing which I can liken to nothing so well as a rhinoceros. It is all in white armor, so jointed that it moves as well in it as if it had nothing on.46

The only animals in connection with which Mrs. Behn relates any incidents are the "tiger" and the electric eel; the same is true of Warren. The latter's story about the eel is worth comparing with the above adventure of Oroonoko:

The torpedo or numb eel, which, being alive, and touching any other living creature, strikes such a deadness into all the parts as for a while renders them wholly useless and insensible, which, is believed, has occasioned the drowning of several persons who have been unhappily so taken as they were swimming in the river. It produces the like effect if but touched with the end of a long pole, or one man immediately laying hold of another so benumbed. The truth of this was experienced, one of them being taken and thrown upon the bank, where a dog spying it stir, catches it in his mouth, and presently falls down, which the master observing, and going to pull him off, becomes motionless himself; another standing by, and endeavoring to remove him, follows the same fortune; the eel getting loose, they return quickly to themselves.47

Much of the vividness of the background of Oroonoko arises from the specific descriptions of the exotic and indigenous flora. In this respect, too, the particulars that are true are to be found in Warren.48 When differences appear, they show Mrs. Behn not independently observing but inaccurately amplifying, as in the passage which for its anschaulichkeit is quoted entire by Professor Siegel, and which describes a lovely grove of orange and lemon trees crowning the "rock of white marble."49 "Vast trees" they are indeed, "as big as English oaks"! The orchids of the forest, and the great palms that border the river banks, though conspicuous, are omitted by Warren—and by Mrs. Behn. Her landscape is uniformly flowery; we read of "the trees appearing all like nosegays," and that "the opposite bank was adorned with such vast quantities of different flowers eternally blowing, and every day and hour new."50 In this riot of color we see what has been called "the old tropical fallacy," which was exploded by A. R. Wallace in his Tropical Nature. The early European travelers reported especially the striking, gorgeous plants; and, though these are usually scattered amid great masses of green, gave the impression that everywhere the flowers grew in solid banks of bright color. "There is never there," says E. F. Im Thurn, "a growing carpet of flowers such as is made in England by primroses and anemones."51 Here again Mrs. Behn's eye does not seem to have been upon the object.

It may be urged that accuracy in describing nature is hardly to be expected, even from a "realist," in Mrs. Behn's time, when the proper study of mankind was man. Do we find her powers of observation more reliable when directed on Oroonoko and his fellow slaves? That some important characteristics of the hero and the heroine are idealized, every one grants; but the description of slave life is in general assumed to be copied from grim reality. In Oroonoko's savage delight in slaughter, says Professor Siegel, Mrs. Behn followed truth; "the brutal murder of Imoinda, and the stoical endurance of torture," adds Miss Morgan, "is the conduct of a savage; and in those passages Mrs. Behn was depending upon her observations."52 But turn to Warren's short chapter on the negroes, who, he notes,

are most brought out of Guiny in Africa to those parts, where they are sold like dogs, and no better esteemed but for their work sake, which they perform all the week with the severest usages for the slightest fault, till Saturday afternoon, when they are allowed to dress their own gardens…. Their lodging is a hard board, and their black skins their covering. These wretched miseries not seldom drive them to desperate attempts for the recovery of their liberty, endeavoring to escape, and if like to be retaken sometimes lay violent hands upon themselves. Or, if the hope of pardon bring them again alive into their masters' power, they'll manifest their fortitude, or rather obstinacy, in suffering the most exquisite tortures can be inflicted upon them, for a terror and example to others without shrinking…. Many of them over fondly woo their deaths, not otherwise hoping to be freed from that indeed unequalled slavery.53

Is it not significant that this little outline emphasizes the very traits that constitute the realistic elements on the larger canvas of Mrs. Behn?

Needless to say, she amplifies and adds; but, as we have already seen in the case of Oroonoko's horrible wounds, the elaborations do not of themselves inspire confidence. What a singularly lax plantation it is that permits the tasks of Imoinda to be daily done for her by "some sighing lover"!54 "Cæsar," we are told, was the plantation name of the negro prince; his native name was Oroonoko.55 Of course "Oroonoko" is not African; but "Orinoco" is Indian for "coiled serpent," and was suitably applied to the winding river whose name Raleigh made famous. That such an obvious slip has not aroused remark seems singular, until we find the general inattention to such matters manifested in an even more fantastic confusion, namely in the suggestion that Oroonoko's home, Coramantien, may be the Coramandel Coast56 (in East India!). Coramantien was a district of Guinea. It was well known to the English, who, about 1662, had a "castle" there, which was an important supply station for the African Company that monopolized the slave traffic of the British West Indies.57 Though Mrs. Behn is therefore correct enough in assigning her royal slave to that country, she seems to ignore some particulars concerning it. The English ship which bore Oroonoko from Coramantien must, according to Mrs. Behn's narrative, have arrived in Surinam in May, 1665, at the very earliest.58 But early in 1665 Coramantien was captured by the Dutch, under the famous De Ruyter, who thence sailed to attack Barbadoes.59 It appears improbable that English slavers ventured from Coramantien to Surinam from the close of 1664 until the end of the Dutch war in 1667.

We may also question the description which Mrs. Behn gives of the Coramantien negro. Oroonoko, she says, was "carved with a little flower or bird at the sides of the temples," and Imoinda was "carved" "all over her body," "resembling our ancient Picts that are figured in the chronicles" (!). As a matter of fact, many tribes of negroes were thus "carved"; but those from Coramantien happened to be exceptional in this respect, and were noted for their "fine, smooth, black skin."60 In short, the more one learns about Coramantien, the less true seem those strokes in her picture of negro life that are peculiarly her own.

About the Indians of Surinam, Mrs. Behn writes in tones of admiration, and with a vividness that has been especially commended.61 The natives of that region were the Caribs, between whom and the English no serious trouble, such as is assumed in a part of Oroonoko, appears actually to have taken place in Surinam during the time in question.62 They were more numerous than Mrs. Behn intimates, and their habitations were less remote.63 They were not so handsome as she describes them, nor did they woo in so languishing a manner.64 She recounts that her companions aroused their wonder by playing the flute, but the natives were quite familiar with that instrument.65 They were so honor able, she declares, that they could not conceive of a "liar"; but the Jesuit missionary Pellepart, who in 1655 compiled a little dictionary of their language, gives no less than five Carib synonyms for "menteur."67

What Mrs. Behn tells us about Indian dress, adornments, weapons, and customs is often correct; but in no instance does she present a true fact that is not to be found in Warren's chapter on the Indians. Her omissions agree with his. Both authors, in discussing the "peaiman," omit the long fasts and solitary wanderings that were so interesting a part of the medicine man's training.68 Both, in describing the appearance of the Caribs, omit the leg band which, tied above the ankle and below the knee of female infants and never thence removed, caused a gross distortion of the calf, which was most conspicuous.69

As we have seen to be the case in other parts of the story, circumstances accurately stated by Warren are by Mrs. Behn so elaborated as to become improbable or false. Warren deplores that the Indian girls are unacquainted with "that innocent and warm delight of kissing; but conversing so frequently with Christians, and being naturally docile and ingenious, we have reason to believe they will in time be taught it."70 Instead of this speculative pleasantry, we have in Mrs. Behn an episode showing that it was her party that taught the Indians how to kiss. In her lively account of the occasion, we miss, however, an explanation of how the practice could have been so enjoyable to the Caribs, whose lips are pierced with holes, in which are inserted thorns or pins.71 In describing the hospitality of the Indians, Mrs. Behn again provides some information like that in Warren; but with regard to the food and drink, the service, the "napery," etc., makes so many errors of omission and commission that they cannot be enumerated here.72

Her regular method may be illustrated by her transmutation of the following true statement by Warren concerning Indian captains,

whose courage they first prove, by sharply whipping them with rods, which if they endure bravely without crying, or any considerable motion, they are acknowledged gallant fellows and honored by the less hardy.7

Mrs. Behn, on the other hand, tells us that Oroonoko marvelled at the frightful scars of the chiefs, who explained that competitors for a captaincy mutilated themselves in the following manner:

Being brought before the old judges, now past labor, they are asked what they dare do to show they are worthy to lead an army. When he who is first asked, making no reply, cuts off his nose, and throws it contemptibly on the ground; and the other does something to himself that he thinks surpasses him, and perhaps deprives himself of lips and an eye. So they slash on till one gives out, and many have died in this debate,—… a sort of courage too brutal to be applauded by our black hero.73

Yet despite such monstrous perversions, Mrs. Behn, according to some, presents Indian life "most anthropologically"!

It was not a vivid imagination alone that furnished Mrs. Behn with her enlargements upon Warren. In her idealization of the moral character of the savages (the "impartial" Warren found them "cowardly and treacherous"), she shows the influence of a sentimental tradition in the European literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which likewise manifests itself in the noble Indians of the heroic drama.74 Some details in the appearance of Mrs. Behn's Indians are also traditional. She clothes them in "short habits" and "glorious wreaths" of feathers. "I had a set of these presented to me," she says, "and I gave them to the King's Theatre; it was the dress of the Indian Queen, infinitely admired by persons of quality, and was inimitable."75 To think of Nell Gwynn in the true costume of a Carib belle is indeed ludicrous. Besides the apron, the principal Carib adornments were strings of beads or shells; the men might, on great occasions, wear some feathers on their heads and shoulders. In Surinam anything like the elaborate feather costume of Mrs. Behn's fancy was unknown.76 But the first aborigines whom the Europeans learned about were the incomparably superior natives of Mexico, whose gorgeous featherwork garments were among the noble presents sent by Montezuma to Cortez, and by Cortez to the king of Spain. "No one of the American fabrics excited such admiration," says Prescott, who cites many passages of admiring description of them.77 For literary purposes they thenceforth became the conventional garments of all Indians. Probably the quivers mentioned by Mrs. Behn are derived from the same tradition; the Carib arrows were very long, and their quivers were small cases to hold only the poisoned points.78

From an English point of view perhaps the most interesting tradition that may be recognized in Oroonoko appears in the episode of the gold-bearing savages. In his preface, Warren cautiously remarks: "The Indians will tell you of mighty princes upwards, and golden cities, how true I know not." The colonists of 1665 were not seeking gold: they were raising sugar. But Oroonoko and Mrs. Behn meet "Indians of strange aspects," who come from the mountains, speak an unknown tongue, and carry bags of gold-dust, "which, as well as they could give us to understand, came streaming in little small channels down the high mountains, when the rains fell." These are, I think, the echoes of the hopeful words that the brave Elizabethans sent home across the seas, when they were seeking El Dorado, which lay ever "on the other side of those great hills," where ran "streams of gold about the breadth of a goosequill."79

If these observations are approved, we must at last abandon the interesting assumption that it was personal acquaintance with an unfortunate slave, and actual observation of Surinam, that furnished Mrs. Behn with the materials for Oroonoko. The Dutch wars, which drew attention to that colony, provided her with the few correct touches in the historical background of the picture. For the rest, whatever was real in the local color was given her by Warren's description of the natural environment, the slaves, and the Indians. In thus employing a true account, she was using the method of Defoe and his predecessors, whose fiction is rooted in the literature of fact. Those writers, however, when rearranging and elaborating journalistic reports, managed to carry their Captain Singletons from Mozambique to Guinea without seriously blundering into the unreal; for they made it their controlling aim not to deviate from the probable. No such bounds confined the romantic, sensational, and hero-worshipping Mrs. Behn. Whatever in Warren's account might serve to make the scene of Oroonoko's actions interesting, or might be utilized in an episode displaying his noble qualities, was thus employed; but whatever did not please her fancy, she at will suppressed or modified. She exalted the loveliness of the climate and landscape of Surinam, the marvels of its flora and fauna, and the innocence of its inhabitants. She enhanced its charm with touches taken from the picturesque traditions of Cortez and of Raleigh. What she says of Miranda in The Fair Jilt seems applicable to herself: "She had a great deal of wit, read much, and retained all that served her purpose." If she ever sincerely intended to write anything like a true story, she abandoned that intention as soon as she had stated it, and gave her fancy free rein. The second-hand materials that form the realistic foundation of Oroonoko are so inconspicuous in comparison with the romantic superstructure that to emphasize their presence is to obscure the purpose and character of her art.


1 H. S. Canby, The Short Story in English, New York, 1909, pp. 164, 167.

2 P. Siegel, Aphra Behns Gedichte und Prosawerke: Anglia, XXV, 352.

3The Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn, ed. E. A. Baker, London, 1905, p. xxiii.

4Oroonoko, ed. E. A. Baker, p. 55.

5Oroonoko, p. 52.

6Oroonoko, pp. 78–79.

7 I am indebted for this comment on Oroonoko's cure to Roger Irving Lee, M. D., of Boston.

8Oroonoko, p. 1.

9 Canby, pp. 164, 165.

10 Siegel, p. 379.

11 Walter Raleigh, The English Novel, 5th ed., New York, 1906, p. 107.

12Oroonoko, p. 42.

13 Ibid., pp. 47, 50.

14Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1661–1668; London, 1880, pp. 249, 297–298.

15Oroonoko, pp. 40, 42–44, 47, 57, 62, 67, 74, 76, 78–79.

16State Papers, pp. 104, 108, 449.

17Oroonoko, p. 80.

18State Papers, p. 599.

19Oroonoko, pp. 66–67.

20 James Rodway, Guiana: British, Dutch, and French; London, 1912, p. 63.

21Oroonoko, pp. 72–73.

22State Papers, pp. 104, 108.

23 Ibid., pp. 166–167.

24Oroonoko, p. 73.

25Oroonoko, pp. 57–58.

26 Ibid., p. 51.

27 For example, Newes of Sr. Walter Rauleigh (1618), in Peter Force's Tracts, Washington, III (1844), 23, and especially pp. 27–28. Cf. Harcourt's description of the lovely land Cooshebery, in Purchas His Pilgrimes, Glasgow, XVI (1906), 369.

28Oroonoko, p. 50.

29 Ibid., p. 62.

30 Jan Jacob Hartsinck, Beschryving van Guiana, 1770, II, 567–574; James Rodway, Guiana, 1912, pp. 51–53, 61–62. Some discrepancies between these two descriptions do not affect my argument.

31Oroonoko, p. 38.

32 Cf. the three-day trip mentioned in Oroonoko, p. 40, with the corresponding distance noted on p. 80.

33 Rodway, p. 64.

34Oroonoko, pp. 51–52.

35 Raleigh, Sir Walter, The Discovery of Guiana, ed. Schomburgk, 1848, p. 101 and note; Purchas His Pilgrimes, XVI, 367, 370, 408.

36 Hartsinck, II, 574.

37The Life and Memoirs of Mrs. Behn, in her Works, London, 1871, V, 2; Oroonoko, p. 50.

38Dictionary of National Biography, art. "Aphra Behn."

39Oroonoko, pp. 46–47.

40 Canby, p. 163.

41Oroonoko, pp. 2, 5.

42 Ibid., p. 53.

43 Ibid., pp. 55–56.

44 These appear to have been taken to Europe as pets. See Purchas His Pilgrimes, XVI, 313, 348, 379, 395.

45 Warren, George, An Impartial Description of Surinam, London, 1667, p. 11.

46Oroonoko, p. 51.

47 Warren, p. 2.

48 Cf. Oroonoko, p. 51, with Warren, pp. 5, 1

49 Siegel, pp. 88–89; Oroonoko, p. 52.

50Oroonoko, pp. 51–52.

51 Im Thurn, E. F., Among the Indians of Guiana, 1883, pp. 87–91.

52 Siegel, p. 346; Morgan, Charlotte E., The Rise of the Novel of Manners, New York, 1911, p. 81.

53 Warren, pp. 19–20.

54Oroonoko, p. 44.

55 Ibid., p. 41.—Warren, p. 23, spells Orinoco "Oronoque."

56 Canby, p. 163.

57State Papers, pp. 113, 135, 146, 174, 194; C. P. Lucas, Historical Geography of the British Colonies, Oxford, 1905, II, 44, 64.

58 See above, p. 422.

59State Papers, pp. 294–295.

60 Hartsinck, II, 921–922; H. G. Dalton, History of British Guiana, London, 1855, I, 163.

61 Siegel, p. 357 n. 1.

62State Papers, p. 598; Warren, p. 26.

63 Warren, p. 23; Rodway, Guiana, p. 44.

64Oroonoko, p. 3; Im Thurn, pp. 188, 221; John Davies, History of the Caribby Islands, London, 1666, pp. 270, 334.

65Oroonoko, p. 59; Im Thurn, p. 309; Davies, p. 307.

66Oroonoko, p. 4; Pierre Pellepart, Introduction à la langue des Galibis, Paris, 1655, p. 25.

I have compared the Indian words given by Mrs. Behn (Oroonoko, p. 58) with old wordlists and with modern, both Carib and Arowak, and believe them not authentic; but in the confusion of Indian tongues, I feel it unsafe to declare them certainly fraudulent. Cf. The Voyage of Robert Dudley to the West Indies, ed. G. F. Warner, London, 1899, pp. 65, 78–79; Davies's Caribbean vocabulary in his History of the Caribby Islands, 1666, pp. 353 ff.; D. G. Brinton, The Arawack Language of Guiana, 1870; J. Crevaux, P. Sagot, L. Adam, Grammaires et Vocabulaires roucouyenne, arrouague, piapoco et d'autres langues, Paris, 1882.

67Oroonoko, p. 59; Warren, pp. 26–27; Im Thurn, p. 334.

68 Im Thurn, p. 192.

69 Warren, pp. 23–24.

70Oroonoko, p. 60; Im Thurn, p. 193.

71Oroonoko, pp. 58–59; Davies, chap, xviii ("Of the Entertainment which the Caribbians make those who come to visit them"); Im Thurn, chaps. xiii and xv ("Food" and "Feasts").

72 Warren, pp. 24–25; Davies, pp. 314, 315.

73Oroonoko, pp. 60–61.

74 Charlotte E. Morgan, The Novel of Manners, pp. 81–82; Gilbert Chinard, L'Exotisme américain, 1911.

75Oroonoko, p. 2.

76 Im Thurn, p. 199.

77 W. H. Prescott, Conquest of Mexico, Philadelphia, 1873, I, 147, 299, 356, 430; II, 68, 129.

78Oroonoko, p. 60; Im Thurn, p. 243; Purchas His Pilgrimes, XVI, 415.

79Oroonoko, p. 61; Purchas His Pilgrimes, XVI, 306, 340, 346, 386, 387, 396, 407, 409. Traces of the tradition in Hall, Donne, and Milton are mentioned in Voyages of the Elizabethan Seamen to America, ed. E. J. Payne, Second Series, 2d ed., Oxford, 1900, p. xlvii.

Victoria Sackville-West (essay date 1927)

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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 mistake one another's identity, they are shipwrecked in infancy, they fall in love with their sisters, but not one gleam of interest do they arouse. Ah, Mrs Behn, Mrs Behn! was it for nothing that you were cast into prison? made Grub Street welcome? knew old Downes and Mr Tonson? Was it for nothing that you hurried in and out of the green-rooms, bestowing here a word of advice and there a smile of encouragement? saw dear Tom Betterton, with his great stomach and short arms, rehearsing, and Mrs Barry without her make-up, striving to keep her crooked mouth straight? Oddly enough, all Mrs Behn's critics have referred to her as a forerunner of Defoe, which is what she ought to have been and just failed to be. Was it owing to some unanalysed intuition in the minds of the critics? or owing perhaps to some vague association between Oroonoko and Man Friday? Whichever it is, the critics are very nearly, but just not quite, right. We might have had the mother of Moll Flanders, and all we get is the bastard of Mademoiselle de Scudéry.

Stay, though: not quite all. The Unfortunate Happy Lady and the Black Lady are just enough to show us what we have missed. This is London, and rich, seventeenth-century humour. Mrs Behn could do it when she wanted. The pity is, that she wanted so seldom, and thought it more aristocratic to mince through Castille, than to bawl in Alsatia and loiter arms akimbo through Newgate and Covent Garden. That loose, expressive style of hers is wholly unsuitable to the romance of cloak-and-sword. It is not, as she imagined, cosmopolitan, daring, fashionable; it is simply the coster-girl dressed up as a lady. There, again, Swinburne with a stroke of intuitive perspicacity was right (for it is not to be assumed that he had given very special thought to Aphra Behn), when he calls her the 'plebeian poetess,' and speaks of her abused and wasted genius. For it was of the people that she should have written; of paupers huddled together on the debtors' bench, of link-boys, of landladies and ancient pandars. Then indeed, given her vigour and rapidity, her shameless candour and her knock-about experience, we should have had an earlier Defoe; we should have had a great realistic painter, own sister to Teniers and Hogarth; we should have had

The young, the old, the witty, and the wise,
The fair, the ugly, lavish, and precise,
Cowards and braves, the modest and the loud
Promiscuously blended in the crowd.

Mrs Behn, however, would not trust to her own native genius. The most original contribution made by her to English literature was certainly Oroonoko, but even in that story, drawn out of her own life, she allowed her readings of the heroic romances to colour her description of colonial existence and to flavour her interpretation of her hero with an air of classic chivalry. Oroonoko resembles those seventeenth-century paintings of negroes in plumes and satins, rather than an actual slave on a practical plantation. She dresses him, it is true, in a suit of brown hollands; but none the less the plumes continue to wave in the breeze and the satins to glisten in the sun. She could not wholly escape from Le Grand Cyrus. And naturally, she was in far worse case when she frankly adopted the French, Spanish, or Italian convention; her novels then descend to an intolerable artificiality, and are readable only thanks to their brevity and to the colloquial raciness which was never absent from her style. The brevity of the novels is much to be thankful for. The English novel at that period was undergoing a change; the story, popular in Elizabethan times in the form of the Italian novella, but smothered during the first half of the seventeenth century under the voluminous featherbed of the 'heroic romance,' was now (even as the drama) blossoming for the second time. From the year 1670 onwards, there is an enormous crop of short stories, or long-short stories, scarcely to be called novels, but more properly novelettes, the natural reaction of a flippant and pleasure-loving age. 'Novels are of a more familiar nature [than romances]' wrote Congreve, himself trying his hand at the new genre in his Incognita, or Love and Duty Reconciled: 'Come near to us, and represent to us intrigues in practice, delight us with accidents and odd events, but not such as are wholly unusual or unprecedented, such which not being so distant from our belief bring also the pleasure nearer us. Romances give more of wonder, novels more delight.' The French and Spanish tradition of cloak and sword and intrigue is dominant. Criss-cross love, duels, stolen encounters, abductions, escaped nuns,—such was the paraphernalia of which these stories were made, and Mrs Behn adopted it wholesale.

The result is dishearteningly sterile. The English genius was not created for such artificialities; it seldom wears fetters with becoming grace. Something ruder and more barbarous is always trying to burst through. The Elizabethans by the miracle of a young and violent poetry twisted their Italian borrowings to a dark magnificence of their own, but their power had not descended to the hand of the Carolines. The Carolines still borrowed from abroad, but their transmutations produced no extravagant splendour such as Webster and Tourneur had produced; they turned, for one thing, more willingly to the gallant and amorous than to the tragic and sublime, an affectation of Latin frivolity which did not sit well upon them. The Goth was trying to frisk. The Elizabethans, in spite of their Spanish cloaks and Genoese palaces and sonorous diction, were speaking in the English language of things which they were well fitted to interpret: of ambition and adventure, of terror, superstition, passion, and death. The 'plot' was but the excuse for all their turbulence of poetry. The minor dramatists of the Restoration, Mrs Behn among them, fell between two stools. With the one hand they clung to the heroic tradition, while with the other they reached out instinctively towards a naturalness of speech and manner which their foreign reading still taught them to mistrust. Thus in the case of Mrs Behn, as of all those who lacked the genius of a Congreve or a Wycherley, we get the absurd spectacle of a right instinct struggling with the affectation of what was thought to be culture. These flames and charms, cruelties and languishments, with which Mrs Behn's pages are besprinkled, are not English speech. Her pen races; it writes good home-made English; then she recollects herself: this will never do, we must have some foreign spice to lighten this English bread. Let us be elegant at all costs. The cloaked figure in the sombrero is the only ghost which haunts the Caroline imagination.

The habit of borrowing, then, remained long after the power of naturalization had gone, and long after the glow of that fiery poetry had faded. It was perhaps inevitable that such a furnace should temporarily burn itself out. But there was that other side of the English genius to which Mrs Behn might have turned in her novels: the plain, broad, humorous, English realism that would so excellently have suited her temper. How briskly she begins, when she writes of the things she knows, and how all London rises out of her phrases: 'About the beginning of last June, as near as I can remember, Bellamora came to town from Hampshire, and was obliged to lodge the first night at the same inn where the stage-coach set up. The next day she took coach for Covent Garden … 'Here, it is no matter that the heroine is called Bellamora; she might much more appropriately have been called Lucy, but that her birthplace is Hampshire and that she is a stranger in London we never question. Or take the history of Philadelphia, an innocent and inconvenient sister placed by an unscrupulous brother in a brothel: 'You won't stay late, Mr Gracelove? said the mother of mischief. No, no, replied he, I will only show the lady a play and return to supper. What is played to-night? asked the old one. The Cheats, mother, answered Gracelove. Ha! said Beldam laughing, a very pretty comedy indeed. Ay, if well played, returned he. At these words they went down, where a coach was waiting … ' It lives, as the lovers on or under balconies can never live. It lives sufficiently to exasperate us into imagining what Mrs Behn could have made out of her London had she realised the unexploited treasure that lay at the command of her pen.

Further Reading

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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 context in which Oroonoko was written.

Ferguson, Margaret W. "Juggling the Categories of Race, Class, and Gender: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko." Women's Studies 19, No. 2 (1991): 159–81.

Discusses the role of gender, race, and class in Behn's depiction of power relations in Oroonoko.

Guffey, George. "Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Occasion and Accomplishment." In Two English Novelists: Aphra Behn and Anthony Trollope, Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, May 11, 1974, edited by George Guffey and Andrew Wright, pp. 3–41. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1975.

Considers the political ramifications of Oroonoko.

Hill, Rowland M. "Aphra Behn's Use of Setting." Modern Language Quarterly 7, No. 2 (June 1946): 189–203.

Remarks on Behn's attempts to achieve realism in her works through her choice of setting.

MacCarthy, B. G. Women Writers: Their Contribution to the English Novel 1621–1744. Oxford: Cork University Press, 1946, 288 p.

Treats Behn in several chapters, examining her contribution to the novel genre and her role among women writers.

Pacheco, Anita. "Royalism and Honor in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko." Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 34, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 491–506.

Argues that the intent of Oroonoko is pro-Royalist rather than abolitionist.

Paxman, David. "Oral and Literate Discourse in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko." Restoration 18, No. 2 (Fall 1994): 88–103.

Interprets Oroonoko as an exposition on power and politics in Restoration England.

Pearson, Jacqueline. "Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn." The Review of English Studies XLII, No. 165 (February 1991): 40–56.

Focuses on the role of the narrator in Behn's works and her treatment of such issues as gender and power.

Ramsaran, J. A. "Oroonoko: A Study of the Factual Elements." Notes and Queries 7, No. 4 (April 1960): 142–45.

Considers various arguments regarding the factual accuracy of Oroonoko.

Reynolds, Myra. "Dramatic Writers." In The Learned Lady in England, pp. 127–36. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1964.

Considers Behn's importance as a woman writer and the contribution that Oroonoko made to the novel genre.

Seeber, Edward D. "Oroonoko and Crusoe's Man Friday." Modern Language Quarterly 12, No. 3 (September 1951): 286–91.

Notes parallels between Oroonoko and William Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Seeber suggests that Behn's work may have influenced Defoe's choice of setting and his description of Friday.

Spender, Dale. "Aphra Behn." In Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen, pp. 47–66. New York: Pandora Press, 1986.

Discusses the major themes of Behn's works and remarks on the difficulties she faced as a woman writer.

Sypher, Wylie. "A Note on the Realism of Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko." Modern Language Quarterly 3, No. 3 (September 1942): 401–05.

Argues that Behn's detailed and accurate description of slave conditions in Oroonoko suggests that she may indeed have lived in Surinam at some time.

Additional coverage of Behn's life and career is contained in the following sources published buy Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 39, 80, and 131; Drama Criticism, Vol. 4; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 1 and 30; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 13.

H. A. Hargreaves (essay date 1970)

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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 oblig'd to continue on our Voyage, we did not intend to stay upon the Place.1

Mrs Behn's claim to have been in Surinam, and thus to have based Oroonoko upon actual experience, was implied elsewhere as well—in her Dedication to a play called The Young King (1679) and in the compelling descriptions of colonial life informing one of her last plays, The Widdow-Ranter, or, The History of Bacon in Virginia (produced after her death in 1689). The claim seems to have been accepted in her own lifetime, and was offered as fact in the first two biographies to appear after her death. Said her "Female Biographer":

She was a Gentlewoman by Birth, of a good Family in the City ïé Canterbury in Kent: her Father's name was Johnson, whose relation to the Lord Willoughby, drew him for the advantageous Post of Lieutenant General of many Isles, besides the Continent of Surinam, from his quiet retreat at Canterbury, to run the hazardous Voyage of the West-Indies. With him he took his chief Riches, his Wife and Children, and in that number Afra, his promising Darling, our future Heroine and admir'd Astrea.2

Mrs Behn came of age at the beginning of the Restoration, and was an independent, talented, and attractive woman. She had begun the unusual and rigorous task of competing in a world of male writers by 1670, but before that she had actually been commissioned to act as a spy for Charles II in Antwerp, during the Dutch wars.3 It is not surprising that some parts of her life and less decorous qualities of her writing should have come under fire on moral grounds. Only late in the nineteenth century, however, were certain parts of her biography brought into question as either romanticised or fabricated. Then, one after another, her place of birth, her father's occupation, her maiden name, her social station, her marriage, and even the fact of her spying activities were made suspect. That most of these suspicions and allegations were eventually dispersed is an interesting story, but not of direct concern here.4 What is of far greater significance is that they culminated, in 1913, in an attack upon the authenticity of Oroonoko as a work of realism based upon personal experience.

The attack was made by Ernest Bernbaum, in a piece written for a collection honouring G. L. Kittredge, and titled "Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko."5 Here he set out to prove that Mrs Behn had never gone to Surinam, that her material was either borrowed, or imagined, and that the tale was therefore a stylistic variation on the standard romances of the period. First he accepted an apparent proof that Mrs Behn had been the daughter of a barber in Wye rather than of a gentleman in Canterbury. From this he deduced that the man could certainly not have been sent to Surinam in such a position, if at all, and so it was doubtful that Mrs Behn had gone. Second, he cited a group of "accuracies" and "errors" in Oroonoko itself, concerning the flora, fauna, topog raphy, location of plantations, settlements, and fortifications, and the nature and habits of the Indians and slaves. Where Mrs Behn was correct, he asserted, she had made use of a contemporary work by George Warren, An Impartial Description of Surinam. Third, he established that names which had appeared in the tale were made prominent by the actions of 1667 during which the Dutch took Surinam. Last, from his own reconstruction of events, he concluded that Mrs Behn's implication of the time she was there conflicted with the time in which she was supposedly married, widowed, and sent on her mission to Antwerp.

The work as a whole was spirited and convincing, and Bernbaum seemed to have every right to take the literary historians to task for their uncritical acceptance of Oroonoko in order to develop a theory of generic evolution. There can be no doubt that the paper was influential, and that it has continued to sway historians of the novel since. Bernbaum himself, convinced of his argument, continued his assault upon Mrs Behn with an article published the same year—"Mrs. Behn's Biography a Fiction"—in which he stated that "the absolute untrustworthiness" of the tale "has recently been revealed … by the discovery that Mrs. Behn in Oroonoko deliberately and circumstantially lied."6

This was rather strong language, particularly since, had Bernbaum continued his research into Surinam materials, he might have come upon published items which lent support to Mrs Behn's claim. In 1912 James Rodway had produced a work called Guiana: British, Dutch, and French, in which this native of Guiana, explorer, naturalist, and historian, dealt with the history and geography of Surinam. He included a number of photographs of Indians in costumes which had changed so slightly that they exactly matched Mrs Behn's descriptions—descriptions which Bernbaum disparaged and which did not appear in Warren's work. Bernbaum had wondered, for example, why Mrs Behn never mentioned the prominent legband worn by the Indians. About half of those pictured wore none. Small wonder that Rodway, collaborating with Watt years earlier, in 1888, had made ample reference to Mrs Behn's Oroonoko in their Chronological History of the Discovery and Settlement of Guiana: 1493–1668,7 finding her descriptions of Surinam so close to his own long and intimate knowledge of that country that he quoted some of them verbatim, and dated her trip to Surinam with a "foster-father" as 1658.

Still, the damage was done. Bernbaum's set of papers was subsequently attacked by a number of people, and found to have serious weaknesses. Montague Summers in 1915 showed that Bernbaum's dating was erroneous.8 H. D. Benjamins published three successive articles, the last of which raised doubts about Bernbaum's scholarship.9 Taking Bernbaum's four points, and using a mass of archive material, he disarmed the argument against Mrs Behn's having gone to Surinam. Nevertheless, he had to conclude that "I was unable to prove that she was in Surinam, but I believe I was able to show that Prof. Bernbaum did not prove she was not there."10 This was a somewhat modest assessment, as he did bring to light a fair amount of circumstantial evidence from his sources, including the Harley Papers, in which a number of other persons whom Mrs Behn named are found to have been in Surinam at the correct time, and an unspecified group of "ladeyes" was cited as there and living at St John's Hill, one of Lord Willoughby's plantations which had figured prominently in Oroonoko.

Not much more has been added to the evidence for Mrs Behn's veracity since that time. Successive biographers have rehearsed with more or less accuracy the evidence already assembled and continued to attack Bernbaum's arguments.11 H. G. Platt, using yet another letter from Surinam, has given a brilliant, if somewhat imaginative theory, based on the code names "Astrea and Celadon" used by Mrs Behn and her fellow agent William Scott in her letters sent from Antwerp to England during the Dutch Wars. Since the letter he discovered uses these same names to describe the activities of two people who have just left Surinam in 1664, Platt concludes that Mrs Behn was undoubtedly there, as the mistress of Scott.12 W. J. Campbell has done an admirable reconstruction of the major contentions, but he concludes that while no clear case remains for disproving Mrs Behn's claim, no strong case has been made to prove it either.13

There remain other possibilities for investigation, however, some of which have actually been touched upon by various writers. Mrs Behn had made some rather straightforward comments in Oroonoko which could have been challenged by her contemporaries, but though some of them accused her of things ranging from licentiousness to French Pox none raised an objection to her claim to have gone to Surinam. She had remarked on "some rare Flies, of amazing Forms and Colours," which she had presented to the King's Antiquary, "some as big as my Fist, some less; and all of various Excellencies, such as Art cannot imitate," and which might still be seen there.14 At another point she stated flatly, while describing the feathered costumes of the Indians, "I had a set of these presented to me, and I gave 'em to the King's Theatre, and it was the Dress of The Indian Queen, infinitely admir'd by Persons of Quality; and was inimitable."15 Bernbaum had been derisive of Nell Gwyn appearing in native South American costume, though it is important to note that she was the first Indian Queen and that the role became Mrs Bracegirdle's thereafter. Yet, as Helen McAfee retorted in 1916,

… the matter, however, cannot be so briefly dismissed. It is improbable that Mrs. Behn would have gone out of her way to expose herself to contradiction upon so easily verifiable a statement. And we may infer from the play itself that there was some attempt at realism in the costume, however slight or "ludicrous" it might have been.16

Woodcock, too, noted:

The Indian Queen was produced only twenty-five years before [Oroonoko], and one of its authors, Dryden, a friend of Mrs. Behn, was still alive in 1688, as well as many other people who would have known enough about this play to dispute such a statement if it were false.17

Ironically, it is a rather out-of-the-way comment that proves most interesting concerning this costumery. In 1920 George Odell, writing of the treatment of Shakespeare's drama on the English stage, broached the following:

… that as a whole the actress did not occasionally alter her attire to suit the occasion could not be maintained in view of Smith's rare and interesting picture of the Indian Queen, reproduced on the page opposite. This plate is supposed to represent the famous Mrs. Bracegirdle, and in subject is as notable for fuss as for feathers. In connection with the latter one can quote with interest if not much belief Mrs. Behn's account of Surinam in Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave …. This, of course, refers to the original representative of the part, Nell Gwyn, and not to Mrs. Bracegirdle, whose dress, indeed, displays considerable modification from the Behn description.18

Victoria Sackville-West remarked: "It is, indeed, a very curious curse that has been laid upon the legend of Aphra Behn," referring to the many errors and distortions which appeared in the biographical material, and one might well believe it. Over a decade ago I came upon the reference to this picture and to another of Mrs Bracegirdle as Semernia, the Indian Princess, in Mrs Behn's own play, The Widdow-Ranter, or, the History of Bacon in Virginia (1690). I wrote, in January 1959, to secure photographs of these from the Enthoven Collection, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. After a lengthy wait, and several queries, I received the photographs in July. Unfortunately, the individual who sent them had been seriously ill and was attempting manfully to catch up his back correspondence. When I received them they were mislabelled, and I believed that the most promising was that of Mrs Bracegirdle in a role played nearly thirty years after Dryden and Howard's Indian Queen appeared. Moreover, it was painfully clear that this was an engraving taken from the original mezzotint. What authenticity might be found in the costume was made questionable by the license of the artist and lack of detail, and certainly, even given the frugality of theatre people, I felt that the use of such a costume thirty years later, though highly appropriate, was at best too fortuitous. Nevertheless, I requested the opinion of Dr Frederick J. Dockstader, of the Museum of the American Indian, who obliged me with an encouraging assessment, and there I rested my case.19

It was not until early in 1968 that I chanced upon the picture of Mrs Bracegirdle again, this time in the Lowe edition of Cibber's Apology,20 where the original mezzotint was cited as being held in the Print Room of the British Museum. Once more intrigued, I secured another photograph, this time with assurances that this was indeed Dryden and Howard's Indian Queen, and found that there was a significant increase in the amount and quality of detail in the costumes shown, both for Bracegirdle and for her two little Negro attendants. I sent the photograph off again to Dr Dockstader, now Curator of the Museum. But the "curse" is not so easily avoided. Dr Dockstader was away on a prolonged leave, and in the interim my correspondence was lost in the Museum files. I persisted, however, and finally in December 1969 Dr Dockstader studied my second, and only remaining, photograph and provided his new assessment, with extraordinary courtesy going into painstaking detail. The results, here excerpted without bias, were well worth waiting for. He says, regarding the headdress of one attendant:

… the artist either copied from a painting or sketch made in the Guiana region, had been there himself, or (and what is probably most likely) had a feathered diadem in front of him…. Had it been from a different area, the artist would have sketched to more common corona as shown in Plate 221 of the Indian Art Book; these are what most people are familiar with. On the contrary, he specifically introduced not only the corona effect around the rim, but also was careful to show the upstanding plumes in the rear (see the small illustration enclosed herein). It is this arrangement which makes me feel the original model was from the Guianas—together with the fact that the timing is right. These were brought over to England by some of the first colonial travellers, and so your artist could have seen them, either exhibited in some peer's "Cabinet of Curiosities," at the Museum—was it founded that early?—or on display in one of the many Oddity Halls which were so popular then.21

A parenthetical comment is in order at this point. The Harvean and Ashmolean Museums were at that time rebuilding their holdings rapidly, though what access might be had to them by "lesser folk" is unclear. The "Museum" was far from a reality yet, but its predecessor, the Royal Society Repository, was enjoying a huge response to its request for examples of natural phenomena. I have so far been unable to trace the "King's Antiquary" to whom Mrs Behn claims she gave her rare flies, but from the descriptions of the Royal Society Repository in the Record I suspect that he may have been either Robert Hooke, the Curator, or an underling. This collection, apparently, was open to public view, and there is also the possibility that the artist Smith had access to a peer's "Cabinet." Yet one must wonder that the occasion would have demanded such authenticity, if the actors were not using the costumes already. I will admit that they could have been borrowed, however, since we have proofs of costumes lent for particular performances of plays. But to return to Dr Docktader's assessment.

The young lady, by the way, holds in her hand what may well be a fire fan; these are clusters of feathers, tied in a fan arrangement, used for blowing up a fire, etc.; there are also certain types of headdress which could possibly be represented by her fan.

So, in summary, I would feel that the artist did have an original model in front of him, in one form or another, and worked from a known specimen or sketch; that his departure from precise accuracy (as represented by the little color card enclosed) was possibly due to wear and tear on the head-dress, or it may just have been ill-assembled … and the Negroid cast to the children's (or dwarf's, which seems more likely) features was a common practice when sketching or rendering Amerindian people.

Another parenthetical insert. Negroes were actually employed as supers in the theatre at this time, and would have been available for the portrait.

Dr Dockstader makes one last contribution, albeit somewhat reluctantly, and I would like to include it here.

There is one more very minor point, which I almost hesitate to mention, for I dislike reading into an illustration something which may not be at all likely. The Indians of this region manufacture a great variety of bark cloth, beaten out of bark into long sheets which can [be], and are, used as garments, wrappers, and the like. In many areas, these are painted or stamped in geometric patterns. Your lovely lassie has an interesting train to her costume, and it is just possible, although I grant a very slim chance, that this was a bark-cloth sheeting. These are often made in width of about 2 feet, and sometimes 10 or 15 feet in length.

My main reason for quoting the last is that the train, as the fire fan, is part of the costume of the Indian Queen, while the headdress is part of the costume of the attendant. Mrs Behn mentioned specifically that she gave the theatre the costume of the Queen. The last material should be accepted as Dr Dockstader qualified it, however.

All of this is still not absolutely conclusive evidence that Mrs Behn went to Surinam and did all of the things she claims to have done there, as a child or a young girl. I submit, however, that the coincidence of authenticity in the costumery provided for a portrait of Mrs Bracegirdle, in the very role for which Mrs Behn claims to have donated the costume, ought to make her statement a good deal more credible. Taken with the series of attacks upon Bernbaum's article, with the information supplied by Benjamins, and with the neutral or more generous attitude of later biographers and scholars, it should help to restore faith in Mrs Behn's veracity. Oroonoko, then, may well deserve a position of importance in the history of realism in English prose fiction.


1The Histories and Novels of the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn (London 1696) 64. All subsequent references to material in Oroonoko are from this edition, hereafter cited as The Histories and Novels.

2 "Memoirs" The Histories and Novels n. p.

3 See The Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles II: 1666–67 VI (London 1864) for seventeen letters containing a variety of information which Mrs Behn sent to England under code name Astrea.

4 For a summary see my "Life and Plays of Mrs. Aphra Behn" unpublished PhD thesis (Duke University 1960.) Available as University Microfilms 60–6030 (Ann Arbor, Michigan).

5Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge (London 1913) 419–435.

6PMLA 28 (1913) 433.

7 (Georgetown, Demerara 1888).

8The Works of Aphra Behn (London 1915) I xvii–xxi.

9 "Een Koninklijke slaav in Suriname" De West-Indische Gids I (Oct 1919) 474–476; "Nog Eens: Aphra Behn" Gids III (Feb 1921) 517–538; "Is Aphra Behn in Suriname Geweest?" Gids IX (Feb 1927) 451–462.

10 "Is Aphra Behn in Suriname Geweest?" 459.

11 Victoria Sackville-West Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea (London 1927) 21–28; George Woodcock The Incomparable Aphra (London 1948) 18–26; Frederick M. Link Aphra Behn (New York 1968) 18–20.

12 "Astrea and Celadon; an Untouched Portrait of Aphra Behn" PMLA 49 (1934) 544–559.

13New Light on Aphra Behn University of Auckland Monograph No 5 (Auckland 1961).

14The Histories and Novels 2–3.

15The Histories and Novels 3. Here Mrs Behn refers to the title role of Dryden and Howard's The Indian Queen, first performed in January 1663/64, at the Theatre Royal.

16Pepys on the Restoration Stage (New Haven 1916) 156.

17The Incomparable Aphra 19.

18Shakespeare: From Betterton to Irving (New York 1920) I 205.

19 See 80–81 of my thesis, cited in footnote 4.

20 Colley Cibber An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber ed Robert W. Lowe (London 1886) I 188.

21 Written communication December 26 1969.

William C. Spengemann (essay date 1984)

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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 that this as yet illdefined readership would buy and praise because it portrayed a world they recognized.

In one respect, Behn was unusually well equipped for her task. Her pen had supported her reasonably well for nearly twenty years, and she had worked successfully in virtually every important genre of her time except the epic. For the Restoration theatre she had composed heroic dramas, romantic tragicomedies, comedies of wit, of intrigue, and of manners, farces, pastorals, masques, operas, and a single tragedy. Forced by changes in the political, economic, and social climate to seek support in the popular marketplace, she had turned in recent years to writing those varieties of prose entertainment that her contemporaries lumped together under the name of "fiction"—epistolary romances, novellas, Italian romances, French Arcadian romances, romantic tales, and translations of moral maxims and popular scientific treatises from the French. Alert to sources of income in every level of her society, she had also produced celebratory odes for the royal family, lyrics and verse narratives dedicated to courtiers and to influential members of the professions, and anthologies of poetry for the commercial market. She was an accomplished professional who knew what would sell and how to write it.

In almost every other respect, however, she was singularly ill-prepared for her assault on the common reader. Although her own pedigree is obscure, she was apparently reared and educated among the landed gentry, and she identified herself always with the titled classes, professing an unswerving devotion to the Stuart monarchy in the very face of its imminent collapse. She was an unreconstructed Tory and an avowed Catholic in a society whose tolerance for such recherché attitudes was growing slimmer by the day. Worse yet, she was a social rebel whose undisguised hatred for the legal institution of marriage and allegiance to the authority of disinterested love were mistaken by her aristocratic friends and middle-class enemies alike for libertinism. It was a romantic ideal of natural love that she celebrated in her plays, not sexual license. But the attitude toward conventional morality and the behavior arising from that attitude were not always distinguishable from those routinely displayed in the Restoration theatre. And if the Court had called her plays salacious simply because they were written by a woman, what sort of reception could she expect in the City, whose denizens she had repeatedly portrayed as joyless, puritanical hypocrites undone by witty, amorous Cavaliers?

Behn's is the classic case of the modern professional writer, schooled in a lofty ideal of truth and art and forced by mundane circumstance to make her living in a world that she disdained and that held her ideals in contempt. That her personal vision of the good as a Tory Arcadia ruled by peaceful shepherd kings was a nostalgic fiction, hopelessly out of touch with modern history, is nothing to the point. Unless she simply abandoned that vision, she would have to find some way to bridge the gulf between her feudal paradise and the progressive "new England" of her intended audience. Had she been merely a hack, unhampered by allegiances of her own, she could have manufactured tales of honest apprentices, religious romances, or antiromantic burlesques as effortlessly as she had churned out satires on the Parliamentarians or congratulatory poems to the several monarchs who occupied the English throne in rapid succession during the 1680s. In that case, Oroonoko would have been a very different book, and we would not be scratching our heads over it today, for it would have disappeared from sight along with The City Heiress, The Amours of Philander and Sylvia, and A Voyage to the Isle of Love. Because she was motivated by personal conviction as well as by necessity, however, she sought to make a place for her antique ideals in the hated modern world. Out of that quixotic ambition, she produced a book so remarkable that it has rescued the rest of her oeuvre from oblivion and seems now, for all its stumbling oddity, to anticipate the whole subsequent history of English fiction.

The strategy Behn devised to reconcile the conflicting demands of personal inclination and public taste is, on the face of it, ingeniously simple. She merely fashioned a romantic tale of highborn lovers caught in the crosscurrents of desire and duty and then presented this old story in the very modern guise of a Brief True Relation of her own travels to America. This conflation of Old-World and New-World genres seems to have suited her purposes exactly. On the one hand, the prose romance was in every sense her métier. Not only was she thoroughly practiced in its conventions, having read romances all of her life and modeled most of her plays (to say nothing of her own behavior) upon them, but, like most persons of her class and education, she regarded them as accurate pictures of reality and as dramatizations of her own most cherished values. The Brief True Relation, on the other hand, simultaneously evaded her busy middle-class readers' distrust of idle fictions and met their demands for useful information about current affairs in brief compass. What is more, because the Brief True Relation rested the authority of its statements upon the writer's experiences rather than upon his or her social station or sex, the form allowed Behn to assume an authority that had been begrudged her in the masculine, courtly domains of drama and poetry. And because the experiences reported in these narratives of New-World travel were necessarily unverifiable, the form permitted her to call her tale a true history without fear of rebuttal. By enfolding her romance of the Royal Slave in a Brief True Relation, Behn could stick to her romantic last, proffer her fiction as news from the New World, and thus foist it upon the very audience whose members were busily dismantling the world that the romance had been devised to validate.

To say that Behn wished to make a place for romance in a new world is true in more than just a commercial sense. She was not simply trying to peddle an old product in a new market; she wished to discover in the prosaic and turbulent modern world that history was constructing about her a place where the vanishing ideals embodied in romance could survive the predations of change and even rise again to regulate human society. To Behn, as to many another European who lamented the passing of traditional ways and the decline of civil order in the seventeenth century, America seemed a place out of time, where man's original estate might be regained. Ever since the discovery, narratives of New-World travel had couched their actions in the tropes of chivalric romance and described America in images of the Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden, and the Golden Age.4 If the discovery, exploration, and settlement of America formed an inextricable part of that historical change which had removed humankind from its primal condition, then by casting themselves upon this historical tide men might hope to complete the circular course of human history, arrive again at the beginning, and remain in that perfected state forever. For Behn, America embodied an ideal condition of feminine nature, the original kingdom of love from which men fell into history when they took up the masculine pursuits of war and commerce. Transported there by masculine desires for glory and wealth, the loving woman and bellicose male of romantic tradition might be reconciled in a perfect, eternal marriage. For such a redeeming expedition from the Old World to the New, the narrative form of the Brief True Relation, even though it was devised to take hold of the most world-shaking event in modern history, might well seem the speediest craft.

The vessel is fairly launched with the narrator's opening announcement that the story to follow is a true "History," rather than the "Adventures of a feign'd Hero, whose Life and Fortunes Fancy may manage at the Poet's Pleasure." Although it will prove as "diverting" as any fictional romance, like all such reports by plain-speaking voyagers, "it shall come simply into the World," without the adornments of artistic "Invention," recommended solely "by its own proper Merits, and natural Intrigues." The truth upon which its charm depends, moreover, will lie not in the familiarity of its details or its conformity with recognized conventions but in the narrator's own experience. "I was myself an Eye-witness to a great Part of what you will find here set down," the narrator maintains, "and what I cou'd not be Witness of, I receiv'd from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself." Addressing her busy reader, who has not the leisure demanded by the conventional, multivolume romance, she then explains that she has omitted, "for Brevity's Sake, a thousand little Accidents of [the hero's] life, which … might prove tedious and heavy to my Reader, in a World where he finds Diversions for every Minute, new and strange" (v, 129). And to inspire the confidence of this apparently preoccupied and literalminded reader, she precedes the introduction of her hero with a circumstantial account of the slave economy, flora, fauna, and native inhabitants of Surinam, couching these data, all the while, in images of the Golden Age—of innocent, free Indians who live, like "Adam and Eve," without either shame or immodesty, codified laws or organized religion, "Curiosity" or "Fraud," "Vice, or Cunning" (v, 131–32)—those images which had recommended America to Behn as the ideal setting for a New-World romance.

That Behn regarded the Brief True Relation primarily as a vehicle for her romance is evident in the dispatch with which the narrator abandons that modern conveyance, after five pages, and turns her attention to its precious, Old-World cargo. The next thirty-odd pages, nearly half of the complete text, are devoted to Oroonoko's life in the court of Coramantien and his rivalry with the King, his grandfather, for the hand of Imoinda. Taken straight from the English heroic drama and the French Arcadian romance, and offered here as an account given to the narrator by Oroonoko after his arrival in Surinam, this familiar story of conflicting romantic principles employs none of the narrative techniques introduced in the opening relation. The narrator is now undramatized and omniscient, a teller of someone else's tale and, like her reader, an audience to that tale, rather than a particular person reporting her own observations in a particular place. Indeed, the narrator does not even take care to report only those things that Oroonoko, her supposed source of information, could have seen at the time or learned about subsequently. Romantic actions happen objectively, in the eternal order of things, and do not depend for their existence, as the recently discovered and ever-expanding New World did, upon the perceptions of individual human beings. The value of these actions lies not in their individual contributions to the accumulating store of human knowledge about the world, but in their coherent moral structure, which imitates the divinely instituted form of the world and of human history.

Unlike the structure of the Brief True Relation, which arises from a sequence of actions performed by an observing, reflecting individual on the ground, that of the romance precedes its action as an empty form, into which details of various sorts, from the most realistic to the most fantastic, can be poured and thus given a familiar valuation. In broad outline, this form comprises an initial situation, a conflict arising from (or introduced into) that situation, a series of complications that elucidate both the conflict and the particular virtues required to overcome it, and a resolution which serves to confirm those virtues and to create a final situation that demands no further action. Because these virtues are of the highest sort, the action is performed by noble characters; and because these noble actions have universal meaning, their physical setting in any particular instance remains a matter of virtual indifference, a mere backdrop against which the moral drama is played out. Nowhere in Oroonoko's African adventures do we find anything resembling the narrator's earlier interest in the topography, economy, botany, and zoology of Surinam and its closely related anthropology. Behn's readers have often observed that the African court of Coramantien bears a striking resemblance to the courts of Europe. The point is, rather, that the story of Oroonoko and Imoinda told thus far, being a romance, could happen anywhere without affecting its form one whit.

Since the romantic conflict of this story pits Oroonoko's love for Imoinda against his duty to the King, who wants her for his harem, it projects a resolution in the form of a wedding between the lovers and a reconciliation with their monarchical parent. Nothing irremediable appears to lie in the way of such a resolution. The King has violated the local taboo against a father's coveting his son's intended bride, and Oroonoko has retaliated by breaking the corresponding taboo against a son's meddling with one of his father's chosen wives. But these transgressions do not seem to be fatal. No one has been killed or cursed, and Imoinda has not been physically dishonored; so the way to sanity and bliss still lies open. To be sure, the King sells Imoinda into slavery after discovering her midnight tryst with Oroonoko. But Oroonoko himself is captured by a slaver very soon thereafter, and if the lovers do not know that they are bound for the same place, the experienced reader of romances certainly does. Apparently, the conflicts and divisions that have arisen in the Old World and, with the transportation of the two lovers, have become insoluble there, are to be repaired in that innocent, aboriginal America to which we were introduced in the opening description of Surinam. As Oroonoko says upon disembarking from the ship that has brought him to America, "Come, my Fellow-Slaves, let us descend, and see if we can meet with more Honour and Honesty in the next World we shall touch upon" (v, 166–67).

The reader's expectations of a happy resolution to the romantic conflict are seemingly vindicated in the events that follow quickly upon Oroonoko's landing in the colony. He is immediately recognized as a king, given the name of "Caesar," greeted by the loyal colonists as if "the King himself (God bless him) had come ashore," and "received more like a Governor than a Slave" (v, 169). In addition to the customary freight of heroic virtues, it appears, Oroonoko comes bearing his creator's loyalty to the beleaguered Stuarts and her fond if unsubstantiated hopes for their permanent restoration to power over an obedient, orderly realm. While the local slaves, many of whom are Oroonoko's own former captives, prostrate themselves before him, "crying out … Long live, O King!" and paying him "even Divine Homage," Trefry, his new owner, treats him "as his dearest Brother," lodges him in his own house, rather than amongst the common slaves, and promises "on his Word and Honour" as a gentleman to return the Prince to Africa (v, 170, 168). At a great feast staged in Oroonoko's honor by the slaves, Trefry tells him about a recently arrived beauty named Clemene, who turns out, of course, to be Imoinda; and within three pages the lovers are reunited, wed, and expecting a child. For the happy conclusion of the romance, only the rupture between these lovers and the old King of Coramantien remains to be healed; and, as anyone familiar with the genre would know, such problems are easily dispatched. Whether Oroonoko and his gravid spouse return to the welcome of a once tyrannical parent now softened by remorse, or the King conveniently dies during their absence, or they decide to remain in America and establish a peaceful dynasty of commingled love and honor in that regained paradise, the romantic action has virtually arrived at its projected conclusion.

At this point, however, the action takes an unexpected and decidedly unromantic turn. Oroonoko is still a slave and cannot be freed until a new Governor arrives from England to replace the previous one, the narrator's father, who has drowned at sea in a hurricane. True, Oroonoko suffers "no more of the Slave but the Name" (v, 169–70), and his aristocratic friends at Parham House have promised to secure his freedom. Nonetheless, "Caesar" is a slave name in fact and a royal title only in a fictional sense—in another world, as it were. Nor is the English colony populated solely by aristocrats of the sort who rule the world of romance. During this interregnum, the real power lies in the hands of ambitious upstarts and wealthy hoodlums like Byam and Banister, "such notorious Villains as Newgate never transported," who cannot be expected to assist the designs of a romantic action because they "understood neither the laws of God or Man, and had no sort of Principles …" (v, 200). These uncultivated renegades, Oroonoko fears, will never let him go, for his title and noble bearing only make them detest him the more, while his wife and expected child triple his value in the slave economy. As a slave, Oroonoko has neither love, since his wife and child do not belong to him, nor honor, since his present safety and eventual liberation depend on his lying low at Parham house, showing no signs of restiveness until the new Governor arrives. If he attempts to secure his love and regain his honor by inciting a slave rebellion, Imoinda will become Byam's hostage, and his friends among the aristocratic planters will be forced to side with the overseer class against him.

Oroonoko's entanglement in the intractable circumstances of colonial politics, economics, and class conflict markedly alters the tone and import of the narrative. We seem to have moved without warning from that morally translucent world where "Heaven was so kind to the Prince as to sweeten his Misfortunes by so lucky an Accident" as his reunion with Imoinda (v, 173–74) to an altogether different sort of world, one governed by untidy historical conditions rather than by universal principles of love and honor. These unlookedfor complications follow so closely upon Oroonoko's arrival in the New World that a devout Americanist might be tempted to ascribe them directly to the change of geographical venue from Africa to America, on the assumption that America is, after all, a very special sort of place. The fact is, however, that life in seventeenth-century Coramantien was obviously no less subject than Surinam to such historical conditions, while Surinam, as the opening pages of Oroonoko demonstrate, was no less susceptible than Coramantien to romantic treatment. The crucial change, in other words, is formal and stylistic. It occurs at the point where the action departs from the timeless circle of romance form and enters the historical form of the Brief True Relation for the first time. In the opening four or five pages of the text we heard the beginnings of Behn's Brief True Relation of life in Surinam, without Oroonoko. The succeeding forty pages gave us the romance of Oroonoko and Imoinda in Coramantien, outside both Surinam and the narrator's own immediate experience. Now, with only a third of the volume remaining in the reader's right hand and the action seemingly poised for its final sprint to a happy conclusion, Oroonoko finds himself in a strange new world, created by conflicting human desires rather than by divine intentions, where nothing is conclusive but death.

In calling her tale a "History," Behn appears to have intended only to imply that it actually happened and thus to lull the philistine prejudices of her middle-class reader. In adopting for this purpose the narrative form of the Brief True Relation, however, she was in effect subscribing, and subjecting her hero, to a radically modern idea of what "history" means. Because the Brief True Relation was devised specifically to report observed conditions in a new world that had first come to light as a direct result of present human enterprise, rather than through knowledge transmitted from the distant past, and because that world grew larger with each effort to encompass it, the form portrayed human action in terms of an unfolding geography and this expanding landscape in terms of a corresponding change in the character and attitudes of the traveler.5 In the romance, as in medieval historiography, the chronology of events proceeds independent of geography, which serves merely as a backdrop for the exemplary actions of exemplary figures who, being motivated by universal moral principles, do not change significantly in the course of the action. In the Brief True Relation, on the other hand, human action and geographical situation are mutually conditioning elements in the historical evolution—the creation—of reality. Geography and chronology, Richard Hakluyt proclaimed, are "the right eye and the left eye of all history."6 History without geography, John Smith agreed, "wandreth as a Vagrant without a certaine habitation"7—thus denying at a stroke the belief held by medieval historian and romancer alike that human history has its home in the divine mind, in the eternal plan of redemption, and locating that history squarely in the evolving individual soul.

Behn's investment of her romantic action in this narrative form generates a sequence of events and a level of discourse, somewhere between fiction and history, whose import can only be called novelistic. While Oroonoko continues to pursue the goals of love and honor set for him in the romance of Coramantien, he must do so through an ever-thickening jungle of bureaucratic delays, demeaning expediencies, political rivalries, and geographical circumstances. Born with "a Spirit all rough and fierce … that could not be tam'd to lazy Rest" (v, 176), he is yet obliged to spend his time entertaining the narrator with tales of his former exploits and listening to "all the pretty Works" in her repertoire but avoiding the sort of heroic action that might imperil his and Imoinda's safety and that would, in the best possible case, only send him into the wilderness to live like a savage with no hope of either returning to Coramantien or establishing his dynasty in Surinam. Whatever notions Behn may have held regarding the New World as a theatre for heroic actions and a haven for romantic ideals, these fond designs seem to be enmeshed now in a tightening coil of petty, vulgar constraints.

With Oroonoko trapped between unheroic docility and suicidal rebellion, the narrative takes an evasive turn, off the line of fatal action that seems headed for either dishonor or death, into a series of diverting adventures in the countryside. By means of this "Digression," which she admits "is a little from my Story" (v, 189), the narrator apparently means to provide her frustrated hero with some opportunities for action that will get him out of the house but will not require the colonists to crush him. In a succession of tall tales, recounted in the purest manner of the Brief True Relation, Oroonoko kills "Tygers," wrestles with an electric eel, and guides the narrator's party to an Indian village, behaving all the while with appropriate bravery and chivalrous concern for his female companions. "Diverting" as they are, however, these exploits merely forestall the inevitable decision Oroonoko must make regarding his dishonorable captivity. What is more, even though his companionship gives the narrator and her friends the heart to venture into the wilderness, his undignified role as a captive entertainer of idle aristocrats robs his heroism of any real consequence. The narrator herself appears to realize the falsity of Oroonoko's position, for he fades from view for long intervals, while she describes the local topography and inhabitants, supplanting his actions with her own reflections upon the exotic world that unfolds before her as she penetrates the unexplored wilderness beyond the settlement.

Digressive as it is, this interlude has a profound effect upon the main action. Not only does it demonstrate that Oroonoko's heroism depends on his making the fatal choice between love and honor, but, by reemphasizing the narrative methods of the Brief True Relation, it places the narrator at the very center of the action and involves her directly in that choice. Whereas the narrator of a romance stands outside the action, in the presence of the reader, the Brief True Relation places the narrator, who is both the principal actor and the reporter of that action, in the game and out of it at once. What is more, because it is the narrator's experiences that have made him who he is, someone with the authority to speak, he tends quite naturally to identify himself more closely with those experiences than with the untraveled reader. Throughout her first-person report, Behn's narrator has moved back and forth between the familiar English world of her readers and the exotic lands that only she knows—at one moment claiming that, since her return to England, she has placed certain entymological specimens on display at "his Majesty's Antiquary's" (v, 130), where the reader can presumably go and see them, or alluding to wellknown historical events, like the Treaty of Breda and the death of Charles II, which have occurred since the putative year of her departure from Surinam; and at another moment referring to Oroonoko in the imperfect tense—"I have often heard him say …" (v, 159–160)—as if he were still alive and she were still with him in America. At one point in the narrative, in fact, she manages this temporal and geographical shift in the course of a single sentence, traveling by way of those uncertain pronominal references and unsteady verb tenses that make seventeenth-century English prose such a puzzle for modern readers. Upon first introducing her hero, the narrator addresses her audience on its own English ground: "But before I give you the Story of this Gallant Slave, 'tis fit I tell you the Manner of bringing them [i.e., slaves] to these new Colonies…. " As the sentence continues, however, it abruptly removes the narrator across the Atlantic to Surinam and into the midst of her own narrative: "those [slaves] they [the colonists] make Use of there [in Surinam], not being Natives of the Place: for those [natives] we [colonists] live with [here in Surinam] in perfect Amity" (v, 129). Drawn by the rhetorical gravity of the Brief True Relation into the action of her tale, the narrator will eventually find herself not merely a witness to its outcome but a principal actor in it.

The final episode in the digressive interlude that lies between Oroonoko's happy marriage and his horrible death takes the narrator and her traveling party to an Indian village upriver, where she undergoes an experience that fixes her more firmly in the New World than anything, perhaps, except her assumption of responsibility for Oroonoko's safety and liberation. Meeting the Indians, who have never seen a white person before, she immediately becomes conscious of her own strange appearance, as if she were seeing herself through their wondering eyes, and describes herself for the first time. What she sees of herself and her companions from this outlandish point of view is reported in the Indians' words, which, although perfectly innocent, assume in context an ironic edge that is hardly flattering to European assumptions of cultural superiority. "We shall know whether those Things can speak," the natives exclaim, whether they have "Sense and Wit" and can "talk of Affairs of Life and War," as Indians can (v, 185–86). Like so many New-World explorers before her and many more to come, the narrator has been given a new perspective on the world as a whole. Seen from this American coign of vantage, Europe is no longer the center of the circle of lands. It is merely one more place on the globe, as backward in its way as are the barbarous nations in theirs, a relative thing rather than the seat of absolute values by which the rest of the world may be judged. Noting the innocent credulity of the Indians, she quickly realizes that "it were not difficult to establish any unknown or extravagant Religion among them, and to impose any Notions or Fictions upon 'em" (v, 186), a realization that unavoidably includes in the category of "Fictions" the religion that she and her reader share.8 It is a vision that, once entertained, can never be thrown off, and it severs the traveler irreparably from the untraveled reader, the very person upon whose sympathy and assent the authority of the narrator ultimately depends. If the effect of the romance is to unite narrator and reader in a world of shared beliefs, that of the Brief True Relation is inevitably to place the narrator in a new and distant land, one that readers can inhabit only by abandoning their own.

Having sought to evade the unpromising drift of her tale by means of the narrative form that caused all her difficulties in the first place, the narrator returns to her proper "Story" to find nothing changed, except that this story has now become her own—a tale of her increasing departure from the settled moral world of her English readers into the unexplored American wilderness of her own invention. When, weary of prudent inaction, Oroonoko finally rebels against his captors, the narrator finds herself swept up in his mounting hostility to her own kind. Throughout her narrative, she has taken an ambiguous attitude toward her fellow colonists, employing the pronoun "we" to distinguish the white settlers from the Indians and the African slaves but isolating herself by calling the English "they" whenever slavery, especially cruelty to Oroonoko, is the subject. There are, in addition, a number of passages in which the Indians, like Montaigne's cannibals, are depicted as more noble, even more essentially Christian, than their supposedly civilized oppressors. Now, however, all semblance of ambiguity and lofty satire vanishes as the narrator submerges her voice in Oroonoko's, first paraphrasing the harangue by which he stirs up his fellow captives and then modulating into direct quotation as he excoriates all white people for their faithlessness and inhumanity.

Depending on their politics, Behn's readers have taken this speech either as an expression of her own views on slavery or, noting the complaisance of the narrator's remarks on the subject elsewhere, as Oroonoko's opinions alone.9 Both of these readings seem partly right. While Behn appears to have held no very advanced ideas about the evils of slavery itself, it is impossible to avoid the impression that Oroonoko's diatribe bespeaks her own suppressed rage against the betrayal of all those cherished things that her romantic hero has come to represent. Called "Caesar," he bears a name synonymous with "absolute monarch" in Behn's time, the one she gives to Charles II in her poem "A Farewell to Celladon on His Going Into Ireland" (1684) and to James II in her Congratulatory Poem to Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary, Upon Her Arrival in England (1689). As a slave, he shares the plight of women, regarding whom the anonymous author of the Defense of the Female Sex (1696) observed, "… like our Negroes in our western plantations, [they] are born slaves, and live prisoners all their lives,"10 and whom Hippolyta, the betrayed woman in Behn's play The Dutch Lover (1673), compares to "a poor, guilty slave" who "drags his loathed Fetters after him" (I, 273–74). If it seems strange to think of Behn's presenting her feminist indictment in a masculine voice, we should observe that her preface to The Lucky Chance (1686) proclaims, "I value Fame as much as if I had been a Hero," that in the same speech she refers to "the Poet in me" as "her masculine Part" (111, 187), and that in all the other fictions she composed during the 1680s Oroonoko's role is taken by a woman. But, above all, Oroonoko personifies the ideals of cosmic order, social harmony, and individual nobility embodied in the romance, ideals that, Behn saw, were being ravaged by modern history in the world about her and subverted by some implacable fictive logic in her own narrative.

When, following Oroonoko's inflammatory speech, the narrator resumes her own voice, she adopts a sardonic tone of thinly disguised hostility that is notably absent from her previous discourse and can only be attributed to her preceding identification with the rebellious Oroonoko. At the same time, she seems eager to reestablish contact with her reader and to dissociate herself from Oroonoko, whose accelerating troubles she feels powerless to alleviate, even as she feels guilty for having failed him. If Oroonoko is responsible for the unprecedented passion of her tone in these concluding episodes, he is also the cause of her efforts to distance herself from him. The grievances aired in his harangue to the slaves include the complaint that "we are bought and sold like Apes or Monkeys, to be the Sport of Women," which seems to refer to the narrator herself and to those early days of his captivity when, she says, "we entertain'd him …, or rather he us" (v, 191, 177). Once the uprising has begun, moreover, she naturally identifies herself with the white colonists, using the pronoun "we" to denote the common targets of his revenge. In the next moment, however, Oroonoko's enemies become "they," as Byam's vigilantes pursue the fugitive, and the narrator stands by powerless to protect him. For the remainder of her story, the narrator shifts her position repeatedly, now aligning herself with Oroonoko's aristocratic friends against his low-life pursuers, then speaking familiarly to the reader as an English author, then dissociating herself from all the colonists and from the reader as well by referring sarcastically to one timid member of her party as "a bold Englishman" (v, 205), then implicitly condemning herself by quoting Oroonoko's charge that all whites are liars, and then ranging herself among the whites by begging Oroonoko's pardon on behalf of his tormentors. But, most of all, she vacillates between protestations of her own innocence and apologies for her faintheartedness, her absence during his capture and execution, her failure to assert her "Authority" on his behalf, and, finally, for the inadequacy of the tale itself as a fitting tribute to "this great Man" (v, 198, 208).

These rapid shifts in narrative attitude create an ambiguity of tone that enhances the novelistic effects already produced by the collision of Behn's romantic theme with her historical narrative form. Neither romance nor Brief True Relation, her narrative has become a rhetorical blending of heroic ideals and brute reality into a symbolic expression of the narrator's conflicting allegiances to her civilized audience and her savage art. When Oroonoko finally realizes that conditions in Surinam forbid the marriage of love and honor, nature and culture, that he hoped to discover in this "next World," he takes Imoinda into a nearby grove, love's own pastoral domain, and beheads her, thereby removing the impediment to honorable rebellion and, in destroying his wife and unborn child, removing at the same time his main reason to rebel. Unmanned by grief, he mourns over the half-buried body of Imoinda for eight days, until a searching party, attracted to the spot by an egregiously unromantic "Stink that almost struck them dead" (v, 204), discovers him. Thinking to take advantage of his weakness, "The English" move to recapture him, whereupon he repulses his enemies by hacking off a piece of his own flesh and throwing it in their faces. This barbarous gesture, learned from the Indian braves he visited during his expedition with the narrator, betrays a striking change in Oroonoko's character, an assimilation to his savage surroundings in preference to the putative civility of his faithless captors and feckless friends. He has gone native, thereby committing the one unpardonable sin available to the missionaries of Old-World culture; and insofar as the narrator follows him imaginatively, she must relinquish all claims to her reader's sympathy and trust.

How deeply Oroonoko penetrates into the heart of the savage wilderness and how closely the narrator follows him may be discerned in the powerfully affecting language of the tale's final episode. After some days spent recuperating at Parham House, Oroonoko is abducted by the parvenu rabble and executed. As they slowly dismember him, he stoically smokes an Indian pipe. Before he dies—or "gave up the Ghost," as the text has it—he blesses his executioners. And when he is dead, Byam sends to the plantations, by way of a warning to the other slaves, Oroonoko's quartered remains, the "frightful Spectacles of a mangled King" (v, 208). Amalgamated in this unforgettable tableau are images of all the hopes that the narrator has invested in her Royal Slave: the natural nobility of the American Indian, the divine right of the martyred Charles, and the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.11 Having been brought down from the luminous spheres of romantic allegory to the opaque realities of bureaucratic delay, class jealousy, hopeless servitude, and decomposing flesh in the New World, Oroonoko is elevated by his debasement into a complex symbol of Old World hopes aesthetically vindicated in the very moment of their historical extinction.

The closing pages of Oroonoko reenact the psychic turmoil of all those European explorers who came to America armed with Old-World ideas about it, and then, having undergone experiences that utterly discredited these ideas, found themselves unable either to resume their previous lives at home or to remain isolated in the new world they had discovered. Oroonoko's death constitutes an indictment of everything that Behn's new reader represents—social ambition, commercial enterprise, the subjugation of "dusky tribes," the dismantling of ancient institutions. Insofar as she clings to her hero, acknowledging the savage metaphor of his rebellion and death as her own truest language, she forfeits the support of that audience upon whom all modern writers must depend not only for their livelihood but for their very sense of themselves as writers. Insofar as she distances herself from Oroonoko, however, and aligns herself with her English reader, her tale condemns her as a coward and a liar. The narrator's opening remarks located the value of her tale in its historical truth and the authority for that truth in her own experiences as an American. Later, recognizing the failure of her account to do Oroonoko full justice, she ascribed its deficiencies to that same source: "But his Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his Fame" (v, 169). Now, in closing, she blames its weaknesses on her lack of artistry, the very feature that she originally offered in evidence of its truth and had advertised in the prologue to The Young King (1679) as an American characteristic (II, 105). A "more sublime wit" might have succeeded in conveying Oroonoko from his "obscure World" to the new England. As it is, the survival of his "glorious Name … to all Ages" must depend not on the narrator's authority as an American but on the "Reputation of my Pen," the fame she has won in the London theatre since her return from the New World (v, 208).

Appearing to recognize that her very dubious reputation as a libertine author of scandalous aristocratic plays will hardly impress her middle-class reader, Behn turns her back upon this audience and, in a dedicatory epistle to Lord Maitland (v, 509–11), seeks the protection of a noble patron, a ghost of the old order that died with Oroonoko. Once again, she admits the shortcomings of her book, seemingly equating these with her hero's "Inglorious … end" and her own inability to prevent that catastrophe. It is a "true Story": "The Royal Slave I had the Honour to know in my Travels to the other World." Since this world is not further identified, the reader is permitted to think of it both as America and as an imagined country: "If there be anything [in the story, in the place] that seems Romantick [i.e., fictional, untrue] I beseech your Lordship to consider these Countries do, in all things, so far differ from ours that they produce unconceivable Wonders, at least, so they appear to us, because New and Strange." What happens in that "other World," it appears, is both fictional and true at once, according to a logic that nullifies the author-traveler's intentions. "Though I had none above me in that Country," Behn quite justly insists, "yet I wanted power to preserve this Great man." The problem, she concludes, is a formal one, evidenced in certain "Faults of Connexion" among the various elements of her tale. These faults, however, she now attributes not to her want of "sublime Wit" or to her "Female Pen" but to her headlong, unreflecting methods of composition. "1 writ it in a few Hours," she explains, and "never rested my Pen a Moment for Thought" (v, 511). Having embodied her romantic hopes in Oroonoko and then cast him upon the narrative tide of the Brief True Relation, it seems, she could only sit and watch him perish. Recounting her early meetings with the Royal Slave, the narrator says, "He call'd [me] his Great Mistress; and indeed my Word would go a great Way with him" (v, 176). In the event, his words were to go even farther with her, to an "other World" where English fiction had never been before and from which there was no returning.


4For information that would permit an accurate plotting of Behn's location on the map of ideas about the Golden Age, see her poem "The Golden Age," in The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Montague Summers, 6 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1915), VI, 138–44. Subsequent references to The Works of Aphra Behn appear in parentheses in the text. See also Harry Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969).

5 For detailed studies of the Brief True Relation, see Jarvis Means Morse, American Beginnings (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1952), ch. 2; and Wayne Franklin, Discoverers, Explorers, Settlers: The Diligent Writers of Early America (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979). Differences between this form and that of the romance are outlined in William C. Spengemann, The Adventurous Muse: The Poetics of American Fiction, 1789–1900 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), chs. 1 and 2.

6 Richard Hakluyt, Voyages (London: J. M. Dent, 1907), I, 19.

7 John Smith, Travels and Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Edward Arber and A. G. Bradley, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1910), II, 625.

8 For a full discussion of these cultural epiphanies in voyage narratives and their impact on literature, see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 222–29.

9 See, for example, George Guffey, "Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Occasion and Accomplishment," in Two English Novelists, by George Guffey and Andrew Wright (Los Angeles: Clark Memorial Library, 1975), pp. 3–41, esp. p. 37; and Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn (New York: Dial Press, 1980), pp. 288–89. Although published years later, we note, Goreau's biography does not confront Guffey's arguments against the idea of Behn's radicalism.

10 Quoted in Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra, p. 290.

11 Behn explicitly identifies Charles II with Christ in her Pindarick on the Death of Our Late Sovereign (London: J. Playford for H. Playford, 1685) and her Poem Humbly Dedicated to the Great Patern of Piety and Virtue Catherine Queen Dowager (London: J. Playford for H. Playford, 1685). Charles, Caesar, and Christ, of course, are symbolically akin in having all been kings betrayed by their "sons"—Monmouth, Brutus, and mankind.

Beverle Houston (essay date 1986)

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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 and its fantasy fears and wishes as it puts pressure on both plot and strategies of enunciation. First of all, the matter of excess. Oroonoko has been subject to a number of illuminating readings, focusing on its potential political implications in terms of a victimized young King and the Dutch menace, the role of the narrator in bringing exotic culture to the English readers, and, above all, the question of its truth to the life of its author, an issue that hangs on with peculiar tenacity. Yet for me, the fore-grounded quality, the power of the Romance as fantasy, its inescapable quality, has always been in the lingering images of the unbelievably extreme punishments to which its noble hero is subjected—in other words, the extraordinary excess of what happens to Oroonoko, the Royal Slave. First, the woman he loves is taken from him by his own grandfather and is later sold into slavery. In the second major division of the work, the glorious hero-as-victim is dismembered, hacked limb from limb, and the physical remains of his existence are distributed among a number of friends and enemies. These elements give the work the character it has in memory for me, and for many other readers such as Vita Sackville-West, who, in granting Behn the experiential basis of her realistic detail, locates the work's power, its center and organizing principles, in the images of "Oroonoko and Imoinda, glistening ebony, tortured figures that they are, running with little rivulets of blood, crowned with their martyrdom." So it is for me, and from these central events and images of excess, and from the contradictions that mark the work so strongly, I will construct a reading.

The conception and construction of Oroonoko are largely determined by a number of contradictions. First of all, in its primary concept, we find the irreconcilable and perverse doubleness of "Royal" and "Slave." The man Oroonoko is the site of tremendous power and appeal, one who evokes adoration: "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." Yet at the same time, he is utterly victimizable by every father figure/white man with whom he comes in contact and whom he is forced to trust—even Trefry is tricked by the Deputy Governor into giving Oroonoko advice that leads to his victimization. This central contradiction is carried out in smaller details as well. Oroonoko is "European" but "Savage," "Black" but "Roman." Thus we locate at the center of the work a figure, each of whose contradictory extremes seems to suggest the shadow of its own opposite. As in Christ himself, the beauty of the noble young god shimmers in a specially radiant way because his youthful glory itself conveys the suggestion of his ultimate victimization, his torturability, as it were.

As readers, we are taught to expect this contradiction once we have seen the usurpation of Imoinda and Oroonoko's entrapment by the English captain of the slave ship. After that, every time a white person, especially a male authority figure, tells Oroonoko how wonderful he is, or makes a promise of any kind, we are aware that these statements signal their own opposites; those who praise and support him are promising, by those very words, that sooner or later they will kill him. The full power of this contradiction (as hypocrisy) is displaced onto the figure of the Deputy Governor, who stands in for the narrator's father who died before he could assume office—one of the many fathers who is instrumental in Oroonoko's horrible fate. The narrator calls the Deputy Governor "the most fawning fair-tongued Fellow in the World … one that pretended the most Friendship to Caesar … now the only violent man against him …," and says that he is "thirsting after Revenge of another sort, than that of depriving him of life…." The revenge signalled by his fawning is apparently too horrible to describe at this point in the text. The slaves, too, who had bowed to his royal glories, now "by degrees … abandoned Caesar, and left him only Tuscan and his Heroick Imoinda." So, we often find that the tale of god-like glory [like Christ with Judas and Mary Magdelene, like Beowulf with his single remaining warrior,] seems to carry within itself its own reversal, its own contradiction of betrayal, victimization, and death.

We find the second major contradiction or combination of irreconcilable but interdependent opposites in the generic identity of Oroonoko. The mixed elements of Novel and Romance might be apporached in this way. The fate of Oroonoko and Imoinda themselves seems to lie at the center of the Romance/Fantasy element of the work, while the realism of its pre-Novel, travel-journal identity is carried by the commentary of the narrator, who is constructed as keeper of the real, supplier of details of the outside world, however exotic. She can be seen, as Martine Watson Brownley puts it, as mediator between the primitive and the European.

The doubleness that structures these contradictions can be seen, in a somewhat altered form, as structuring the work itself as a whole. We encounter essentially two Oroonoko stories: one of sexual usurpation and betrayal by his (grand)father, which puts him in the position of being trapped by the slave captain; and another, marked by his change of visual identity and name, is characterized by his betrayal and entrapment, not as a sexual rival, but as a social rebel. A page or two off the exact center of the text, Oroonoko is restored and reestablished as Caesar at a high point, with the adoration of all races at Surinam, so that he can be brought down again, but this time for having been incited to threaten authority more directly. These two stories can be read as a doubling of certain elements of the Oedipal drama, as I shall now try to show.

The Romance of Oroonoko and Imoinda and of Oroonoko as a Royal Slave can be read as a fantasy in which the young aspirant creates exaggerated images of personal power, glory, and sexuality which brings on the opposition of monstrous fathers who totally block the young man's trajectory. The gross transgression of the first usurpation is well signalled by the fact that the father figure is rendered as a grandfather who cannot consummate his piracy. The "old lover" is reported to be "troubled, for having been forced by an irresistible Passion, to rob his Son of a Treasure." Oroonoko is repositioned in the second half as a slave. The sexual usurpation is echoed in Trefry's noble restraint. He does not rape Imoinda: another near miss. Later, fear of this usurpation forces Oroonoko to kill Imoinda because he can no longer defend her against rape. (Let us note in passing that the threatened rape is narrativized in its significance for Oroonoko, the man, not for the woman herself; the woman functions as a token of power-exchange among the men.) In the second story, the moves of the young man to establish some sort of social power among the men who desire to control him utterly bring from the white rulers a completely annihilating image of retribution. The white Colonials are interchangeable as father doubles. At one point, the narrator tells us that Oroonoko had a great respect for Colonel Martin and took his advice like that of a parent. We are often told how Oroonoko wanted to love the captain or some other authority figure whom he trusted briefly. The attribution of the father role to the Colonials links his social identity as black threat to his earlier role as sexual aspirant: In both of these roles he will be crushed utterly in the name of racial and patriarchal hegemony.

This power struggle among a victimized god, all his fathers, and Imoinda, the foster-sister whom he desires, also involves a narrator constructed in contradiction as well. As the struggle of Behn's life revealed to her over and over, the society wishes to define the woman, like the slave, as utterly powerless, a token of exchange and helpless dependent in the world of men and property. In addition, as Patricia Meyer Spacks argues in "Ev'ry Woman Is at Heart a Rake," discourse at this time was beginning to define the woman as a non-sexual being as well. Yet in contradiction to those roles, it is the woman who manages the enunciation of this powerful Romance/fantasy called Oroonoko, mediating between two cultures but, more important for the text itself, acting like the lady in charge of secondary revision, trying to keep control of the fantasy through realism and other interventions, trying in vain to keep the lid on the excess into which the text is constantly erupting. (In fact, the realism itself is somewhat distressed, emerging out of the story in the form of numerous digressions.) Careful study of the positioning of the narrator reveals the contraries of intervention or absence at key moments of narrative pressure; indeed she flees at certain times. Not imbricated in the literal sexuality of the early phase between Oroonoko and his grandfather, she enters the scene right after the hero reencounters Imoinda in the new world. Early in this story, the narrator is called in to control a potential eruption: "I was obliged, by some Persons who fear'd a Mutiny … to discourse with Caesar…." A little later, there is trouble with the Indians, "So that we could scarse trust ourselves, without great Numbers, to go to any Indian Towns or Place where they abode, for fear they should fall upon us, as they did immediately after my coming away…." (Ital. mine.) No sooner does she leave the area than the Indians "cut in pieces all they could take, getting into Houses, and hanging up the Mother, and all her Children about her; and cut a Footman, I left behind me, all in Joints, and nail'd him to trees." During the abortive slave rebellion, while "Apprehension made all the Females of us fly down the River," the violence of the Romance erupts into images like the following: "When they thought they were sufficiently revenged on him, they unty'd him, almost fainting with loss of Blood, from a thousand Wounds all over his Body; from which they had rent his Clothes, and led him bleeding and naked as he was, and loaded him all over with Irons, and then rubb'd his Wounds, to compleat their Cruelty, with Indian Pepper, which had like to have made him raving mad; and in this Condition made him so fast to the Ground, that he could not stir, if his Pains and Wounds would have given him leave." But when she returns to the area, the narrator is still able to exert control: "Begging us to give him our Hands, he took them, and protested never to lift up his, to do us any harm. He had a great Respect for Colonel Martin, and always took his Counsel like that of a Parent…." The evocation of Colonel Martin's advice in this passage links the narrator's exercises of control with the authority of the parent and hence with that of the Colonials, with the superego, and with secondary revision in its functions of repression and rationalization. It betrays the narrator's fear of Oroonoko and foreshadows her final failure of control. Her last flight from the excesses of Oroonoko's fate comes after his decline following the killing of Imoinda and his attempt at disembowelment. The narrator tells us: "the earthy Smell about him so strong, that I was pursuaded to leave the place for some time…." Again, "I was no sooner gone" when the Deputy Governor sets in motion the final barbarity against Oroonoko. The narrator does not witness the return of the repressed horror of torture and dismemberment, the vision of torment and bondage that Northrop Frye tells us in the nightmare reversal of the Romances of god-like glory.

However, the narrator's role in Oroonoko is not defined simply in her function as failed censor allied with the Colonial hegemony. Rather, it is a complex interweaving of distances and identifications. By entering the text right after Oroonoko's reunion with Imoinda in the new world, she is metonymically identified with his beloved to some extent. They are both absent from his final agony, and as Brownley says of the narrator: "She does not finally trust him." As well she might not. After all, he has just murdered his beloved and failed to kill himself afterwards. Like Hamlet, he seems morally looser than we had thought. Without the woman as sign of his power, he seems to dissolve, as he did when he thought his grandfather had had Imoinda killed. Now that she is truly dead, he lies near her corpse for eight days, feebly trying somehow to die. So the woman is the source, not only of his ego identity, but also of his life organization and energy; her death is necessarily an expression of his defeat and dissolution. No wonder the narrator "does not finally trust him." As it is the narrator's despised father substitute (the Deputy Governor) who leads the army against Oroonoko, so it is Imoinda who inflicts on the bad father the wound that almost kills him. Thus the narrator and Imoinda can also be seen as standing in for each other in their hatred of the man who kills their beloved.

But perhaps most interesting in these signals of the narrator's multiple identifications are those with the hero himself. A number of times, throughout the work, she makes an identification between the inadequacy of Oroonoko's fame and the social inadequacy of woman-as-author. The following is typical: "But his Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his fame…." The "soft" Oroonoko and the narrator are further identified in their social limitations, she as woman, he as slave: "He liked the company of us Women much above the Men, for he could not drink and he is but an ill Companion in that country that cannot." And the hero, like the woman who writes, is completely isolated. What Lore Metzger says of the hero in her Introduction might almost be said of the narrator, and certainly of Behn at various times in her extraordinary life: "Separate from his kingdom and reduced to … impotence … he pits his personal code of honesty, honor, loyalty, and fortitude against the social order that sanctions self-interest, arrogant power, and sadistic brutality." In the end, the narrator cannot tolerate Oroonoko's despair because it parallels her own: "I was persuaded to leave the place for some time, (being myself but sickly, and very apt to fall into Fits of dangerous Illness upon any extraordinary Melancholy)."

As Judith Gardiner argues, Behn's identification with the male hero is consistent with her beliefs and with her other work. She analyzes Behn's belief in "each sex's capacity for the traditional traits of both." She goes on to explain the way in which "Behn's identification with the role of hero" helps to explain her attitudes toward the rogues, rebels, and kings who populate her works and her own Royalist romanticism.

So, like all women in patriarchy who wish to contribute to the cultural production of language-as-text, the position of the narrator (and of Behn herself) is elusive. Her identifications are multiple, androgynous, and shifting. The woman-as-failed-controller-of-the-repressed-fantastic looks at the events of Oroonoko. Seeing there the fantasy of the androgynous self-asdestroyed-hero, she gazes until she can't look any more and then, abandoning all attempts to maintain the repression, fearing the price that she-as-Imoinda and all women must pay for inciting desire, she flees the scene of textual eruption, releasing the tenuous hold of Realism on Romance, of Law on Desire. In this way, the Colonial tyranny, the tyranny of the father against the emerging sexuality of youth, and the repression of the woman by patriarchal tyranny are condensed in the various events and figures, and especially in the narator, of Oroonoko.

The last paragraph reads: "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 all Ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda." In the end, in the tradition of Lyric and Romance (and not at all like that of the Novel), the fate of the hero is eternally bound to the powers of the individual poet, and in this case, the name of the woman is the last word.

Michael McKeon (essay date 1987)

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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), "Nature performs its operations in all parts of the World, according to its primitive Fundamental Laws … The Monsters of Africa or the Indies, are no more surprising to the Inhabitants of these parts, than the Beasts that are commonly seen and bred among us are to the Europeans." Rather, it is our own capacity for knowledge that is relative to our concrete physical circumstances and opportunities. "We have taken for Fables what the Poets or the Ancients have told us of the first Inhabitants of the World," remarks a third, yet the natives of America answer well to those descriptions. "They who never saw more than their own Village, never imagin that Steeples are of any other fashion than their own … For of those things which we do not see, we know nothing but by the Report of others. Now Men have not reported to us all things for want of having been upon the Places." But then to dismiss as "romance" what has not yet been seen or reported, or if reported, not yet read, is (says a fourth) beyond foolishness.48

These self-defensive efforts by authors of voyages both "real" and "imaginary" find persuasive parallels in the more exotic of Aphra Behn's imaginary "true histories." The well-known claim to historicity that opens Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave. A True History (1688) is echoed, more succinctly, at the beginning of The Fair Jilt … (1696): "I do not pretend here to entertain you with a feign'd story, or any thing piec'd together with Romantick Accidents; but every Circumstance, to a Tittle, is Truth. To a great part of the Main, I my self was an Eye witness; and what I did not see, I was confirm'd of by Actors in the Intrigue, holy Men, of the Order of St. Francis"49 Frequent narrative intrusions of this sort occur throughout Behn's third-person Surinam histories, but no tension exists in her dual role as narrator and character, because both roles are dedicated to the single end of physically witnessing, and thereby authenticating, a central character whose personal history is distinct from her own. This authenticating end is also served by Behn's rendition of the "strange, therefore true" formula with reference to Oroonoko: "The Royal Slave I had the Honour to know in my Travels to the other World … If there be any thing that seems Romantick, I beseech your Lordship [Lord Maitland] to consider, these Countries do, in all things, so far differ from ours, that they produce inconceivable Wonders; at least, they appear so to us, New and Strange."50

The potential risks involved in this method of claiming historicity are fully actualized in Behn's travel narratives, whose naive empiricism betrays no parodic intent. If, in Vairasse d'Allais's "earthly paradise," natural effects are said at least to "look like miracles," Behn audaciously and unapologetically idealizes her Surinam as a prelapsarian Eden; the royal slave on whose historicity she elsewhere insists is made to fantasize about his beloved in the familiar figures and heightened language of romance; and the lovers, after a separation in the Old World, are reunited in the New with all the miraculousness of a romance discovery (see 2–3, 14, 43–44, 48–49). In the face of such incongruity, we might be tempted to suppose for writers like Behn an especially opportunistic "critical theory": only call your travel narrative a true history, and its historical truth will thereby be empowered to survive the most patent romance fictionalizing. The comparison with a highly self-conscious antiromance like Incognita is instructive, for Behn shares with Congreve the energizing antiromance impulse and the will to pursue questions of truth into the plot itself; yet the pursuit stops short of extreme skepticism even though the logic of that movement into self-parody feels at times quite implacable.

Behn values the Surinam Indians for their natural simplicity, and she derives from their example the precept "that simple Nature … better instructs the World, than all the Inventions of Man." (3). But she also knows that natural simplicity is an invitation to imposture, as one of her kinsmen discovers when the natives seek to deify him for the powers of his magnifying glass: "It were not difficult to establish any unknown or extravagant Religion among them, and to impose any Notions or Fictions upon 'em" (56). In passages like these, Behn is torn between her admiration for the natural receptiveness of credulity and the artful protections of skepticism, and in Oroonoko she creates a hero who embodies these antithetical qualities in recognizably Restoration guise. Schooled in an aristocratic doctrine that enjoins implicit faith in the word of others, Oroonoko falls easy victim to the routine duplicity of the English captain by whom he is enslaved: "And Oroonoko, whose Honour was such as he never had violated a Word in his life himself, much less a solemn Asseveration, believ'd in an instant what this Man said" (34–35). But he can also play the freethinker and make a "Jest" of the gullible "Faith" that Christians have in "our Notions of the Trinity" (46). When Oroonoko learns definitively that "there was no Faith in the White Men, or the Gods they ador'd," he is even obliged to embrace the decadence of literacy and documentary objectivity, resolving "never to credit one Word they spoke" and requiring that all pledges henceforth "should be ratify'd by their Hands in Writing" (66). But something is lost in this rueful conversion to Western skepticism, and Oroonoko's history soon after comes to its violent close in an apotheosis of desperate revenge and self-sacrifice.

The unstable compound that Oroonoko's character exists to mediate is most suggestively expressed by an earlier episode, in which his "great Curiosity" is so piqued by the incredible phenomenon of the South American "Numb-eel" that "for Experiment-sake" he grasps one of them and almost drowns himself (53). Here the blend of skepticism and credulity is conveyed by an engaging, if momentary, glimpse of Oroonoko as gentleman virtuoso of the Royal Society, and it is this same cultural type that his creator enacts in her own epistemological instability. Naive empiricism and the claim to historicity partake both of the skeptical denunciation of "all the inventions of man" and of the credulous faith that human inventions may thus be replaced by immediate perception and experience. As the ready idolatry of the Indians seems to show, however, neither does the absence of skepticism guarantee the absence of invention, which will always intervene in whatever shapes are conditioned by the particular cultural tribe to which we belong. For Behn this is the point at which skepticism becomes self-defeating, for it denies her the capacity to tell the truth; and she never is moved, like Congreve, to disclose the manipulative power of the author "to impose any notions or fictions upon" the reader.51 Because the parallel between credulous Indians and credulous readers never breaks the surface of narrative self-consciousness, Behn may perhaps be assured that our simple and receptive faith is rewarded not by imposture but by the truth of what really happened. The hope is that antiromance, the negation of the negation, will thus fulfill itself as the true history of travel narrative. The risk is that for skeptical readers it will simply seem the "new romance."


47 E.g., see Spenser's defense of his "voyage" to "Faerie lond" in The Faerie Queene (1590), II, proem. On the paradox see above, chap. I, nn. 73, 100, and chap. 2, nn. 11, 41.

48 Vairasse d'Allais, History (1675), sig. A4r; idem, History (1679), sig. A3r-v; Dellon, Voyage to the East-Indies, translator's "Preface to the Reader," sig. A6V; Heliogenes de L'Epy, A Voyage into Tartary … (1689), "The Preface," sig. A7r-A8v, A9V; Father Louis Hennepin, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America … (1698), 4.

49 Aphra Behn, The Fair Jilt; or, The History of Prince Tarquin, and Miranda, in The Histories and Novels Of the Late Ingenious Mrs Behn … (1696), 4. Compare Behn's dedication to Henry Pain: "This little History … is Truth; Truth, which you so much admire … This is Reality, and Matter of Fact, and acted in this our latter Age … [Part of it] I had from the Mouth of this unhappy Great Man [Tarquin], and was an Eye-Witness to the rest" (sig. A2V, A3r). For other claims to historicity see 19, 24, 35, 161. Cf. Behn, Oroonoko, ed. Lore Metzger (New York, Norton, 1973), 1; subsequent citations will be to this edition and will appear in the text. For a summary of the scholarship arguing the fictionality of Behn's experiences in Surinam as recounted in these writings, see George Guffey, "Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Occasion and Accomplishment," in Two English Novelists: Aphra Behn and Anthony Trollope, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), 5–8.

50Histories and Novels Of … Mrs Behn, "Epistle Dedicatory," sig. A5V-A6V.

51 Contrast Congreve's teasing invitation that we discover a "force, or a whim of the author's"; see above, chap. 1, n. 124.

Katharine M. Rogers (essay date 1988)

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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 Surinam2 as the daughter of the Lieutenant-Generalelect of the colony, along with her mother, sister, and brother. Her father died on the voyage, so the family arrived in Surinam with high social status but no political position, and remained there (presumably) until the next boat back to England. In the colony she met a remarkable slave, Oroonoko, a prince who had been kidnapped by a slaving captain. Oroonoko told her his adventures in his own country; she witnessed his reunion with his beloved Imoinda, his growing realization that the whites had no intention of freeing and returning them to their native land, his consequent organization of a slave rebellion, and his gruesome execution.

There is no documentary evidence that someone named Amis or Johnson (Aphra's possible maiden names) was sent as Lieutenant-General to Surinam, nor that the Governor, Lord Willoughby of Parham, had any intention of replacing the incumbent, William Byam. But none of her contemporaries—and there were many who seized every possible pretext for attacking her character—suggested that she had not been there. Harrison Platt has argued convincingly that a letter from Byam telling of the sudden departure of Astraea and Celadon from Surinam refers to Aphra and a male friend named William Scot: the two were known to have used these code names when they were engaged in secret service in the Low Countries in 1666,3 and Astraea of course became Aphra's literary name. Platt cites further correspondence which refers to ladies living at St. John's Hill, precisely the plantation where the narrator of Oroonoko claims to have stayed, in January 1664. Per haps Aphra's father had been coming to take a minor office (which she raised in accordance with the heightening usual in romance); perhaps she met Scot in Surinam and through him became involved in local politics. If these letters indeed refer to Aphra, she would have been in Surinam in January 1664 and left in March 1664. Oroonoko could have been brought on the Guinea slave ship which was known to have arrived at the Surinam River in January 1664.4 In the story, his demands for freedom are put off until the Lord Governor should come; this pretext could have been based on fact, since Lord Willoughby was imminently expected from Barbados over a period of many months, but did not arrive until November 18, 1664;5 that is, after the presumed departure of Aphra, which followed the execution of Oroonoko. (Her story also mentions Willoughby's subsequent death at sea.)6

Almost certainly, Behn did consult George Warren's Impartial Description of Surinam for Oroonoko, as Bernbaum pointed out; she used many of his details about the native animals and the Indians and elaborated his (heightened?) account of the powers of a "numbeel" (electric eel) into an appropriate adventure for her hero.7 The obvious explanation, however, is that, want ing a vivid and authentic background for her story, she consulted Warren to refresh twenty-five-year-old memories. Some of her details, such as some Indian words, are not found in Warren; nor are the larger Indians of a different tribe who come over the mountains carrying gold dust and knotted strings which record their journey, evidently Incan quipus (pp. 188–89). And her claim that she brought feather costumes home which were used in John Dryden and Robert Howard's The Indian Queen (p. 130) is substantiated by a picture of Anne Bracegirdle in the title role of that play.8

Even more convincing evidence of her having been on the spot is her detailed and partisan account of local politics: had she not actually been there, it is unlikely that she would have known so much or felt so passionately. William Byam, the villain of Oroonoko, was in fact the Deputy-Governor (and Lieutenant-General) of Surinam. He may have been an effective leader, but his enemies accused him of tyrannical high-handedness, cruelty, and disregard for law. He was also accused of cowardice in surrendering the colony to the Dutch in 1667 (though subsequently acquitted by a court martial). His defense argument that the colony was disunited and poorly armed substantiates Behn's caustic description of the militia.9 Major James Banister was also a real man, an associate of Byam's who succeeded him as deputy governor and therefore might plausibly have been a member of the Governor's Council in Oroonoko's time.10 John Treffry (Trefry in Oroonoko) was in fact the overseer of St. John's Hill. His three-day journey up the river to take Oroonoko to this plantation is consistent with the layout of the colony, since plantations lined the banks for many miles beyond the port where the slave ship would have docked." Finally, "the great Oliverian" Harry Marten (p. 180, Martin in Oroonoko) was, historically, a zealous republican; and he had one brother, George. Captain George Marten (called Colonel in the story) was naturally off stage during most of the action, since his plantation was located, as Behn says, about three days journey down river from the main scene.12 George's character may be further corroborated by the fact that Behn did, as she claimed in Oroonoko (p. 198), represent him as George Marteen, a dashing young hero, in her comedy The Widow Ranter. Behn's more general references to the troubles of the colony after the main action of her story concludes with Oroonoko's death are also factually based: Surinam was taken by the Dutch, retaken by the English, and finally ceded to the Dutch, with consequent loss to the English planters; there was a disastrous epidemic in 1666 (in which George Marten died), and the previously friendly Indians took to raiding plantations and massacring their inhabitants.13

Even those who accept the (partial) authenticity of the Surinam scenes are likely to dismiss the African background and the character of the hero as far-fetched romance. Certainly the adventures at the court of Coramantien suspiciously resemble those of Restoration heroic drama. The love of Oroonoko and Imoinda is presented with an exaggerated sentimentality and a precious language totally remote from African culture. However, other details—such as the king's seraglio, Oroonoko's knowledge of European culture, his special treatment in Surinam, and his extreme fortitude under torture—are not so fantastic as they seem.

In its major outlines, Behn's representation of West African culture is accurate. (She could have got her information both from published accounts and from talking with slaves and owners in Surinam or traders and travelers in England.)14 The kingdoms of West Africa waged war constantly, and the victors regularly sold their prisoners of war to European slavers. The trade was carried on by and for the benefit of the ruling class, though it was the king and his agents (not the general, as Behn says), who had "all the profit" (p. 134). Strongly marked class stratification, while not universal, was common. European observers particularly noticed the extreme deference paid to the king. An Englishman at the court of Benin in 1553 wished that Christians showed their Savior Christ "the great reverence" the subjects of the King of Benin showed him.15 Since kings were regarded as divine, their sub jects accepted an obligation to implicit obedience, "and the most oppressive mandates are submitted to without a murmur";16 nevertheless, in practice, they might lie to their king or evade his commands, as happens in Oroonoko. In Whydah, a West African coastal king dom, a person meeting a superior would drop to his or her knees and kiss the earth three times, remaining on the ground "till the other departs, or says it is enough." This deference was also shown by younger to older brothers, children to fathers, and wives to husbands. Such prostrations, however distasteful they seem to us, were seen by seventeenth century observers, presumably including Behn, as evidence of politeness; William Bosman, a captain of the time, contrasted these people with other groups who lived "together like Brutes, without any Distinction."17

Subjection of women was almost universal in black Africa. Wives might not eat with their husbands and never spoke to them "but on their Knees."18 Polygamy was general in the upper classes, and kings might have hundreds (by some accounts, thousands) of wives and concubines. Adultery was punished by execution or sale into slavery overseas. On the other hand, when the king got tired of a favorite wife and sent her away, he would provide her with an allotment of land for her maintenance.19 Behn makes a point of praising the Africans for not casting off women when they grew tired of them (p. 139).

Like the old king in Oroonoko, the King of Whydah spent most of his life in his seraglio. Behn's use of this word does not reveal confusion between black Africans and Moors; it was commonly, and accurately, used by African travelers to describe a king's household, in which a large number of women would be kept secluded. Palaces were quite elaborate. That of the King of Ardra, though built of clay, was spacious and enclosed by walls five feet thick. It consisted "of large Courts, surrounded with Porticos, over which lie the Apartments … The Gardens were spacious, laid out into long, strait Alleys," with trees for shade and fruit and beds of herbs and flowers. It had some European furnishings, including large Turkey carpets.20 The Dahomean king's palace also covered many acres, consisted of several courtyards, was surrounded by substantial walls and well guarded by women and eunuchs. Men rarely entered the inner recesses, and the female apartments were "guarded from intrusion, with more than eastern jealousy."21 A king had an unquestioned right to take any woman whom he wanted, regardless of her or her family's wishes.22 Wives were subjected to "strict confinement," and the king's women were forbidden "to hold discourse with any man." However, the wives did occasionally dance in public, well guarded,23 as they do in Oroonoko. Any man who barely touched one of them, even by accident, was liable to death or enslavement. Nevertheless, they did sometimes manage to have affairs, although one suspects rhetorical heightening in the claim that: "Notwithstanding the rigorous Punishments, the Women of the Seraglio, … chuse to run all Hazards, rather than want a Gallant. Whidah would furnish abundant Memoirs for a Negro Atalantis." An authentic experience of Captain William Snelgrave in 1730 bears a remarkable resemblance to what happened to Onahal and Imoinda. The King of Dahomey sent him two women, one past fifty and the other about twenty, and wanted him to buy them as a pair "and not let them be redeemed by anyone." The older woman had "highly offended the King, as he suspected, by assisting his Majesty's Women in their Intrigues."24

As Behn says, girls were given systematic sex education, including "love-language" and various positions for intercourse, by mature women; and they were expected to remain virgin until marriage. Her statement that "the Way to be great" was to court "She-favourites … the Persons that do all Affairs and Business at Court" (p. 147) also proves to be surprisingly accurate; for, in spite of the general subjection of women, certain of the king's wives constantly attended his conferences with his ministers and mediated between them.25 Imoinda's martial exploits (p. 195) derive from the women warriors of Dahomey, who made a strong impression on European visitors. These women, called wives of the king (though, unlike Imoinda, they were not sexual partners), were given regular military training; they normally acted as bodyguards and occasionally followed him to war. Among them were young girls who were accomplished archers.26

Other accurate details of African life which appear in Oroonoko include the name of Oroonoko's best friend, Aboan (who was an actual coastal king) and his army's use of tents (so called by an eighteenth century observer, though they were actually simple huts).27 It is appropriate that Oroonoko should sustain himself with a pipe during his final torture, since blacks were very fond of tobacco: in Africa they were "always smoaking Tobacco" in nicely made pipes. They believed, as Imoinda does, "that when they die they return to their own Country and Friends again."28

The physical descriptions of Oroonoko and Imoinda, as black versions of standard romance heroes, obviously owe much to convention. However, the details are not entirely fantastic. Travelers constantly remarked that one tribe or another was better looking than others, meaning closer to the European standard. Like Oroonoko, the Issinese of the Gold Coast combed their hair out so that they could wear it in long ringlets on their shoulders. As Imoinda was "carved in fine Flowers and Birds all over her Body," noblemen of one Guinea kingdom "pounce and raise their Skins in divers Figures, like flowered Damask."29

Oroonoko is supposed to come from the kingdom of Coramantien; that is, he is a Cormantine (also known as Coromantee and Koromantin). This is one of Behn's few specific inaccuracies, but one which she shared with British colonials in general. Actually, Coramantien was not an African kingdom but a town on the Gold Coast, where the English had built their major trading station. "Cormantines" could be members of any tribe who had been shipped out from this port. For the planters in America, the immediate source of slaves was more evident than their tribal origins. Nevertheless, while the term "Cormantine" is not anthropologically accurate, it was in standard use in the colonies, and it denoted the group to which Oroonoko would appropriately belong. Cormantines were supposed to be the finest of all blacks—good-looking, daring, stoical, loyal, but implacably resentful of injustice.30

Oroonoko's familiarity with European manners and languages and his general sophistication are not improbable in view of the fact that coastal blacks had been dealing with Europeans for two centuries: the Portuguese arrived on the West African coast in the mid fifteenth century, the other Western European nations soon after. Moreover, in Oroonoko's time they dealt with the black ruling class on equal terms: traders would exchange hospitality, banter, and compliments with representatives of the local king; and then they would arrive at a mutually acceptable bargain. European visitors treated the rulers with respect, and kings' sons were educated in Europe. An agent of the French West India Company, in 1669, described the Prince of Ardra as a big, handsome man with "an Air of Grandeur and Dignity, tempered with a Sweetness, that at once gained him Love and Respect." Entertaining the Frenchman at dinner, the Prince proved a gracious host and kept "up the Conversation with Spirit." He was quite well "acquainted with the Situation and Affairs of Europe" and "asked several Questions … which discovered his Penetration, and the Delicacy of his Genius." After dinner, they washed from crystal bowls and drank "Palm-Wine, Sack, Port, and French Wines."31 Already in the sixteenth century, the King of Benin spoke good Portuguese; and by Oroonoko's time many blacks spoke European languages. There were enough Europeans in the area that men of wit and learning, like Oroonoko's French tutor, might well be among them.

It was not evident in the seventeenth century that enslaving black people is an extreme expression of racism. Blacks themselves saw slavery as a matter of class rather than race, and so did Europeans. For example, the King of Ardra sent an ambassador to Louis XIV of France in 1670. This man went with a suitable entourage and was received with magnificence by King Louis, made much of by the French, and in general treated like any European ambassador. Under the hatches of the ship which carried him in style to France was a consignment of his fellow blacks, destined for slavery in the West Indies.32 Just as there was a sharp distinction between blacks who were to be treated as business associates and blacks who were to be treated as slaves, there was a sharp distinction between "legitimate" traders, who dealt only in slaves bought from their legal owners, and lawless ones, like the captain who kidnapped Oroonoko. Legitimate traders, regular agents of the African Companies, often complained of those who antagonized the blacks by treating them rudely or by kidnapping free people.33

Once kidnapped, of course, it was difficult for a person to establish his rights. But such people might get special treatment, as Oroonoko does. In 1476, a Spanish slaving captain invited on board a black king who regularly sold his prisoners of war to the Portuguese. "After the feast was ended, the patron invited him to visit the interior of the ship," then promptly seized him, together with "140 nobles of splendid physique." The king, a royalist like Oroonoko (p. 163), asked the Spaniards "whether they obeyed any king, and, when he was told they obeyed a most noble one, he expressed his confidence that he would free him from such an iniquitous captivity." On arrival in Spain, they "wished to force him to walk in the crowd amongst the other slaves. But he resisted, and said that they should take him either dragging by a rope or on horseback, because his misfortune must be either terrible or dignified." The local commander was sufficiently impressed to have a horse brought; the king mounted and "began to march with a majestic air." Though King Ferdinand of Spain, hearing of this, ordered the black king to be released, some months passed before he was repatriated, and even so his relatives were sold as slaves. The friar who wrote this account (which was printed in 1490) sums up: "That savage maintained a certain regal authority during his captivity, and he displayed dignity in his countenance, gravity in speech, prudence in conduct, and courage in adversity."34 Behn might actually have seen such a man in England in 1678, when a tall African king, kidnapped by an English interloper, sold as a slave in Jamaica, and redeemed by a London merchant, was on display there.35

Even hardened dealers were capable of recognizing, even in a way respecting, extraordinary quality in a slave. Looking over slaves in a holding pen in Africa, John Atkins noticed a particularly big, stern-looking man who "seemed to disdain his Fellow-Slaves for their Readiness to be examined, and as it were scorned looking at us, refusing to rise or stretch out his Limbs as the Master commanded." As a result, the master whipped him ferociously, "all which the Negro bore with Magnanimity, shrinking very little, and shedding a Tear or two, which he endeavoured to hide as tho' ashamed of." This man, called Captain Tomba, had led his people against the slavers and been captured by stratagem. Once on the slave ship, Tomba plotted with four of his countrymen and a woman slave to seize the deck and escape to the shore. They almost succeeded, killing most of the few men on deck, but were caught in the nick of time. The captain tortured three of the men and the woman to death, but contented himself with savagely whipping Tomba and the other leading slave.36 Evidently the market value of a strong slave outweighed his potential dangerousness; this explains why Byam abstained from killing Oroonoko upon capturing him after his rebellion failed.

The grisly details of Oroonoko's execution and his preternatural stoicism under torture are authenticated by actual events. Whipping a slave raw and then rubbing his wounds with pepper was a regular punishment. In 1722, a condemned black in Martinique asked for tobacco and then sustained burning to death without saying a word; he kept on smoking even after his legs burst in the fire. A Cormantine slave in Jamaica, being slowly burned to death for rebellion, "uttered not a groan, and saw his legs reduced to ashes with the utmost firmness and composure"; at this point, he managed to free one of his arms, "snatched a brand from the fire that was consuming him, and flung it in the face of the executioner."37 Slave rebellions were common in Surinam, according to Warren. Rebels were likely to commit suicide rather than be taken, and if they yielded alive on a fraudulent promise of pardon, as Oroonoko did (pp. 196–97), they would suffer "the most exquisite tortures can be inflicted upon them … without shrinking." Often the rebellions failed for the same reason Oroonoko's did, from disunion among the slaves because they came from competing nations.38

Oroonoko acts as a traditional African king when he sells his prisoners of war as slaves. That the involvement of Europeans in the slave trade greatly increased its destructiveness is obvious now, but could not have been to Africans in his time. It was assumed that the conqueror had proven himself a better man than the conquered and therefore had the right to dispose of their lives as he chose—to sacrifice them to his ancestors, to use their labor in his own country, or to sell them overseas. This is a key argument in Oroonoko's appeal to the slaves to revolt: had the white colonists proven themselves better men by conquering the blacks in battle, it would not be disgraceful to submit to them (p. 191). The same rationale was used by whites to make some sense of their attitude. Jean Barbot, a seventeenth century agent of the French African Company, called on Old Testament precedent: among the Israelites, victors had the right to kill their captives, but might decide it was better "to save their lives and make use of their service"; the conqueror rightly owned the children of slaves because "they could never have been born, had he not preserved the father."39 Even the libertarian John Locke used a similar argument to rationalize slavery (and his own investment in the Royal African Company): slaves, "being Captives taken in a just War, are by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters." Somehow the same right extends to those who buy such legitimate captives. Having, by this theory, forfeited their lives, these people could not complain of injustice if they were enslaved rather than killed.40

But rationalizing slavery as moral did not necessarily entail hatred or contempt for black people. Thomas Phillips, a seventeenth century slave-ship captain, rejected with horror the proposal that he mutilate some of his slave cargo to terrify the rest, on the grounds that they were human beings like himself:

excepting their want of Christianity and true religion (their misfortune and not their fault) [they] are as much the work of God's hands, and no doubt as dear to him as ourselves; nor can I imagine why they should be despis'd for their colour … I can't think there is any intrinsick value in one colour more than another, nor that white is better than black, only we think so because we are so … as [do] … the blacks, who … say, the devil is white.41

It seems clear, then, that Behn made a serious effort to fortify her romance with realistic detail. She followed the outlines of what was known in her time and also did research to substantiate her portrayal of Oroonoko's situation in Africa and in Surinam. Of course, she went on to enhance the facts, in accordance with contemporary esthetic ideals. Like Dryden dealing with Mexican history in The Indian Emperor, she took "the liberty of a Poet, to adde, alter, or diminish, as I thought might best conduce to the beautifying of my work."42 Oroonoko's natural nobility and incredible prowess in war align him with the heroes of the heroic plays, and her remarkable statement that the best lovers are great soldiers (p. 137) echoes a convention of that drama of "love and valor."43 In the same way that she elevates herself as narrator to daughter of the Lieutenant-General of the colony, she makes Oroonoko entirely superior to physical pain and shows Imoinda's beauty overpowering every male, black or white, in her vicinity. Nevertheless, Behn showed far more genuine interest in foreign cultures and concern for probability than did the heroic dramatists. While they might take advantage of their exotic settings to make cross-cultural comparisons, these have none of the specificity of Behn's naked, guilt-free Indians or polygamous, status-conscious Africans. There are no recognizable features of Aztec culture in The Indian Emperor.

Though heroic play conventions weaken the realism of Oroonoko, they contribute to its symbolic power. Oroonoko is not just a petty African chief, but a natural king like Dryden's Almanzor, an embodiment of "natural"—actually ideal—honesty and nobility, outside of and immeasurably superior to the corrupt society of his story. Oroonoko is not a fetishist as superstitious as his Christian oppressors, but a spokesman for natural reason against sectarian dogma and hypocrisy. Like Dryden's Montezuma, he is given the opportunity to shine in contrast to self-righteous European Christians. In the very act of torturing Montezuma to reveal where his gold is, a priest cants: "Marke how this Impious Heathen Justifies/ His owne false Gods, and our true God denyes." Montezuma retorts that he will not betray "The light of Nature."44 In the same way, Oroonoko rejects the doctrine of the Trinity as irrational (p. 175) and highlights the nauseating hypocrisy of Christians who, utterly lacking in honesty themselves, distrust a "heathen" because he cannot swear by the "true God" (pp. 163–64). In the best seventeenth-century Epicurean tradition, Oroonoko demonstrates that personal honor and concern for other people are more reliable supports for moral behavior than are religious professions and the hypothetical rewards of some future state. He also shares the Restoration true wit's values in his confidence that "A Man of Wit could not be a Knave or Villain" (p. 168).

An exposure of Christian hypocrisy is directly used to attack slavery in a work which appeared a few years before Oroonoko, Thomas Tryon's Friendly Advice to the Gentlemen-Planters of the East and West Indies (1684). Tryon also presents a slave who is highly moral but despises doctrinal argument and religious intolerance and rejects as illogical the concepts of the Resurrection and the Holy Trinity when his master tries to explain them. As Oroonoko charges that no one professed so much as the Christians and performed so little (p. 196), Tryon's slave says the world despises Christians since their lives belie their professed faith.45

Very few people in the seventeenth century would have agreed with Tryon's outright condemnation of slavery; Behn was not an abolitionist any more than her hero was. On the other hand, it is surely a distortion to deny her any serious concern with the subject, as when George Guffey sees Oroonoko, the maltreated prince, as a stand-in for James II, who was in imminent danger of deposition at the time Behn, an ardent royalist, was writing.46 The abundant detail she provides about Africa, Surinam, and slavery emphasizes Oroonoko's identity as a black man. Her representation of this black man as clearly superior to every white person around him inescapably tells us that it is not right to enslave people because they are black. Once in chains, Oroonoko's race denies him the freedom to which his class and personal worth entitle him. Behn's exposure of Christian hypocrisy demolishes the rationalization that slavery brought to blacks the blessings of European culture. And Oroonoko's eloquent speech to his fellow slaves directly asserts that it is beneath human dignity to submit to slavery at all (p. 190). Certainly the following century thought Behn was serious about slavery: Oroonoko was among the English novels most widely read in eighteenth century France, because the French saw it as an abolitionist tract.47 And even though Thomas Southerne's play Oroonoko softened and adulterated Behn's message, it aroused powerful anti-slavery feeling in eighteenth century audiences.

Behn used this romantic tale to prove a serious point—to attack the conventional "respectable" morality that professes Christianity at the same time that, on the one hand, it abandons a mistress "to Want, Shame, and Misery" (p. 139) and, on the other, it shamelessly cheats people who are not Christians. The significant theme of Oroonoko gives it an intellectual weight and a power to move which sets it above typical sixteenth and seventeenth century fiction. Behn's own other tales, for example, play endless variations on model courtships and contrived love difficulties.

A significant and deeply felt subject perhaps inspired Behn to unusual efforts toward making her story believable. Her use of realistic detail was not new, for predecessors such as Thomas Nashe and Thomas Deloney had used such details, typically seamy ones, in their realistic fiction. But while their aim was to reproduce common life vividly, hers was to ground extraordinary adventures in actuality. Here she anticipates the Defoe of Robinson Crusoe, as she does also in her use of a clearly defined narrator.48 First person narration is used in earlier fiction, such as Nashe's Unfortunate Traveler and Joseph Kepple's The Maiden-head Lost by Moon-light, but the narrator is sketchily characterized (if at all) and soon disappears from the main plot. In contrast, Behn tells most of her stories through a narrator who is female, Tory, the same person who wrote her plays (mentioned in "The Dumb Virgin," p. 429, as well as Oroonoko, p. 198), and a forthright critic of self-righteous snooping (as in "The Adventure of the Black Lady," pp. 8–10).

Only in Oroonoko, however, does the narrator have a definite social position in the world of the story. She is placed as an intelligent upper class woman who is fascinated by the exotic cultures she encounters, sensitive enough to appreciate Oroonoko, able to relate to him and win his trust because of her isolation from the status and power structure of colonial society, and for the same reason powerless to influence events and thus avert the catastrophe.49 Lacking the definition of Defoe's narrators, she can still comment consistently on the action and provide an intellectual context for it. Despite obvious weaknesses in structure and misjudgments of tone, Oroonoko brings together romance, authenticity, and moral vision in a way that presages the great fictional achievements of the eighteenth century.


1 Ernest Bernbaum, "Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko," in Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1913).

2 Some say the colony involved is modern Guyana. However, since the narrator explicitly states that Oroonoko's slave ship "arriv'd at the Mouth of the River of Surinam" (p. 166), a look at the map indicates modern Surinam. It makes little difference in any case, since the area was not clearly defined in the seventeenth century.

3 Harrison Gray Platt, "Astraea and Celadon: An Untouched Portrait of Aphra Behn," PMLA 49 (1934): 547–48.

4Publications of the Hakluyt Society, Ser. 2, Vol. 56: Colonising Expeditions to the West Indies and Guiana (London: Hakluyt Society, 1925), 190.

5 James A. Williamson, English Colonies in Guiana and on the Amazon 1604–1668 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), p. 175.

6 Aphra Behn, The Works, ed. Montague Summers (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967), 5:189. All subsequent references to Oroonoko and other novellas by Behn are to this edition and volume.

7 George Warren, An Impartial Description of Surinam (London: Nathaniel Brooke, 1667), p. 2; Behn, pp. 182–83.

8 For the Indian words, see B. Dhuicq, "Further Evidence on Aphra Behn's Stay in Surinam," Notes and Queries 26 (1979): 524–26. In "New Evidence of the Realism of Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko," Bulletin of the New York Public Library 74 (1970), H. A. Hargreaves describes a picture of Anne Bracegirdle carrying a feather fan such as the Indians used to blow up fires, while her two attendants wear feather crowns ("glorious Wreaths") exactly like those worn by the Indians of Guyana (pp. 442–44). Since the feather costumes would have been quite old by the time Bracegirdle played this role, perhaps the crowns had become too shabby for the leading lady herself to wear.

9Colonising Expeditions, pp. 184–85 N, 199; Behn, pp. 193–94.

10 Bernbaum, p. 422; Behn, p. 207.

11 Williamson, p. 160. There is some confusion in the story between St. John's Hill and Parham or Parham-House plantations. Treffry, as overseer of St. John's Hill, presumably bought Oroonoko to work there (p. 166); yet Oroonoko was "destin'd a Slave" at Parham-House (p. 169). Perhaps the two plantations were adjacent, or perhaps the two names referred to the same plantation: Parham-House "was on the same plantation" (p. 174). In any case, the area was somehow under the jurisdiction of the absent governor, Willoughby. Sir Robert Harley, the absentee owner of St. John's Hill, was a friend and subordinate of Willoughby's; and Treffry is referred to in a letter of Byam's as an agent of Willoughby's.

12 Behn, p. 207; Platt, p. 550.

13 Behn, pp. 183–84, 208; Platt, p. 550; Nassy, David, J. H. Barrios, et al., Essai historique sur la colonie de Surinam (Amsterdam: S. Emmering, 1968), p. 32.

14 From the beginning of the seventeenth century, firsthand reports from travellers in West Africa were available in every country in western Europe. Despite obvious difficulties in understanding an alien culture, these accounts are considered accurate enough to be accepted by scholars today. Hakluyt's collection of voyages was published in 1589–1600, Purchas's Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchase His Pilgrimes in 1625; both contain reports on Africa. I have supplemented these early accounts with more detailed ones from Astley's (1745), Churchill's (1746), and Pinkerton's (1816) collections, which include much seventeenth century material; it is likely that the information they provide would have been circulating orally long before it appeared in print. These further substantiate Behn's accuracy. Although Oroonoko came from the Gold Coast (modern Ghana), I have included details from the neighboring kingdoms of Whydah, Benin, and Dahomey, slightly east on the Guinea Coast (modern Benin), on the grounds that neither Behn nor any other European who had not been to Africa would have made fine distinctions among tribes in the same general area; moreover, the culture of West Africa was fairly uniform.

The only definite inaccuracy I have found in Behn's account of Africa is her statement that a son or grandson could not take a deceased father's wives (p. 142). Actually, the universal custom seems to have been to allot a dead man's wives to his sons, who would have conjugal relations with any except their own mother.

15 Richard Hakluyt, ed., The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1904), 6:149. Cf. Behn, pp. 140, 170.

16 Archibald Dalzel, The History of Dahomy, an Inland Kingdom of Africa (London: T. Spilsbury, 1793), p. ix.

17 Thomas Astley, ed., A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels (London: Thomas Astley, 1745), 3:14–15, 21, 46–47.

18 Astley, 3:46–47. Cf. Behn, pp. 193, 202.

19 Astley, 2:285.

20 Astley, 3:46–47, 82.

21 Dalzel, pp. xiii–xiv.

22 Melville J. Herskovitz, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (New York: J. J. Augustin, 1938), 1:338–39. Cf. Behn, p. 147.

23 Dalzel, pp. 96, 98, 131.

24 Astley, 2:500, 3:19, 48; cf. Behn, p. 150.

25 Behn, p. 147; Herskovitz, 1:110–11, 277–78, 281–82.

26 Dalzel, p. xi; Herskovitz, 2:89.

27 Astley, 1:167; Behn, p. 156; Dalzel, p. 31. Jamoan could also be a genuine Gold Coast name: Tshi names include Abo, Boam; and Amoa. "Oroonoko" is not African and presumably derives from the Orinoco River (sometimes called Oroonoque); perhaps Behn wanted to separate him from African society and connect him with the golden age-noble savage associations of the New World. See Uwe Boker, "Namengebung in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," Anglia 90:1/2 (1972): 95 ff.

28 Astley, 2:265–66, 296; Behn, p. 202.

29 Astley 1:148, 2:433, 435; Behn, pp. 136, 174.

30 Wylie Sypher, "A Note on the Realism of Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko," Modern Language Quarterly 3 (1942): 402–03. The confusion among tribes was compounded by the regular practice, alluded to in Oroonoko (p. 166), of separating compatriots in the colonies.

31 Astley, 3:67.

32 Astley, 3:74 ff.

33 John Pinkerton, ed., A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World (London: Longman et al., 1814), 16:489; Churchill, ed., A Collection of Voyages and Travels (London: Lintot and Osborn, 1746), 5:110.

34Publications of the Hakluyt Society, Ser. 2, Vol. 86: Europeans in West Africa 1450–1560, trans. and ed. John William Blake (London: Hakluyt Society, 1941), 216–17.

35 W. J. Cameron, New Light on Aphra Behn (Auckland, N.Z.: University of Auckland, 1961), p. 7. In another case, the King of Annamaboe sent his son with a companion to be educated in England. Instead, the slaving captain sold them in the West Indies. However, when the story became known in England, the two youths were ransomed by the British Government, brought to England, and suitably educated. Horace Walpole wrote in 1749: "There are two black princes of Annamaboe here, who are in fashion in all assemblies." See Basil Davidson, Black Mother: The Years of the African Slave Trade (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), p. 274. The most famous eighteenth century case of a "wrongfully" enslaved black was that of Job ben Solomon, sent to the coast by his father, a prominent Moslem priest, to sell some slaves; on the way he was captured by members of a hostile tribe and himself sold to an English captain. Like Oroonoko, he offered to ransom himself in slaves (Behn p. 175—Job offered two for one; Oroonoko, "a vast Quantity" for himself and Imoinda); but they could not be obtained before the captain sailed for Maryland. There Job was sold, and only got his freedom because a letter he wrote to his father drew attention to him. He too spent time in England and was well treated there, even while he was still legally a slave. See Douglas Grant, The Fortunate Slave: An Illustration of African Slavery in the Early Eighteenth Century (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968).

36 Elizabeth Donnan, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1930), 2:265–66.

37 Sypher, pp. 404–05.

38 Warren, p. 19.

39 Churchill, 5:272. Actually, even in Oroonoko's time, not all slaves had been conquered in war. Some people were enslaved for debt or crime (including adultery), and some unscrupulous kings raided peaceful villages to take slaves.

40 Qtd. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 118–21.

41 Donnan, 1:403.

42 Dedication, qtd. in Dryden, Four Tragedies, ed. Lester Beaurline (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1967), p. 31.

43 John Dryden, Three Plays, ed. George Saintsbury (New York: Hill and Wang, n.d.), p. 8.

44 Dryden, Four Tragedies, pp. 90, 92. Though it is unlikely that a real-life Oroonoko would have been a freethinker, there are a few references in the literature on Africa that support Behn's interpretation. One writer says that some of the blacks have heard of Jesus and say he was a very good man, but "The Doctrine of the Incarnation is a great Rock of Offence to them." Europeans say much of the absurd superstitions of the Africans, but one claims that "The wiser Sort, and the Grandees" of Whidah are freethinkers who believe the priests to be impostors, "as they often own to the Whites, in whom they can confide," but that they cannot reveal their skepticism "lest the Priests should raise the Populace against them" (Astley 2:296,3:35).

45 Ruthe T. Sheffey, "Some Evidence for a New Source of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," Studies in Philology 59 (1962): 53–57.

46 George Guffey, "Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Occasion and Accomplishment," in Two English Novelists: Aphra Behn and Anthony Trollope (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1975). This interpretation of Oroonoko as James II in blackface seems to me remarkably far-fetched, although it is supported by Marten's reference to slaughtered Oroonoko as "a mangled King" (p. 208).

47 Edward D. Seeber, "Oroonoko in France in the Eighteenth Century," PMLA 51 (1936): 954–55.

48 The realist Defoe similarly enlivened his fiction with exaggeration and melodrama—consider, for example, the remarkable lasting powers of Moll's and Roxana's beauty, the amount of money that Roxana accumulates, and the series of coincidences that bring about Moll's incestuous marriage to her brother.

49 The woman author of An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (1696) explicitly compared the lot of women in Europe to that of black slaves on the West Indian plantations (p. 22).

Elaine Hobby (essay date 1988)

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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 account of these concerns.25

Behn's novels show that male control of women has two main sources, economic and ideological: to begin with, men have money; in addition, they set the terms of sexual relationships, deeming female desire repellent while callously exploiting their own capacity to rape when it suits their purposes. In such circumstances, women repeatedly discover, although arranged property matches might be repulsive, a liaison based on love or passion is also no guarantee of happiness.

Nearly all the novels have as their central figures strong young women who are trying to make their way through the maze of male intrigue that surrounds them.26 These female characters bear the names of romance: Philadelphia, Alcidiana and Belvideera are no more likely inhabitants of seventeenth-century England than of the twentieth century. It is sometimes argued that such romance figures are two-dimensional, lacking the character-development that typifies the novel. The use of this naming convention, however, does not prevent Behn's protagonists being vividly individual. Although the primary focus of each tale is the situation the heroine confronts, rather than her individual personality, the women are not at all interchangeable with one another. The accepted wisdom of dating the rise of the novel to the appearance of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719, some forty years after Behn was writing, and a full sixty-five years after Carleton, seems a singularly arbitrary act if we once pay serious attention to the romances that preceded it. Maureen Duffy's research on one of Behn's best-known stories, The Fair Jilt, has shown that the most 'unlikely' incident in this romance, the abortive execution of Prince Tarquin, in fact closely accords with contemporary newspaper accounts of the affair. Novel critics have been too quick to dismiss these romances as 'fantastic'.27

The opening paragraph of The Adventure of the Black Lady shows how Behn's writings reverberate with echoes from the timelessness of romance, while firmly particularising the story with details from the contemporary scene (a combination that is supposed only to characterise the novel). The heroine's name, and apparently her situation, are pure romance: her setting, however, is London, and her identity, it is claimed, personally known to the narrator.

About the beginning of last June (as near as I can remember) Bellamora came to town from Hampshire, and was obliged to lodge the first night at the same inn where the stage coach set up. The next day she took coach for Covent Garden, where she thought to find Madam Brightly, a relation of hers. (p. 3)28

It quickly becomes apparent that the generality of this novel comes from elements of Bellamora's circumstances that are indeed timeless: she is unintentionally pregnant. The way in which a solution to this problem is worked out, however, is quite particular to Aphra Behn's society. Bellamora's pregnancy is due to Fondlove having 'urged his passion with such violence' that eventually she had been forced to give in to his desires (p. 6). This experience was quite sufficient to warn her that a man's love was not reliable, and she had run away to the city to bear her child alone, refusing Fondlove's proposal of marriage. Since the rape, she has 'abhorred the sight of him' (p. 7). She would rather risk the ignominy of raising her child alone, in the relative anonymity of London, than place her hopes in the chanciness of such a marriage.

In late seventeenth-century England, single parenthood was not supposed to be available to women. The bailiffs of the parish are alerted to Bellamora's presence, and rush to send her to a House of Correction and her child to a parish nurse. The Black Lady does the only thing she can: she marries the child's father in the nick of time. The bailiffs arrive to be directed mockingly to the only unmarried mother in the household: a black cat that had just had kittens.

The landlady showed 'em all the rooms in her house but no such lady could be found. At last she bethought herself, and let 'em into her parlour, where she opened a little closet door, and showed 'em a black cat that had just kittened: assuring 'em, that she should never trouble the parish as long as she had rats or mice in the house; and so dismissed 'em like the loggerheads as they came. (p. 10)

As this quotation indicates, the novel portrays a spirited solidarity between its female characters: something also true, for instance, of Agnes de Castro. The Black Lady seems, indeed, to twist from its initial trajectory at the appearance of this theme. In the opening scene, the novel sets out as a tale about a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city only to lose her luggage. The landlady is initially implicated in a suspicion of theft. This narrative is swiftly abandoned in favour of another story altogether, and male characters are banished to its edges. Fondlove, though mentioned early in the story, never appears, and the landlady's husband is sent on his way with little ceremony.

The gentleman, her husband, just saw her within doors, and ordered the coach to drive to some of his bottle-companions; which gave the women the better opportunity of entertaining one another. (p. 5)

Although the framework of the society is man-made, men are kept to this skeletal periphery. The question of interest is the shape of the spaces inhabited by women.

Whereas female friendship is shown as an enduring value in such stories, men's commitments to one another are seen as far more fitful. Time and again, central male characters perish having turned automatically to the sword on discovering that they love the same woman. In The Nun; or, the Perjur'd Beauty, for instance, Henrique and Antonio send the beauteous Ardelia off to a nunnery for a few hours, while they fight out their rival claims over her. By the end of the novel, all the major protagonists have been killed. There are comparable episodes of irrational male violence in The Unfortunate Bride and The Dumb Virgin.

Nunneries feature frequently in Behn's stories, and several of her heroines start out as nuns who, in their assertive expression of desire, become the viragos of Restoration men's nightmares. (It is important to remember what we are only too inclined to forget in this post-Victorian age: before about 1700, women were seen as the more lustful sex, with a larger carnal appetite than men.) Perhaps the most interesting of Aphra Behn's nuns is Miranda, The Fair Jilt, the perfect romance heroine, a rich young orphan who retires to a nunnery to await the advent of a suitable husband. She is supremely desirable, unflawed in body, soul and mind. All the young men who pass through the city come to court her, and 'thousands of people were dying by her eyes' (p. 7).

She continues to play the game of the desired lady until she falls desperately in love with a young friar, Prince Henrick. The tables are turned, and she is forced into a traditional male role, courting him with promises of wealth if he will only agree to leave the church and marry her. When he refuses, she wreaks a male revenge on him. A man could rape his reluctant beloved, and force her to wed him. Miranda essays a female version of this by falsely charging Henrick with rape, and he is imprisoned.

The second man of her choice is Prince Tarquin, and this one she marries. Her delight in high living leads her to misappropriate her sister Alcidiana's trust fund, however, and she nearly loses her husband when he is arrested for attempting to murder the sister. At the end of the story, she is nevertheless triumphant. She and Tarquin flee the country and live happily till his death. All in all, Miranda has done the best she can.

They say Miranda has been very penitent for her life past, and gives Heaven the glory for having given her these afflictions, that have reclaimed her, and brought her to as perfect a state of happiness as this troublesome world can afford. (p. 178)

Isabella of The Fair Vow-Breaker, by contrast, discovers that abandoning celibacy for reasons of passionate love (or to seek social advancement) is no recipe for fulfilment. Having been raised in a nunnery she decides aged thirteen to take a vow of chastity. When subsequently she falls in love with Henault, she immediately experiences her passion as oppressive and a loss of autonomy, but marries him nonetheless.

He has done that in one fatal hour, that the persuasions of all my relations and friends, glory, honour, pleasure, and all that can tempt, could not perform in years; I resisted all but Henault's eyes, and they were ordained to make me truly wretched. (p. 42)

Her life with Henault indeed turns out to be miserable. The marriage is disapproved of by his family, and their only financial support comes from Isabella's aunt. In quick succession, the aunt dies and Henault is lost in battle. It happens that Villenoys, who comes to bring news of the tragedy, is an old suitor of Isabella's. She decides, pragmatically, to marry him for material security. When Henault returns some years later, she realises that both men have to be disposed of. She smothers Henault, and tells Villenoys that he has died a natural death. Persuading Villenoys to dispose of this friend's body by carrying it up to a nearby bridge and throwing it into the river, she sews together the coats of the two men once Villenoys has Henault on his back. In the light of Villenoys's consequent drowning by being pulled into the water after the corpse, her anxious directions to him to make a good job of it take on a macabre humour.

When you come to the bridge, (said she) and that you are throwing him over the rail, (which is not above breast high) be sure you give him a good swing, lest the sack should hang on anything at the side of the bridge, and not fall into the stream. (p. 136)

Even when she goes to identify the corpses of her erstwhile lovers Isabella's nerve does not crack, and she does not confess until directly accused. The narrative voice nowhere suggests, however, that her murder of two unsatisfactory husbands was wrong. Her crime lies in not having stayed faithful to her initial vow, true to herself, as her closing scaffold speech explains (p. 147).

The fault lies not with her, but with a society which has given her such dire choices in life. Behn suggests the existence of a female subculture that has its own values, one superior to the dominant, male imperatives, but which gradually becomes sullied and eroded. It is important to note that these higher ethics, according to Behn, would cause women to be so faithful to their lovers that they 'like Indian wives, would leap alive into the graves of their deceased lovers, and be buried quick with 'em' (p. 3). This is not a liberating vision. Nonetheless, her consistent premise is that the world would be a more loving and supportive place if it were run according to these 'female' beliefs. Her grim conclusion is that such a revolutionary change is impossible. All women can do is to make the best they can out of the status quo.

Since I cannot alter custom, nor shall ever be allowed to make new laws, or rectify the old ones, I must leave the young nuns enclosed to their best endeavours, of making a virtue of necessity; and the young wives, to make the best of a bad market. (p. 7)

This blunt assumption of female impotence in the public world of law-making contrasts sharply with the committed lobbying of the 1650s women. This new generation of women writers, who engage in far more 'literary' pursuits than their predecessors, are also more quietist or reactionary in their relation to national politics. Many of them were outspoken royalists: Behn even worked as a pamphleteer for the Tories. As women were beaten back into the home, moulded into companions for the Enlightenment man, they engaged in a detailed analysis of love which had been unnecessary in earlier decades, when women's lives had been filled with so many larger concerns. Once women are confined to a sphere of romantic love, they must, as Behn argues, turn their energies to designing strategies to win as much space as possible.

Since men, she demonstrates, are violent and dangerous to women, such an endeavour is far from easy. The most striking feature of Behn's novels, in fact, is a characteristic they share with her plays. She starkly portrays the connections between masculine desire and male violence, and makes it clear through the actions of her heroines that female choices were few and nasty. Love, romance and courtship as viewed by these female authors of prose fiction were not at all a stylised game. Living in a world where they were men's prized or despised possessions, women's explorations of these issues unfailingly involved an examination of the power relations between the sexes. The fictions they construct out of their female view of male conventions show plotting and daring as necessary to a woman if she is to escape domination and abuse from her 'lovers'. They might all say with Mary Carleton, in her vindication of her exploits,

Let the world now judge, whether being prompted by such plain and public signs of a design upon me, to counterplot them, I have done any more than what the rule, and a received principle of justice directs. (Mary Carleton, The Case, p. 45)


24 This idea is proposed by Goreau, op. cit., although developed by her along rather different lines. My discussion of Behn's prose fiction might properly be extended to include the semifictional Loveletters from a Nobleman to his Sister.

25 Studies of the story include Charles Batten, 'The Source of Aphra Behn's The Widow Ranter', Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, 13, 1974; Martine Brownley, 'The Narrator in Oroonoko', Essays in Literature, 4, 1977; B. Dhuicq, 'Further Evidence on Aphra Behn's Stay in Surinam', Notes and Queries, 26, 1979; Edwin Johnson, 'Aphra Behn's Oroonoko', Journal of Negro History, 10, 1975; J. Ramsaran, 'Oroonoko: A Study of the Factual Elements', PMLA, 205, 1960; Edward Seeber, 'Oroonoko in France in the XVIII Century', PMLA, 51, 1936.

26 In general, page references to Behn's works are to the first edition as a separate. References to The Fair Jilt (not issued separately) are to Histories and Novels, 1696. Quotations from The Adventure of the Black Lady are from Montague Summers's edition of her Works, 1915, volume 5.

27 Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, 1957; Maureen Duffy, The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn 1640–1689, 1977.

28 See also, for instance, The Court of the King of Bantam.

Rose A. Zimbardo (essay date 1989)

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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 between the eye of the perceiver and the objectified "reality" perceived. Reiss uses Galileo's invention of the telescope as a nexus of the change with which he is concerned. This newer discourse of modernism required the invention of the novel as its best artistic medium. Under the governance of the older discourse of patterning the function of a work of dramatic art was to show a closed system of ideational relationships to the spectator which would reveal to him or her the harmonious systematic interaction among ideas, a model of the whole cosmological reality. It is true that the larger aim of such dramatic discourse was to disclose a method by which human participation within the metaphysical order occurs; that participation was of a kind by which we, as a species, are placed within the celestial-terrestrial system which the abstract discourse of patterning shows. For example, a character in one of Aphra Behn's early plays, The Young King, says:

Orisames: I to my self could an Idea frame
Of Man in much more excellence.
Had I been Nature, I had varied still,
And made such different Characters of Men
They should have bow'd and made a God of me
Ador'd and thank'd me for their great Creation.
(act 2. sc. 1)5

Here "nature," or "reality," is a configuration of ideas; dramatic characters are concepts, and the function of dramatic discourse is to pattern a rhetorical design, a closed system analogous, as the human mind itself is analogous, to a metaphysical system of reality.

The new analytico-referential discourse created distance between subject and object, the human being and the world at which he looks; it also established a more intimate relationship between the human eye and the scaled down "reality" which the human eye could perceive and the human tongue describe. The older discourse erased the importance of the individual human being. Indeed, in English drama of the 1660s and early 1670s it is relatively unimportant which speaker declaims a set rhetorical speech; what is crucially important is the position of that set piece within the whole rhetorical design of the play. The newer discourse brought a manageable "outside" reality into the range of human perception, possession, and control. As Reiss puts it, "Its exemplary formal statement is cogito-ergo-sum (reason-semiotic mediating system-world)…. Its principal metaphors will be those of the telescope (eye-instrument-world) and of the voyage of discovery (self-possessed point of departure—sea journey—country claimed as legitimate possession of the discoverer)."6 It is interesting that Aphra Behn's late, best work, Oroonoko, not only employs the new analytico-referential discourse whose operation Reiss describes here, but also enacts what he considers one of its principal metaphors—the narrator "I" 's journey to Surinam, the reader's discovery of that colonial possession, and even the politico-economic consequences that such "possession" entails.

Aphra Behn is an important figure in seventeenth-century English literature because, had we no other remaining evidence than the works of Dryden and Behn upon which to judge, we could yet trace the course of one of the most important revolutions in aesthetics and consciousness that has occurred in the history of English thought. This is not to suggest that Behn was a great dramatist—she was not among the best of her time—nor to suggest that she was a theorist, as Dryden was. In part, her importance lies in the fact that she was an almost faultless barometer of popular taste and consciousness; she described herself as one "who is forced to write for Bread and not ashamed to owne it, and consequently ought to write to please (if she can) an Age which has given severall proofs it was by this way of writing to be oblig'd."7 What makes Behn a crucially important figure, however, is that she was a pioneer in the invention of the novel; her Oroonoko is not only the first, but also one of the best, early English novels. This study therefore is entitled "Aphra Behn in Search of the Novel" because what I shall attempt to establish is the movement in Behn's practice that led her from using language in the service of an abstract design of discourse that patterns an ideational metaphysical "reality" to using an analytico-referential discourse that led her inevitably to the novel as her best medium of expression.

In Behn's first play, The Forc'd Marriage, or Jealous Bridegroom (1670), the object of dramatic imitation is an ideal of heroic love and honor. Characters, as well as the speeches they declaim, are figures, or, to be more precise, placements within what Eric Rothstein called "a fixed grid of love and honor."8 Discourse is declamation, set rhetorical pieces that are positioned within a dialectical progression that mounts toward a complex metaphysical concept, which it does not, indeed cannot, describe. Words are ideational counters; for example:

Erminia: Philander never spoke but from a Soul
That all dishonest Passions can controul;
With flames as chaste as Vestals that did burn,
From whence I borrow'd mine to make return …
Upon my life no other thing he spoke
But those from dictates of his Honour took.
(act 1. sc. 4)

Words here are abstract counters for abstract concepts. They form a set rhetorical pattern, which, positioned in relation to a variety of other such set pieces, in turn, pattern the rhetorical design of the whole. So much is it the case that discourse figures a pattern here that at a climactic moment in the play language can be dispensed with altogether and the pattern achieved by mute, still figures positioned in significant gestural relation to one another. For example, act 2 of this first play begins with a tableau vivant called "The Representation of the Wedding." Quoted here is only a small exemplary fragment of a quite lengthy, detailed direction. Notice how the figures, arranged in relation to one another, form a complex, wordless configuration of theatrical signs:

The Curtain must be let down and soft Musick must play: the Curtain being drawn up, discovers a scene of a Temple: the King on a throne bowing down to join hands of Alcippus and Ermine … without on the Stage Philander with his sword half-drawn held by Galatea, who looks ever on Alcippus: Erminia still fixing her eyes on Philander; Pisano passionately gazing on Galatea; Aminta on Falatio, and he on her; Alcander, Issilia, Cleonatis, in other severall postures, with the rest, all remaining without motion, whilst Musick softly plays; this continues 'till the Curtain falls….9

What is significant in this example is that mute, motionless figures serve precisely the function that words or declaimed set-pieces serve within the whole design of the play. The king, bowing down from his throne, equals majesty condescending to heroic glory and beauty; the rightful lover with his sword half-drawn equals heroic love urging toward heroic beauty. His gesture is restrained by a figure, Galatea, that represents heroic honor's curb upon heroic love. The point is that in Behn's earliest play (wherein her practice is indistinguishable from that of her contemporaries of the sixties and early seventies) both characters and the discourse they declaim are figures, positions within a rhetorical design wrought by the discourse of patterning.

We begin, however, to see signs of Behn's desire to break the pattern quite early on in her career, both in her practice and in the comments she addresses to her audience in prefaces and remarks "To the Reader." Throughout her career Behn argued that she was better equipped to write plays than her male contemporaries because she was a woman, her argument being that "We [women] have nobler Souls than you [as] we prove/ By how much more we're sensible of Love" (Epilogue, Sir Patient Fancy, 1678) and that "plays have no great room for that which is men's great advantage over women, that is Learning," because plays are "intended for the exercising of man's passions not their understanding" (Preface, The Dutch Lover, 1673). Indeed, the male sensibility, hampered as it is by learning and affectation, she argues, is hamstrung by its own discourse: "for affectation hath always a greater share both in the action and discourse of men than truth or judgment have" (Preface, The Dutch Lover

There is nothing remarkable in the notion that drama imitates "the Passions" and in her earliest practice Behn, like her male contemporaries, envisioned imitation of the passions as imitation of ideas, or abstract conceptions, of the passions, as we have seen in the passage from her first play quoted above. Earlier than most and in accordance with the epistemological changes governing her time, however, Behn became aware of the passions as being located not "out there" in the realm of abstract conceptualization but rather within the human psyche; more precisely, she began to see the passions as forces having their origins within the human psyche that are the vehicles by means of which the human connects with the metaphysical realm. Earlier than most, she became impatient with the restrictions that "imitation of idea" and the discourse of patterning required by it imposed upon the playwright. Addressing her male contemporaries, she said:

Your Way of Writings out of Fashion grown.
Method, and Rule—you only understand.
Pursue that way of Fooling and be damn'd.
Your learned Cant of Action, Time and Place,
Must all give way to the unlabour'd Farce.
(Epilogue, Sir Patient Fancy)

As early as her second play, The Amorous Prince (1671), and throughout her subsequent career as a play-wright Behn began to choose as her sources the Spanish tale, the Italian novella, the history, and, finally, the documentary pamphlet. Of her twenty or so plays well over half were taken from romances or novellas, and the source of her last play, The Widow Ranter, or The History of Bacon in Virginia (produced after her death in 1690) was taken from a news pamphlet, "Strange News from Virginia being a free and true account of the life and Death of Nathaniel Bacon, Esq." (1677).

What is significant for our purposes is that almost from the beginning of her career Aphra Behn was straining against the strictures of dramatic convention and was beginning her search for the novel. Her best known plays—and possibly her worst-—The Rover I and II exhibit what Michael McKeon, in his important book, The Origins of the English Novel,10 calls "generic instability," that dislocation in generic form which, in Bahktinian terms, was the fertile soil in which the novel was born. Both The Rover I and II were taken from Thomas Killigrew's Tomaso, or The Wanderer, a strange closet drama written during the Interregnum and never intended for the stage. Tomaso is constructed in ten closely consecutive, but structurally loose acts. The action is the serial action of picaresque fiction, and, as Summers said, the work "may better be described as a dramatic romance than a comedy intended for the boards."11 Behn does two interesting things in these plays. The first, and most important, is that she begins to free discourse from patterning. It would be totally wrong to say that she created character as we understand it today, that is, as the fictional simulation of people having psychology and interiority. It would be equally wrong to suggest that she had yet mastered analytico-referential discourse. Rather, she changes character from figurai placement, or position, within a rhetorical design to free-floating type. The consequence is that discourse, while it is still very far from dialogue, becomes disembodied voice. Curiously, in some ways The Rover may be understood as a two-hundred-and-some year foreshadowing of Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Rather than placing set rhetorical pieces in relation to other set pieces within a dominant rhetorical design, the discourse of The Rover I and II consists in typologically determined "voices" that exist in interesting contrapuntal relation to one another.

The second important development in these two plays is Behn's creation of gratuitous character/figures that are designed deliberately to break rhetorical consistency. The courtesans, Angelica Bianca and La Nuche, both of whom are heroines of Herculean "irregular greatness," are designed not only to break accepted moral and social conventions, but, by their extravagance of language (which, in an old-fashioned sixties heroic drama would be perfectly acceptable if placed properly within the confines of a mounting rhetorical design), are extrinsic to the design. Their function, rather, is to dislocate typology from the medley of "voices" upon which the plays depend.

Behn's best play of the seventies, the decade which I have called the great moment in English dramatic satire,12 is The Feign'd Courtesans (1679). In it Behn was striving for the same disjunctive unity in conceptualization toward which the giants of dramatic satire—Dryden, Wycherley, and Etherege—aimed, in which a heightened ideal plays in continuous juxtaposition against a downwardly exaggerated actual. Dryden delineated the opposition most obviously in Marriage a la Mode, Wycherley and Etherege more subtly in The Country Wife and The Man of Mode. What is interesting here is that while her contemporaries render the necessary disjunctive unity of satire structurally, Behn does so dialogically. For example, in playing high (ancient model) against low (immediate actual) where her contemporaries, especially Dryden, interplay planes of action, Behn achieves the effect in a differentiation between the voices:

Marcella: The Evening's soft and calm as happy Lovers thoughts
And here are Groves where meeting Trees
Will hide us from the Amorous gazing Crowd
Cornelia: What should we do here, sigh 'till our wandering Breath
Has rais'd a gentle Gale among the boughs,
To whose dull melancholy Musick, we
Laid on a bed of Moss, and new fall'n leaves
Will read the dismal tale of Eccho's love!
—No, I can make better use of famous Ovid.
(act 2. sc. 1)

In the eighties Behn began to transform her dramatic discourse itself, to displace "discursive exchange within the [fictional] world" to analytico-referential "practice upon the world"—to use Reiss's terms again. Whereas in The Feign'd Courtesans satiric dialectic is contained within the discursive dimensions of the play's rhetorical design, in a play like The City Heiress (1682) Behn trains the disjunctive unity, which earlier was contained within a closed literary context, upon the actual circumstances of contemporary life. The satiric disjunction remains the same—that is, the ideal versus the satirically, downwardly exaggerated actual—but the dimensions of disjunctive interplay are secularized and made present. The charming "heroic" vices of "real" Tories (drinking, gambling, and whoring) are contrasted with the mean and despicable vices of "real" Whigs (hypocrisy, greed, and sedition). Character is still concept, but typologically rendered though it is, it is realized in terms of a contemporary situation, in much the way that a modern newspaper cartoonist might exaggerate and typologize the figures and discourse of current political events.

It is in The Lucky Chance (1687) that we see clearly for the first time an authorial "I" looking at its world and novelistically describing the problematic condition of it. From her first play, The Forc'd Marriage, Behn had been concerned with the evils of forced marriage; but whereas in her first play the idea is elevated to the distant, heroic realm, in 1687 we are made to see the situation not as the occasion for a rhetorical "turn" or two within a dialectical progression but as a contemporary social problem. Character is no longer the delineation of concept or type. Action is no longer subservient to the demands of rhetorical patterning. Rather, a subject which had been fair game for light comic ridicule since Chaucer is presented for serious consideration and, discursively, for sober discussion:

Lady Fullbank: Oh how fatal are forc'd Marriages.
How many Ruins one such Match pulls on!
Had I but kept my Sacred Vows to Gayman
How happy had I been—how prosperous he!
Whilst now I languish in a loath'd embrace
Pine out my Life with Age—Consumptive Coughs.
(act 2. sc. 1)

Here is the world of experience—consumptive coughs and all. Here is the present "I"—both writer and reader—looking through the instrument of analytico-referential discourse upon an immediate, familiar "reality." Here is discourse that "practices upon" the world rather than shaping an abstract image of it. The actual circumstances leading to forced marriages are explored; Lucretia is driven to marry Sir Feeble Fainwood by economic necessity. Vows are not broken, as in a play of the early seventies, to set a particular dialectic antithesis between concepts of love and honor. Rather, as in life, persons are forced to break promises by social pressure and economic need.

The Lucky Chance was Behn's "new-modelling" of an old play, Shirley's The Lady of Pleasure. In her renovation Behn not only forces us to consider the stock literary situations of an earlier period from a contemporary vantage, and not only transforms discourse from declamation to dialogue, but she uses the specific descriptive techniques of a novelist to bring ideas into what Bahktin calls the "present of still evolving contemporary reality."13 Over and over again in this play Behn forces us to look behind very old stock comic situations to explore the real circumstances that may underlie them. One such stock situation, prevalent since Jacobean "City Comedy," is that of an aristocratic lover, down on his luck, who is driven to solicit the help of his city landlady. Behn uses the new analytico-referential discourse to make us envision the situation as a novel would do. Lady Fullbank's steward, Bred-well, who has just launched the trick that will finally bring Gayman his reward for having given all for love, reports to Lady Fullbank the conditions under which Gayman lives. So detailed, so novelistic, is the description that it badly strains the limits of dramatic representation:

Bred. … at the door [I] encountered the beastly thing he calls a Landlady; who look't as if she had been of her own Husband's making, compos'd of moulded Smith's dust. I ask'd for Mr. Wasteall [Gayman's assumed name] and she began to open—and did so rail at him, that what with her Billingsgate, and her Husband's hammers I was both deaf and dumb—at last the hammers ceased and she grew weary, and call'd down Mr. Wasteall, but he not answering—1 was sent up a ladder rather than a pair of Stairs….

'Tis a pretty convenient Tub, Madam, [Gayman's room]. He may lie a long in't, there's just room for an old join'd Stool besides the Bed, which one cannot call a Cabin, about the largeness of a pantry Bin, or a Usurer's Trunk: there had been Dornex Curtains to't in days of Yore; but they were now annihilated, and nothing left to save his Eyes from the Light, but my Landlady's Blue Apron, ty'd by strings before the Window, in which stood a six-penny Looking Glass, that shew'd as many faces as the Scene in Henry the Eighth, which cou'd but just stand upright, and then a Combcase fill'd it. (act 1. sc. 3)

The scene is not the ambiguous "A Room in Mrs—House" that we have found in earlier drama; rather, it describes a specific, and visualizable location, such as we are given by a novel. We are made by the description to notice particular details—the sizes, shapes, and colors of objects. We see the ragged apron at the window; we hear the smith's din. Consequently, as in a novel, we are made to enter into and experience the condition of poverty as it actually existed in London in 1687. Here is a discourse that "practices upon" the world, a telescopic instrument by means of which the reader/listener's eye focuses upon a known reality, which, by seeing, he may encompass and possess in consciousness.

At roughly the same time that she wrote The Lucky Chance Aphra Behn wrote a prose work, The Adventure of the Black Lady (ca. 1685, published 1696), of which George Woodcock says, "The incidents all take place in familiar London surroundings, and the lack of artificiality and elaboration gives the whole piece the air of a little vignette from real life. It is written in an easy, conversational style; which adds to the impression of its authenticity."14 Of another prose work, written at the same time, The Wandering Beauty, Angeline Goreau writes: "This [the narrator's] 'I' was something new not only in literature but in history. It was a very early example of the growing self-consciousness of the individual, which would in the next century and a half develop into a 'given' in the way people thought about themselves. Aphra's focus on individual experience and self-expression was historically avant garde."15

This essay has focused on Behn's, the dramatist's, search for the novel. We find the same movement from the discourse of patterning to analytico-referential discourse in the progressive development of Behn's prose fiction. Her first prose work, Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, while it is innovative in introducing the epistolary mode, employs the older discourse throughout. In Part 1, composed entirely of letters, it is virtually impossible, without reference to the title heads—"To Philander" or "To Syvia"—to distinguish among the voices of the letter writers. On the other hand, in her late novel, Oroonoko, so perfectly has Behn mastered the use of analytico-referential discourse, and so thoroughly aware is she of the operational difference upon a reader between the older and newer discourses, that she skillfully uses interaction between the two styles to create the first tragic novel in English. For example, she uses the older discourse when her aim is to delineate the spiritual essence of her hero: "the Greatness of Soul, those refined Notions of True Honour, that absolute Generosity, and Softness that was capable of the highest Passions of Love and Gallantery" (135). That is to say, she uses the "sacrosanct and traditional" language16 of heroic romance when her aim is to shape a "Character of Mind" or to figure the Idea of Majesty17 that Oroonoko the Prince represents. On the other hand, before Behn begins to tell Oroonoko's story, she uses the analytico-referential mode of discourse to create the setting in which his sufferings as Caesar the Slave will take place. The new mode of narrative discourse, full of accurately observed detail and almost scientific description, is used to make the exotic landscape and culture of Surinam familiar, and, more importantly, to make the reader, by virtue of the detailed landscape he has visualized, an inhabitant of the fictional world. The narrative of Coramantien, in which Oroonoko figures Majesty and ideal heroic love, is written wholly in the older discourse. Such is the glistening height from which the tragic hero falls. The narrative of Surinam is written largely in the newer discourse. It realistically pictures the crushing world of experience into which he falls.

Aphra Behn was by no means a great dramatist, but she may be considered the first English novelist, the first literary artist to master the telescope of analytico-referential discourse and to teach us, her readers, how to use that instrument.


1 Timothy J. Reiss, The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 30.

2 Paul de Man, "Pascal's Allegory of Persuasion," Allegory and Representation, ed. Stephen J. Greenblatt (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 1.

3 Reiss, Modernism, quoting Gerard Simon, 30.

4 Rose A. Zimbardo, A Mirror to Nature: Transformations in Drama and Aesthetics, 1660–1732 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986).

5The Works of Aphra Behn, ed. Montague Summers, 6 vols. (London, 1915; repr., New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1967). All references to Behn's work are to this edition.

6 Reiss, Modernism, 31.

7 "To the Reader," Preface, Sir Patient Fancy, Summers, ed., Works, 4:115–16.

8 Eric Rothstein, Restoration Tragedy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 31.

9 Summers, ed., Works, 3:305.

10 Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 20.

11 Summers, ed., Works, 1:4.

12 Zimbardo, Mirror to Nature, 9.

13 M. M. Bahktin, "Epic and Novel," The Dialogue of Imagination, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983), 19.

14 George Woodcock, The Incomparable Aphra (London and New York: T. V. Boardman, 1948), 167.

15 Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn (New York: Dial Press, 1980), 281.

16 Bahktin, "Epic and Novel," 16.

17 Zimbardo, Mirror to Nature, chap. 2, "Imitation of Nature as Idea."

Catherine Gallagher (essay date 1994)

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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 mentioned here, long to be actors in the drama they are only allowed to observe. She moves mysteriously below stairs, collecting information like a spy.

Often allied in this way with the frustrated and relatively anonymous instruments of the main characters (Sylvia's page has no name), Behn's narrators are sometimes associated with a marginality that becomes sinister. One such instance is particularly interesting in connection with Oroonoko. In "The Unfortunate Bride; or, the Blind Lady a Beauty," the narrator claims that much of her information comes indirectly from a black woman, Mooria, who not only longs to be the object of the hero's love but also steals his letters to his mistress and forges letters to drive the lovers apart. The story makes the lady's blackness a metaphor for her "dark designs" and for her means of accomplishing them: stealing the writings of others and writing "in a disguised hand." The black lady, in other words, is an inky creature who separates people from their written representations and plunges them into obscurity. She is more designing than the narrator and more adept than any other character at achieving her designs by textual misrepresentation.

Although in Behn's stories there are several such designing women, who manipulate the action by disguising their "hands," Mooria is the only one who embodies this form of power. The darkness of her skin is associated with invisibility and magical powers of transformation; that is, her black body seems a metaphor for the disembodying potential of writing. The very ink that allows graphic representation, and the consequent dissociation of bodies and language, seems to cover Mooria herself.

Since Mooria's skin becomes an emblem of the disembodying power of writing, for which the blackness of ink is a related sign, her darkness suggests by association the "anonymous hand" par excellence: print, the medium of the story's dissemination. Print intensified anonymity simply by increasing standardization, making the graphemes relatively interchangeable regardless of their origin, and by wide dissemination, which broke the link common in scribal cultures between texts and specific places where they could be read. The more identical copies of a text there were, the less that text seemed to occupy any particular location, and the less it seemed the physical emanation of any body. The figure of the black woman combines the blackness of racial difference, the obscurity of the narrative "I" in this particular story, and the potential erasure of the writer through the "anonymous hand" of publication.24

However, since our modern notion of the author is itself a feature of print culture, we must acknowledge that the disembodiment of the writer in the standardized, multiplied, and widely disseminated text was the condition of her appearance as an author. As Elizabeth Eisenstein shows, "Until it became possible to distinguish between composing a poem and reciting one, or writing a book and copying one; until books could be classified by something other than incipits;25 the modern game of books and authors could not be played."26 The potential anonymity realized in the figure of Mooria, therefore, was merely the underside of that seemingly unmediated and purely mental presence that Behn celebrated in the epistles to the printed edition of her plays….

The relationship of blackness, authorship, textuality, exchange, and transcendence helps explain why Behn's most sustained work on heroic kingship should make black the color of both exchange and sovereignty. In Oroonoko Behn breaks the traditional Western metaphoric connection between black bodies and moral degeneracy that she had drawn on in characterizing Mooria, and blackness takes on unprecedented meanings, including representation itself, kingship, exchange value, and the paradoxes of absolute property.

Oroonoko seems the polar opposite of "The Unfortunate Bride." The narrator not only claims her authorial identity and her personal experience of the events but also gives herself an important role in the story and hence a sustained presence.33 She identifies herself as Aphra Behn, a writer already known to the public as a playwright, whose established reputation should guarantee her veracity. She even discusses her next play, stressing that, like Oroonoko, it is based to some extent on her life experience: "Colonel Martin [was] a man of great gallantry, wit, and goodness, and whom I have celebrated in a character of my new comedy, by his own name, in memory of so brave a man."34 Clearly, she highlights personal-authorial continuity as a guarantee of the tale's authenticity.

This stress on the work as an expression of the author's identity has a parallel in the metaphoric use of blackness. Whereas in "The Unfortunate Bride" the narrator's anonymity seemed intensified by the "dusky" obscurity of Mooria, the narrative's source, in Oroonoko the gleaming blackness of the eponymous hero-corresponds to the narrator's heightened presence. If Mooria's color emphasized her invisibility and that of the narrator, Oroonoko's radiates, illuminating the narrator's identity. He is blacker than the black lady—indeed he is blacker than anybody—but that does not make him "dusky." Instead, it makes him brilliant: "His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet" (pp. 80–81). He is not a brown black, but a black black. Behn's distinction between brown blacks and black blacks departs from the convention of representing sub-Saharan native people, who, according to Winthrop Jordan, were normally all described as absolutely black: "blacke as coles," as one voyager to Guinea put it a century earlier.35 By making complete blackness a distinguishing characteristic of the noble Oroonoko, Behn attached a positive aesthetic value to the skin color: the brown blacks are dull, but the shiny black black reflects light.36 Even when he was dressed in slave's clothes, Oroonoko's gleaming blackness "shone through all" (p. 108). The lustrous quality of the hero's blackness, which is "so beyond all report," requires the eyewitness reporting of a known author; Aphra Behn, therefore, must emerge from her obscurity and explain the circumstances of her witnessing. In short, the hero's blackness calls the authorial persona into existence.

As a character, Behn is also clearly paralleled with Oroonoko.37 Like him, she arrives a stranger in Surinam but is immediately recognized as superior to the local inhabitants; like him, she appears a shining marvel when she travels to the Indian village; and like his words, hers are always truthful. As narrator, she repeatedly identifies herself as the well-known author Aphra Behn to vouch for the otherwise incredible brightness of Oroonoko. The sustained authorial presence in this book is thus closely connected to the black hero's luster; as the story moves forward, narrator and hero polish each other's fame. Although in the beginning Oroonoko had the misfortune "to fall in an obscure world, that afforded only a female pen to celebrate his fame" (p. 108), by the end the narrator presumes to hope "the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages" (p. 141).

Hence through an intensification of blackness, hero and narrator emerge into the light. Like Behn's forewords to her plays, this process can be read as a full-blown celebration of the bright, transcendent possibilities inherent in print, possibilities that Mooria only darkly suggested. Oroonoko resembles the mystical body of the text.38 His blackness is a luminous emanation of the author that gleams forth from multiple inscriptions.

Such an interpretation of this "admirably turned" (p. 80) ebony figure is consonant with one of Oroonoko's most remarked features: he is densely overwritten. Indeed, the narrator seems quite self-consciously to present her hero's story as a layering of narrative conventions. She moves from her de rigueur promise to tell the unadorned truth in the opening paragraph into a brief wonders-of-the-New-World passage whose extreme conventionality has often been noted. Indeed, she notes it herself on the second page when the wonders turn into London's stage spectacles, and the authenticity of her story momentarily depends on its "intertextual" relationship to one of Dryden's plays: "I had a [suit of feathers made by the Indians] presented to me, and I gave them to the King's Theatre; it was the dress of the Indian Queen, infinitely admired by persons of quality; and was inimitable." The momentary uncertainty about which Indian queen is being referred to, a queen of the Indians who owned the dress or Dryden's stage heroine, only emphasizes the lack of distinction between the two possible meanings. As a real Indian artifact transferred to the stage, the dress authenticates both. Readers can be assured of the truth of Behn's claims because their own eyes have seen such things on the stage. The early part of Oroonoko's story is no less dependent on references to the theater and on the self-conscious employment of courtly intrigue conventions to familiarize and authenticate the action. And the brief idyll of the middle section is similarly realized through reference to a literary model; when Oroonoko and his wife, Imoinda, are reunited, Oroonoko's English protector and putative master, looking on, "was infinitely pleased with this novel" (p. 112). One could continue to multiply the evidence, for the last half of Oroonoko's history is particularly thickly encrusted with tragic references and is highly wrought in the histrionic codes of heroic drama.39

This dense literary artificiality has exasperated some modern readers of Oroonoko and has been the chief evidence in the twentieth century for the story's inauthenticity.40 The stress on Oroonoko's conformity to literary conventions, however, was probably intended to make him seem believably noble. The narrator proves the hero's greatness by showing how closely he adhered to heroic models. The sense that Oroonoko was made up of myriad literary conventions would have made him familiar and hence credible to contemporary readers, for real heroic action was necessarily imitative.41 The resolute intertextuality of the narrative was not a failure of imagination but rather a proof that the author deserved fame because she had a legitimately heroic story that was recognizable as such only because it conformed to other such representations.

We can read Oroonoko's gleaming blackness, then, as a celebration of inscription without turning it into a self-reflective modern text. However, a danger lurks in such a reading. If Oroonoko's blackness becomes mainly an allegory of textuality, even with such historical and formal qualifications as have been introduced, we lose sight of the phenomenal wonder that empowers the text in the first place. Unless we acknowledge that Oroonoko's blackness refers most importantly to racial difference and indeed is dependent on a stock response of racial prejudice in the reader, we cannot explain what is so wonderful about him and so meritorious in the author. The reader is frequently invited to marvel that Oroonoko, although black, behaves like a conventional European tragic hero. Hence passages such as the following rely for their sense of the marvelous on the very racial prejudice they seem to dispel:

His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble, and exactly formed, that, bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome…. 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 confessed that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a soul, as politic maxims, and was as sensible of power, as any prince civilized in the most refined schools of humanity and learning, or the most illustrious courts. (p. 80)

Oroonoko is a wonder because blackness and heroism are normally thought to be mutually exclusive qualities; indeed, the passage asserts that they normally are mutually exclusive. Only in his differences from other Africans does Oroonoko achieve heroism, but in his blackness his heroism partakes of the marvelous. His is a "beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race, that he struck an awe and reverence, even in those that knew not his quality; as he did in me, who beheld him with surprise and wonder" (p. 79). Thus his color, as a sign of racial difference, itself reminds us that all his features differ from those "which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes."

Oroonoko's blackness must therefore be seen as at once authentically and unnaturally African. It is the exotic trait that makes his story worth writing, the feature that makes him unprecedented as hero, and hence a wonder. However, it is also the feature that necessitates such an energetic marshaling of heroic literary precedents. Both hero and writer must overcome his blackness, which "naturally" threatens to become the condition of his obscurity even though it also makes him worthy of fame. The author packs Oroonoko so densely with heroic reference as to prove him wonderful, making his very blackness shine. Blackness as racial difference at once helps explain why Oroonoko's color gleams with "unnatural" intertextuality and reveals how such gleaming redounds to the glory of the author.

Oroonoko's blackness, a "natural" physical indication of racial difference, even inferiority, is transubstantiated textually into a wonderful sign of heroic distinction. It is thus highly appropriate that descriptions of Oroonoko's and Imoinda's heroic bodies should emphasize their artificiality; they are not so much bodies of flesh and blood as pieces of polished handiwork. "The most famous statuary could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot" is the sentence that precedes the description of Oroonoko's color as "not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet." Readers are called on here to put the actual African bodies they might have seen (the brown black ones) out of mind and substitute for them statues of ebony. Indeed, when Oroonoko alights at Surinam dressed in his "dazzling habits" to be gazed at in his journey to his new home by the whites and the merely "brown" blacks, he resembles nothing so much as the statue of a magus. These common Africans eventually greet him as king and even, in a scene that fuses Christ child and magus, fall to worshiping him as divine when he finally arrives at his destination.

Imoinda's body is also artifactual, but in a slightly different way. At first she is described merely as a female version of Oroonoko; the allusions are appropriately classicized to suggest a female divinity: "To describe her truly, one need say only, she was female to the noble male; the beautiful black Venus, to our young Mars" (p. 81). Her features, like his, are to be imagined as European, and the description of the pair of lovers might well have evoked images of Jonson's Mask of Blackness, or of the actors and actresses in black-face and lavish costumes who played the "kings" and "queens" of Africa and India in the lord mayors' pageants.42 Such figures would have been quite appropriate to the court intrigue section of the novel. However, after Imoinda has been sold into slavery, has had her name changed to Clemene (as Oroonoko has his changed to Caesar), and emerges into our view through the eyes of the white clonists, her body undergoes a fabulous transformation:

Though from her being carved in fine flowers and birds all over her body, we took her to be of quality before, yet, when we knew Clemene was Imoinda, we could not enough admire her.

I had forgot to tell you, that those who are nobly born of that country, are so delicately cut and raced all over the fore-part of the trunk of their bodies, that it looks as if it were japanned; the works being raised like high point round the edges of the flowers. (p. 112)

This abrupt scoring of Imoinda's body, so strongly and clumsily marked in the text ("I had forgot to tell you") coincides with the narrator's re-vision of her as at once slave and romantic heroine, "Clemene" and Imoinda. Appropriately, Imoinda's body is not just transformed textually, through metaphor, but is supposed to have been transformed materially into an artificial decorative object of exotic origin; she is "japanned," like a highly varnished and intricate piece of oriental carving. And yet she is not quite statuary in this description because the plasticity and pliancy of actual flesh as well as its susceptibility to wounding, scarring, and discoloration are invoked by the description. Finally, the reference to "high point" makes Imoinda's flesh into its own laced clothing.43 Her body becomes a fabric for representing other things; it is inscribed.

The descriptions thus stress the exotic artificiality of both Oroonoko and Imoinda, but the decoration of Imoinda suggests that her sublimation, the process of becoming art, is accomplished on her body. That is, the reader's experience of flesh is not altogether banished from Imoinda's description, as it is from Oroonoko's Even more obtrusively than Oroonoko's, Imoinda's is a body of representation. However, we are required, in this revision of her halfway through the story, to imagine her skin as the material out of which the representations are made. Oroonoko, on the one hand, is a completed representation; the African body is useful to his description only as contrast. Imoinda, on the other hand, reminds us that such refinement uses up bodies. Consequently, her image directs us to a consideration of the full relationship between Oroonoko and the commonplace "brown" Africans in the tale.

The overwrought artificiality of Oroonoko, symbolized by the gleaming blackness of his body, not only sets him apart from his countrymen but also suggests the two ways in which he absorbs and represents them: through kingship and commodification. On an abstract level, one could point to a structural homology between Oroonoko's unnatural blackness and kingship as it was conceived from the late Middle Ages through the seventeenth century.44 Just as Oroonoko can be seen as the mystical body of the text, that which outlives myriad graphic instantiations to become the repository of overlapping forms of heroism; and just as his heroism, like the book's textuality, both depends on and is poised against blackness—the blackness of print, the blackness of racial difference (both, in turn, concepts abstracted from physical objects)—so kingship was perceived as a mystical body standing above and incorporating all bodies in the realm but also outliving them and thus proving the realm's continuity through time.

In Ernst Kantorowicz's well-known account of this concept, the mystical body of the king both depends on physical bodies and is contrasted to them.45 Since all the realm's bodies are imagined to be incorporated in one, with the king as the head, all are imagined to be, in some sense, the bodies of the king; and yet in no physical body, not even his own, is true kingship completely contained, for the king's physical body, subject to decay and death, merely represents the immortal kingship that temporarily inhabits it. How the king's physical body represented kingship was a subject of some debate, especially in the years preceding and following the regicide, which Parliament justified by claiming in effect that it was the mystical body of the king, and Charles I's body was that of an enemy to the "real" sovereign. Such a radical splitting off of the actual and mystical bodies, however, was abnormal, and the explicit ideology of a high Tory like Behn would have held that the king's actual body, as long as it breathed, was the sacred and unique incarnation of the realm's mystical incorporation. Nevertheless, the king's two bodies were conceptually separable, and in Oroonoko they emphatically come apart so that the body of kingship itself, like the text, achieves a kind of incorporeality.

The narrator often refers to Oroonoko's kingship as if it were comparable to normal European models. In the initial description quoted earlier, for example, her stress on his heroism culminates in the greatest wonder of all, which her European readers would have found most difficult to believe: "That Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely … as any prince civilized in the most refined schools of humanity and learning, or the most illustrious courts." It is not surprising that such an ideal of princely capability would be figured in a bloodless statue of a body, one contrasted to living bodies and made imperishable through metaphors, for Behn in this figure represents not just a king, but kingship. As a specimen of a mere African king, we are given Oroonoko's grandfather, who is "a man of a hundred and odd years old" (p. 79) but who, far from having any marks of immortality about him, is senile and sexually impotent. Moreover, the actual king's body is indistinguishable from the bodies of his subjects; to get his first glimpse of Imoinda, he dresses himself as the "slave and attendant" of a "man of quality" (p. 84) and is wholly successful in this disguise. This king's body, then, is to be imagined as one of that mass of brown black bodies that Oroonoko's unnatural blackness is defined against.

Even though the king's actual and mystical bodies seem thus separated in Oroonoko's home kingdom, Oroonoko's blackness is nonetheless defined against the mass of African bodies as an abstracted essence of them, as if his blackness were the sum and intensification of their lesser darkness. The mystical body of kingship continues to represent even that against which it is defined, the physical bodies that constitute the realm, and the physical bodies are incorporated into the mystical body. Oroonoko's representation conforms to the imaginative pattern informing centuries of monarchist thought, pageantry, state organization, criminal law, family relations, and so forth; it was the common cultural property of the time.

Such a pattern of thinking, however, does not fully account for the representation of kingship in Oroonoko, for it does not explain why the salient physical attribute of the African bodies that is abstracted, refined, and intensified in Oroonoko's body should be their darkness. Of all the attributes of their bodies, why this one? In making her hero darker than his subjects, Behn departed radically from the traditional portrayal of the noble African or Moor,46 who was usually painted white. Of course, we have already partly answered this question in discussing textuality and racial difference, but neither of those issues comprehends Oroonoko's princeliness, his relationship to his subjects. Why should the sign of his kingship be a body from which everything that is African is explicitly banished except a hue that can only abstractly be described as "black"?

The answer lies in Oroonoko's subjects, who, unlike those of a modern European king, are also his commodities. The narrator painstakingly explains that the word "black" distinguishes the bodies of people who can be bought and sold from those of people who cannot. To a twentieth-century reader the history of slavery makes this linkage obvious, but in the seventeenth century, before racial ideologies of slavery developed fully and as the institution itself was being racialized, it bore reiterating.47 The word "blacks" first appears in Oroonoko in contrast not to "whites" but to natives of Surinam, who are "a reddish yellow" (p. 76). These last, we are told, are not used as slaves because, through their fishing, hunting, and industry, they supply the colony with such necessities that they must be lived with in "perfect tranquillity, and good understanding" (p. 77).48 Hence "Negroes, black-slaves altogether," are imported. "Black" here differentiates the body of the African from that of the Native American; it signifies that one has been made a commodity, and the other has not. Because this "blackness" is the mark of commodification, we are then told, everything else about these bodies becomes indistinguishable:

Those who want slaves, make a bargain with a master, or captain of a ship, and contract to pay him so much apiece, a matter of twenty pound a head…. So that when there arrives a ship laden with slaves, they who have so contracted, go aboard, and receive their number by lot; and perhaps in one lot that may be for ten, there may happen to be three or four men; the rest women and children. (p. 78)

The twenty pounds paid, then, is for a "black" body, regardless of any other physical characteristic. Nor will any other color suffice, as the case of the Frenchman, seized along with Oroonoko but turned loose because of his color, makes clear. "Black" is a word that is used to describe a skin tone differing from all others that allows a body to have an abstract exchange value independent of any of its other physical qualities.

"Black," then, is connected to bodies but is also an abstraction from them signifying exchangeable value. It is not so much descriptive of the skin as of the difference between African skin and all other skin that has arbitrarily come to take on the meaning of exchange value per se. Hence the narrator immediately becomes chary of using it as a "literal" term describing bodies. "Coramantien," we are told, is "a country of blacks so called" (p. 78, emphasis mine), that is, a country of people one could call black and thus exchange for twenty pounds apiece.49 But the narrator explicitly rejects this designation "black," as we have already seen, to describe the literal color of the African body, whose physicality is merely brown. "Black" identifies the commodity value of the slave body, its exchangeability for twenty pounds, as opposed to its physicality.

Thus the terrifying condition of slavery—having an African body that could be called "black"—is transfigured in this novel into a gleaming vision of disembodied value in the figure of Oroonoko's kingly blackness. Oroonoko's utterly unnatural body is the only one in which the word signifying exchangeability, "black," and the actual color of the body coincide. Only in his body is value realized as blackness. The intrinsic, nonnegotiable kingship of Oroonoko is thus paradoxically figured in the same blackness that designates the principle of exchange itself.

The superimposition of kingship and exchange, odd as it might at first appear, was not uncommon. Money, after all, was similarly a representation of exchange value underwritten by the idea of the English state's sovereignty, the mystical body of kingship. Although the relationship between the sovereign power and money was substantially revised in the seventeenth century, and the last decade saw a strong parliamentary attempt to discount the "extrinsic" value that money received from its association with sovereignty, the very agitation of the issue would have given the relationship a pronounced ideological importance.50 What is odd about Oroonoko's depiction of this relationship is its insistence on the exchangeability of the subjects themselves for money. Exchange value and kingship are both realized in Oroonoko at the vanishing point of the African bodies, the moments when the king sells his subjects.

The kingship represented in Oroonoko, then, cannot be explained simply by noting that the king's mystical body underlay commerce; it is, rather, related to developments in the ideology of absolutism that reimagined the king's sovereignty as an absolute property right in the bodies of his subjects. It is to this notion of sovereignty that I now turn….

By using the prostitute and the monarch as her most frequent authorial metaphors, Behn views her authorship through Restoration concepts of self-alienation and sovereignty, that is, through the age's self-contradictory notions about property and exchange. Shadowy aspirations of independence from the marketplace are at once raised and renounced in a paradoxical logic of property: ownership of oneself and others, this logic states, entails their commodification or annihilation. Through this reiterated recognition, Behn renders authorship, doomed to the marketplace but struggling for sovereignty, poignant. However, the author-whore and author-king metaphors also point toward ways in which the author, of all traders, seems to escape the direst consequences of the marketplace.

To demonstrate this claim, let us return to the vanishing point of Oroonoko's body, the point at which kingship has achieved a combined dispersion and incorporeality resembling that of the text itself. At that moment, the narrator makes her most striking appropriation in the form of a disclaimer: "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" (p. 141). Oroonoko's "worth" demands more sublimity than she can summon, yet her own authorial reputation, itself a mystical body existing in and between texts, will be the support of "his glorious name." Ending the text with the word "Imoinda" reminds us of Behn's special fitness to tell this love story, her femaleness, but the effect of authorship here transcends all such physical accidents even as it takes them into account. If Oroonoko scatters his members to maintain his integrity, Behn performs a similar act of disowning the text (insisting that it is really Oroonoko's and Imoinda's) to open a rhetorical space in which she can remind us of her authorship and the obligation it imposes. In her dedication of the book to Richard Maitland, she similarly effaces herself as the principle of exchange, effecting a transfer of "the nobler part" from one great man, Oroonoko, to another: "'Tis purely the merit of my Slave that must render [the book] worthy of the Honour it begs; and the Author of that of subscribing herself, My Lord, Your Lordship's most oblig'd and obedient Servant, A. Behn."58

In this odd mixture of appropriation and disowning ('"Tis purely the merit of my Slave that must render" the book worthy of Maitland), the author trades in the "parts" she claims are not exactly hers, and thus she avoids identifying herself with her commodity. Despite the insistent presence of the first-person narrator in Oroonoko, then, the phenomenon of authorship per se tends to come into view as the principle of the exchange of representations. Like Sir Cautious Fulbank, the author seems to want to trade in what she does not own, and quite literally she did not own Oroonoko by the time the printed book appeared, beg ging the patronage of Maitland. Or, perhaps more precisely, the authorial effect might be likened to Sir Cautious's reasoning that one may safely trade in "nothing": commodities like Julia's "part," Oroonoko's "nobler part," and finally, his "glorious name." What, after all, is a name? "Why 'tis a word, an empty sound; 'tis breath, 'tis air, 'tis nothing," answers Sir Cautious. Such commodities certainly direct us to the anomalies of ownership in general. However, by insisting on the oddly evanescent materiality of these commodities and by showing that the human body disappears into them, she implies that they are the perfect "nothing" to set against all other commodities. Like authorship itself, they seem endlessly negotiable precisely because they are not really owned, and hence they make their vendor invulnerable.

Little wonder, then, that Aphra Behn seems to us both the victim and the heroine of the literary marketplace. Her two favorite personae invite exploration of the splendors and miseries of authorship as it realized itself on the stage and in print. What is the relationship between these authorial effects and the historical woman Aphra Behn? Throughout the chapter, I have implied that the historical woman was the producer of these effects, that they are therefore not to be confused with her, indeed that "she" warns us against such confusions. Simultaneously, though, I have suggested that Behn had a heightened consciousness of the connection between self-possession and self-alienation because of her experience as a woman in the literary market-place. Even when she universalizes the paradoxes of property in the oxymoronic "Royal Slave," her insights seem grounded in the specific entanglements between women and commodities in the late seventeenth century. But because these were the entanglements of commodification, they produce an effect of emptiness when we try to reconstruct the historical subjectivity of Aphra Behn. In the first chapter of Capital, Marx imagines what commodities would say if they could speak. They would say that their essence is not in their matter; that it is an abstract value seemingly divorced from time and place.59 To seek to know the interior of the commodity is thus to witness an abstraction from history. My analysis has neither exposed nor exorcised the historical woman, but has rather gained multiple perspectives on her works by composing them around the historically demarcated points where the lady vanishes.

In the chapters that follow, the self-presentations of eighteenth-century women writers will be seen to undergo alterations that are now familiar to students of English literature. The imperceptible change that Sir Walter Scott's great aunt lived through is easy to trace in what might be called the "revirginization" of the woman writer at mid-century. But through this and many other variations, the phenomenon of "Nobodiness" persists, not as an indication of the female author's lack of importance, but as a sign of her success.


22Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, introd. Maureen Duffy (London: Virago, 1987), p. 405.

23Love-Letters sometimes presents the narrator as masculine, but in the third volume, a feminine persona is consistently used.

24 As we might also have predicted, the black lady of this story identifies all these aspects of difference with female desire. As in The Lucky Chance, the very principle of difference, and hence, paradoxically, of interchangeability, is the "nothing" of female sexuality, whose obscurity is stressed in yet another seventeenth-century slang term for the female sexual part: "the black ace" (Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra, p. 232). In The Lucky Chance, however, the "nothing" is "but a part" of Julia, whereas the black lady is the black ace writ large. Hence, in the act of identifying her source, the narrator of "The Unfortunate Bride" implies that to appear in print is to reach some apotheosis of femaleness by not appearing at all.

25 Scribal copies generally did not have title pages; instead they opened with conventional phrases or incipits, a word deriving from the commonplace opening phrase "Incipit Liber" (Here begins the book).

26 Eisenstein, p. 84….

33 This presence is not unusual in stories about the wonders of the New World, where narrators routinely felt obliged to claim that they were eyewitnesses of the events they relate. Most of the evidence, though, does point to Behn's presence in Surinam in the early to mid 1660s; see Rogers, "Fact and Fiction in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," pp. 1–3. For discussion of the critical controversy over Behn's eyewitness status, see Chibka, "'Oh! Do Not Fear a Woman's Invention': Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko" pp. 510–13.

34Oroonoko; or, the Royal Slave: A True History, in Oroonoko, the Rover, and Other Works, ed. Janet Todd (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 132. Subsequent quotations from this edition are cited parenthetically in the text.

35 Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1800 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1968), p. 5.

36 In a footnote Jordan names several later writers who celebrate "the Negro's jet blackness," but Behn's is the earliest instance by over thirty years. Jordan, p. 10 n. 23. Lines 16–20 from Milton's Il Penseroso, which Jordan does not cite, might be taken as a precedent:

Black, but such as in esteme
Prince Memnon's sister might beseem
Or that starred Ethiop queen that strove
To set her beauty's praise above
The sea nymphs, and their powers offended.

The mythical nature of these beings and their allegorical use as illustrations of the attractiveness of Melancholy's blackness, however, disqualify them as representations of seventeenth-century Africans.

37 For analyses of the narrator-hero relationship, see Martine Watson Brownley, "The Narrator in Oroonoko," Essays in Literature 4 (1977): 174–81; Ferguson, "Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," pp. 165–66; Pearson, "Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn," part 2, pp. 184–90; Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist, pp. 47–52; and Starr, "Aphra Behn and the Genealogy of the Man of Feeling," pp. 362–68.

38 For a fascinating discussion of the parallels between kingship and textuality in the early modern period, see David Lee Miller, The Poem's Two Bodies: The Poetics of the 1590 Faerie Queene (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988).

39 In 1696 Thomas Southerne turned the story into just such a play, which, in various versions, was a staple of the eighteenth-century repertory.

40 See, for example, Ernest Bernbaum, "Mrs. Behn's Oroonoko," in Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1913).

41 On Oroonoko's relation to heroic drama, see Brown, "The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves," pp. 48–51.

42 For a description of the blackface characters in the lord mayor's pageants, see Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1987), chapter 3. For other possible references in Imoinda's iconography, see Ferguson, "Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," p. 181 n. 49.

43 The Reverend Richard Hakluyt, indeed, calls this kind of African body carving a form of "branched damaske" and says that it takes the place of clothing (Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, 12 vols. [Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1903–05], vol. 4, p. 62). For other discussions of the insistent physicality of Imoinda and its hint of a conflict between the narrator and this black heroine, see Ballaster, "New Hystericism: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," pp. 290–93; and Ferguson, "Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," pp. 170–71.

44 I am not arguing here that Oroonoko is supposed to be any particular king or all the Stuarts collectively. Rather, Oroonoko, although he may indeed bring to mind certain Stuarts, is the symbol of an entity that is itself symbolic, kingship, and represents a seventeenth-century revision of that entity. For arguments that detect likeness with the Stuart kings, see Guffey, "Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Occasion and Accomplishment," pp. 3–41; and Brown, "The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves," pp. 57–59.

45 I give in this paragraph a schematic summary of the intricate and complicated arguments described by Kantorowicz in The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957).

46 See Barthelemy's discussion of the contrast between the heroic white Moor and the villainous black Moor in George Peele's Battle of Alcazar (1589), pp. 75–81.

47 For various accounts of why and how Africans came to be the enslaveable race, see Jordan, White over Black, esp. pp. 91–101; Barbara Fields, "Ideology and Race in American History," in Region, Race, and Reconstruction, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982); David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), p. 178; and William D. Phillips, Jr., Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Slave Trade (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 184.

48 The narrator is not always consistent on this point. On at least one occasion she speaks of "Indian slaves," but she seems to use that term loosely as a synonym for "lowly servant." She never describes the commodification of Indians.

49 In fact, Coramantien was not a country at all but a port on the Gold Coast where the English had a trading station. According to Rogers, though, planters in America generally referred to Gold Coast Africans as Coramantiens (Rogers, "Fact and Fiction in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," p. 6).

50 For the larger political implications of the debate over money at the end of the seventeenth century, see Joyce Oldham Appleby, Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 236–41. Appleby argues that "Locke's denial of the extrinsic value of coin carried with it a limitation of government in economic affairs" (p. 237). She also quotes John Briscoe's 1696 attack on the state's power to fix the value of money, an attack phrased in language peculiarly relevant to Oroonoko: "[As] it is a mark of slavery, so is it the means of poverty in a State, where the Magistrate assumes a Power to set what price he pleases on the Publick Coin: It is a sign of Slavery, because the Subject in such Case lives merely at the Mercy of the Prince, is Rich, or Poor, has a Competency, or is a Begger, is a Free-Man, or in Fetters at his Pleasure" (p. 237)….

58 "The Epistle Dedicatory to the Right Honourable the Lord Maitland," in Oroonoko; or, the Royale Slave: A Critical Edition, ed. and introd. Adelaide P. Amore (Lanham: Univ. Press of Maryland, 1987), p. 3.

59Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (New York, 1906), p. 95. See also Walter Benjamin: "[T]he commodity attempts to look itself in the face. It celebrates its becoming human in the whore" ("Central Park," New German Critique 34 [Winter 1985]: 42).

David E. Hoegberg (essay date 1995)

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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 models, while the other ignores the possibility that Behn's use of convention might be in part subversive. Its subversion does not lie, however, in portraying successful rebellions against those in power—Oroonoko and Imoinda are defeated both at home and abroad—but in revealing the mechanisms by which power operates, including both physical force and subtle forms of mental or psychological control.4

Robert Chibka has already done extensive work on the role of deceit by whites in manipulating Oroonoko,5 but consciously crafted deceit is only one form of mental control. I would like to extend Chibka's work to consider the role of plot in the novel's structures of domination, not only the plot of Oroonoko itself, but the way it alludes to and incorporates preexisting classical narrative models, especially those of Achilles and Julius Caesar. At every stage of his life, Oroonoko is dominated by texts that shape his career in ways he cannot control.6 While his authority to act as an independent being is wrested from him, the authorship of his life story is complicated by literary allusions so that questions of constraint and freedom become wrapped up with questions of literary indebtedness and originality. In Oroonoko, the allusions form a supplement to Behn's text that deepens the analysis of power and its problems. If the main plot tells the story of Oroonoko's struggles against the old king, the English captain, and Byam, the allusions—and the processes of mental control they suggest—tell a story of Oroonoko's struggle against less tangible forces of ideology and belief.

To read Behn's allusions as more than literary homage or political nostalgia we must look beyond the standard heroic qualities associated with each character. When considered in a static or synchronic mode, warrior heroes such as Achilles and Caesar, by virtue of their fighting skill and devotion to honour, often become symbols of aristocratic male virtue. The synchronic view, however, may ignore the narratives or plots that place the hero in relation to other characters and in cultural, geographical, and historical contexts that add complexity to the messages or implied ideologies of the story. (In the Iliad, for example, Achilles comes to question some aspects of the aristocratic system he represents. Should he not, therefore, be seen as a symbol of radicalism as well as a warrior hero?) The diachronic view acknowledges contextual elements—webs of relations and changes over time—that make characters more than "stock" figures. The potential for complexity is compounded when heroic narratives become the models or scripts for another character's behaviour, since the weaving of one narrative into another increases the number of contextual variables affecting the "meaning" of the allusion.7 The allusions can thus be seen as sites of ideological struggle and not only as examples of the dominant ideology against which struggle is mounted.8


Before I discuss the first heroic allusion in Oroonoko, let me illustrate the more general process of mental control that forms one of the novel's central concerns. Oroonoko's native culture in Coramantien instils in him several important values that function like scripts to limit and shape his actions. We learn that Oroonoko and Imoinda are required by custom to inform the king of their intent to marry: "There is a certain Ceremony in these cases to be observ'd … 'twas concluded on both sides, that in obedience to him, the Grandfather was to be first made acquainted with the Design: For they pay a most absolute Resignation to the Monarch, especially when he is a Parent also."9 The respect they are obliged to pay is accompanied by, or encoded in, a "Ceremony" or model for action, while the king's power arises in part from his ability to manipulate such scripts for his own ends. Influenced by his "Court-Flatterers," he decides he wants Imoinda for himself and turns to another cultural custom, the "Royal Veil" or "Ceremony of Invitation," by which any woman he chooses is "secur'd for the King's Use; and 'tis Death to disobey; besides, held a most impious Disobedience" (p. 140).

In these scenes Behn describes the actions of both parties as tied to ritualized narrative or diachronic patterns known within the culture. Furthermore, these patterns have a certain power over the participants that can override their resistance to specific rulers and events.10 Oroonoko and Imoinda fall automatically into the "ceremony" of obedience to the king, with no thought that this may be against their interests ultimately. The king takes a more consciously manipulative approach, assessing his interests first and then choosing an appropriate "ceremony." A combination of custom and the king's desire—internal belief and external political power—forms the text that ensures Oroonoko's romantic misery. The intangible bonds hold him more securely than physical bonds, as he recognizes when he cries:

were she in wall'd Cities, or confin'd from me in Fortifications of the greatest Strength; did Inchantments or Monsters detain her from me; I would venture thro' any Hazard to free her; But here, in the Arms of a feeble old Man, my Youth, my violent Love, my Trade in Arms, and all my vast Desire of Glory, avail me nothing. (p. 142)

The old man's strength lies in his political power, which is linked to his symbolic place within the cultural belief system, and against this Oroonoko is restrained by his own virtuous will, which shuns "impious Disobedience." Even the king's death would not free him from the bonds of custom:

If I would wait tedious Years; till Fate should bow the old King to his Grave, even that would not leave me Imoinda free; but still that Custom that makes it so vile a Crime for a Son to marry his Father's Wives or Mistresses, would hinder my Happiness; unless I would either ignobly set an ill Precedent to my Successors, or abandon my Country, and fly with her to some unknown World who never heard our Story. (pp. 142–43)

Oroonoko sees that he can gain Imoinda only by escaping custom through criminal acts, thus becoming a social outsider, or by fleeing to another "World," something he will do, though not by choice.

Despite his inclination towards obedience, Oroonoko rebels against the king by planning to see Imoinda in secret, but his arrangements are neither well designed nor effective. He is caught making love to Imoinda when he might have been wiser to use the time to escape and, although he has the opportunity to bring her away with him when the king's guards retreat, he leaves her to be punished for his crime.

Oroonoko's motives are hard to fathom here. Even when he chooses rebellion, there is something that steers him towards acquiescence to the king's power, and when he breaks laws, he does not go far enough to secure Imoinda for himself. The outcome of his ill-planned rebellion, therefore, is that Imoinda is more than ever lost to him. Could he not have anticipated this result? Why did he not mount a military coup or escape with her when he had the chance? Such questions can be answered by arguing that it is Behn not Oroonoko who is inept: Oroonoko's reasoning is inscrutable because the narrative here is poorly constructed, and it is poorly constructed because the author cares more about setting up the reunion in Surinam than she does about psychological realism.

I prefer to assume that Behn used the long African section of her novel to make some serious points about the nature of political power. Oroonoko's actions become more plausible if we see here the work of a kind of hegemony that keeps his beliefs and choices within the prevailing discourse of power. According to Antonio Gramsci, hegemony is "the 'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group."11 The word "spontaneous" is in quotation marks because the consent of the masses is not without cause: it is caused by the prestige of the dominant group, that is, by a pervasive belief in the dominant group's superiority and in the superiority of the laws that protect it. Throughout this section of the novel, custom and law work to fulfil the king's desires and to frustrate Oroonoko's, yet Oroonoko acts like one who believes he can achieve no more than an inconsequential and symbolic resistance. Although he may question specific acts of the king, he neither questions nor flees from the system that gives rise to the king's prestige (and his own).

Behn places her allusion to Achilles in the context of Oroonoko's repeated attempts to circumvent the king's authority without assaulting the underlying belief system. The king sells Imoinda into slavery but tells Oroonoko that he has killed her. Oroonoko's response to the news of Imoinda's "death" is to withdraw from warfare and refuse to fight the king's enemies. This departure from the king's script follows a script of its own drawn not from African culture but from European tradition. In a virtual summary of the Iliad, the narrator describes how Oroonoko withdraws from battle after his favourite woman is taken by the king. The chiefs of the army beg him to return to the battlefield, "But he made no other Reply to all their Supplications than this, That he had now no more Business for Glory; and for the World, it was a Trifle not worth his Care" (p. 157). Without him, Oroonoko's troops are routed by the enemy, "who pursued 'em to the very tents" (p. 158). At last Oroonoko enters the battle and turns defeat into victory by fighting, like Achilles, "as if he came on Purpose to die" (p. 159).

Oroonoko cannot escape from one script without entering another. Following Achilles' script, he returns to battle, is reconciled with the king, makes a triumphant return from the wars, and is "belov'd like a Deity" (p. 160), but he has lost the person dearest to him. The allusion to Achilles functions on several levels at once. By further defining Oroonoko's character it both ennobles and confines him. Behn increases our appreciation of Oroonoko's military prowess, and at the same time condemns him to live Achilles' painful life. Did she intend to compliment Oroonoko without understanding the full implications of her allusion? Does her use of a tragic pattern indicate a form of racism that will not allow a black hero to succeed? The context of the allusion I have described suggests that Behn, while she may be racist in other ways, is here concerned to show the difficulties inherent in any attempt to resist state power. Harming one's enemies may harm one's friends as well, so that both action and inaction are loaded choices. Achilles and Oroonoko, although from different eras, places, and racial backgrounds, face similar obstacles.

They also share a rather ambiguous political position. Achilles is dissatisfied with his treatment by Agamemmon but has the power to question and retaliate only because he is a strong and respected leader who has benefited in the past from the established system of conquests and rewards. Similarly, Oroonoko's ability to court and claim Imoinda arises from his status as prince, general, and member of the courtly inner circle. Both Oroonoko and Achilles, as men, have privileges that effectively limit the scope of any rebellion they might mount. Disputing over women, they are unlikely to challenge the custom that gives them the right to engage in such disputes in the first place, that is, the commodification of women. While part of the heroism of these figures is their questioning of authority, neither story allows for full-scale revolution or social reorganization. One effect of Behn's allusion, therefore, is to deepen rather than simplify our sense of the complexities involved in political struggle, for rebellions take place in cultural contexts.

There is also the level of Oroonoko's consciousness to be considered. He has been educated in European ways, can converse in French, English, and Spanish, and "knew almost as much as if he had read much" (p. 135). Imitating Achilles may, therefore, be a conscious choice. If so, it is interesting that he chooses a European hero to imitate, as if, having exhausted the options offered by his own culture, he were searching for a new, more effective script. Achilles' script brings him glory. Immersing himself in the male world of camps and battles, he begins to overcome his grief, but he does not gain political or romantic power. Although he tries to act independently, Oroonoko is not in control of his own destiny, but is subjugated by alien texts.


Oroonoko's return and reconciliation with the king coincide with the arrival of the English ship and the beginning of a new phase in his career. Now a colonial power replaces the domestic state power in Oroonoko's life, functioning in a similar way but with more horrifying results. Like the king, the captain uses deceit to maintain power over Oroonoko, and Behn shows that colonial power also has a subtle literary or narrative dimension. At the moment of Oroonoko's capture by the captain, the narrator adds another text to the list of those confining Oroonoko. She writes: "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" (p. 162). The figure of a lion in toils has a complex literary history that must have been familiar to Behn. It is an allusion to Plutarch's "Life of Julius Caesar," which appeared in a new translation between 1683 and 1686. Describing Caesar's assassination by the senators, Plutarch says that Caesar "was encompassed, like a wild beast in the toils, on every side" (p. 892). Although Oroonoko will not be dubbed "Caesar" by his white owner until he arrives in Surinam, Behn suggests that, from the moment of his capture, he is already caught up in Caesar's script. Plutarch's image of a beast in toils occurs at Caesar's death, but Behn uses the allusion early in her story, thereby suggesting that Oroonoko's end is already written at the time of his capture. For Oroonoko, to be renamed "Caesar" is to have his life symbolically rewritten. Thereafter, try as he might to rebel, he plays the part in a white colonial drama of one who is too strong and dangerous a leader to be trusted, whose popularity with the masses threatens those in power. Like Julius Caesar, Oroonoko will be undone, not only by enemies, but also by those who appear to be his friends and, like Caesar, he will be remembered as a martyr defeated not by honourable battle but by treachery.

This allusion has another source, which provides a colonial parallel to Oroonoko's predicament. In act one, scene two of Dryden's The Indian Emperour, Montezuma, King of the Aztecs, observes that he is surrounded by romantic enemies, the result of involvements that he, his two sons, and his daughter have with relatives of his old antagonists in The Indian Queen, Zempoalla and Traxalla: "My Lyon-heart is with Loves toyls beset, / Strugling I fall still deeper in the net."12 No sooner has he spoken than he learns that he is surrounded by military enemies as well. A guard enters and announces that the Spaniards, led by Cortez, have surrounded them. Montezuma and his group are "compast round" (line 196) and "inclos'd" (line 204) by "swarming bands / Of ambush'd men" (lines 193–94). Although Montezuma had used the "toyl" metaphor in the context of love, events on stage show that it is also an accurate description of colonialism, as he is caught simultaneously in the net of love and in the net of Cortez's conquest.

Although Dryden may have had Plutarch in mind when he used this image,13 there is no other evidence in the play suggesting a parallel between Montezuma and Caesar. It fell to Behn to link these two heroes to Oroonoko by means of an image that could be traced back to both texts. Her explicit use of the name "Caesar" suggests that Plutarch is the more important of the two predecessors, yet Dryden's play may have given Behn ideas about depicting a colonial struggle in literature. Like Oroonoko, Montezuma is a strong leader who resists enslavement and, although he scoffs at the Spaniards' religious rhetoric, always acts honourably towards his enemies. Dryden interweaves gender and colonial conflicts in his play in a way Behn might also have found useful. Finally, Dryden contrives to have the lion-in-toils simile enacted onstage when Montezuma is tied up and tortured by the priest; as we shall see, Behn uses a similar technique at the end of her work.

As if this were not enough, Behn herself had used a similar image in 1677 in a play entitled Abdelazer; or, The Moor's Revenge. Its titular hero is prince of the north African kingdom of Fez, which has been conquered by Spain, its king having been killed and Abdelazer taken captive to Spain. Although he is treated well by the Spanish king and becomes a general, he nevertheless refers to his captivity as "Slavery"14 and tries to avenge himself by claiming not only the throne of Fez but also that of Spain. Through a combination of martial prowess and court intrigue he almost succeeds but is captured by the Spaniards and executed. Just before he is stabbed to death, Abdelazer says:

As humble Huntsmen do the generous Lion;
Now thou darst see me lash my Sides, and roar,
And bite my Snare in vain; …
And like that noble Beast, though thus betray'd,
I've yet an awful Fierceness in my Looks,
Which makes thee fear t'approach; and 'tis at distance
That thou dar'st kill me; for come but in my reach,
And with one Grasp I wou'd confound thy Hopes.
(p. 96)

The similarity to the threats Oroonoko hurls at his hunters before being taken in the woods and to the stabbing of Caesar is obvious.

To say that Behn associates this image with the exercise of colonial power is not to say that she always sympathizes with the colonized: Abdelazer is guilty of several moral outrages that mitigate his claim to justice, and the narrator's ambivalence towards Oroonoko has been well documented.15 Yet in both these images, and especially in Oroonoko, Behn is searching for a way to express not only the rage of the colonial victim but also the pervasive nature of the encompassing power, which is represented by the snare or net. By moving the image to the beginning of Oroonoko's captivity, as in Dryden, rather than placing it at the end, as in Plutarch and Abdelazer, she emphasizes the scripted nature of Oroonoko's slavery, its tendency to follow an existing pattern to a preordained conclusion.

Instead of the word "snare," she employs the less common "toil," used also by Plutarch and Dryden. A look at the etymology of this word may help to explain her choice. The English word "toil" for a hunter's net comes from the Old French toile and the Latin tela, both meaning a web or net. Other words that come from the same Indo-European root-syllable are "text," from the Latin texere, to weave, and "technology," from the Greek tekhne, art, craft, or skill.16 Etymology shows the conceptual links between linguistic or narrative skill (textuality), physical skill (technology), and military aggression (hunting), thereby deepening Behn's allusion. When used as a hunter's tool, the toil ensnares the unsuspecting victim, symbolizing the hunter's power over his prey and his disguise, since toils are always hidden. By analogy, the toil suggests the colonialists' ability to hide their selfish and acquisitive motives behind language that appears benign and selfless, as seen in the captain's actions. It represents also the power of texts or narratives to shape proceedings in a colonial situation—the web of words used to ensnare Oroonoko includes not just the deceit practised by the captain and Byam but also the name "Caesar" and the biography that goes with it. All three aspects of the word may be seen in the captain's capture of Oroonoko.

Caesar's political position, like that of Achilles, is complex. His ambition to become dictator rested upon successful foreign conquests, which gave him the wealth necessary to buy influence and popular support and to make his army intensely loyal. Similarly, Oroonoko's threat to colonial power in Surinam is possible because he has won the loyalty and admiration of the other slaves, who constitute a majority of the population.17 His symbolic status stems from the power he used to conquer and sell them into slavery in the first place. The ideological contradictions that critics have noticed in the text appear in the allusions as well.18 That Behn complains about the unjust power used against Oroonoko and Caesar without questioning the colonial power that they also used illustrates a limitation of her critique, but does not entirely undermine it. Her allusions to Achilles and Caesar glorify a certain kind of resistance to unjust rule staged from positions within the aristocracy. At the same time, Oronooko's ultimate failure—and that of his literary models—indicates Behn's pessimism about the very resistance she praises.

The script of Julius Caesar's life does not account for every detail of Oroonoko's captivity, but it does provide a trajectory for it. He is kept on the trajectory by his enemies and ostensible friends, who do not intend to deceive him, but who are also subject to the hegemony of colonial ideology. Trefry names Oroonoko "Caesar" in homage to Oroonoko's nobility of birth and demeanour and later professes his "Abhorrence" (p. 168) at Oroonoko's capture and promises to free him, but good intentions cannot prevent Caesar's fate from overcoming Oroonoko. Since, as we have seen from the position of the lion-in-toils image, Oroonoko is already living Caesar's life, Trefry's homage im plies his unwitting consent to the direction imposed by the colonial powers.

The narrator plays a similar role in colonial events, declaring herself Oroonoko's ally yet participating in his subjection. She says she "entertained" Oroonoko and Imoinda "with the Lives of the Romans, and great Men, which charmed him to my Company; and her, with teaching her all the pretty Works that I was Mistress of, and telling her Stories of Nuns, and endeavoring to bring her to the Knowledge of the true God" (p. 175). While Oroonoko does not like the narrator's proselytizing, the other entertainments seem pleasant enough to him, yet the word "charmed" here suggests that there is a mechanism at work which he does not see, a kind of narrative magic charm that casts its spell on him. By telling stories about the "Lives of the Romans,"19 the narrator teaches Oroonoko the significance of his new name and of his lines in the white script that will end with his death. Whether the narrator intends it or not, the effect is the same. Although she claims to be on their side, her "entertainment" of Oroonoko and Imoinda gives them clearly circumscribed places in the colonial system. In this respect she is similar to the "Cast-Mistresses" of Coramantien, who assist the king in the education and control of his sexual servants.

A similar point can be made about the narrator's activities as a writer. She excuses the practice of renaming slaves on the grounds that their native names are "likely very barbarous, and hard to pronounce" (p. 169). Trefry's choice of "Caesar" she finds especially appropriate because it

will live in that Country as long as that (scarce more) glorious one of the great Roman: for 'tis most evident he wanted no Part of the personal Courage of that Caesar, and acted Things as memorable, had they been done in some Part of the World replenished with People and Historians, that might have given him his Due. (p. 169)

Here the narrator begins to lament that Oroonoko's story will not be as well known as Caesar's. His due, she feels, is to become famous for the martyrdom he has suffered. Unable to save Oroonoko, the narrator wants at least to make his sufferings and accomplishments known. "But his Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his Fame" (p. 169). The use of a modesty trope indicates that Oroonoko is confined by the text of the novel itself.20 The narrator hopes to establish Oroonoko as Caesar's equal by writing his "Life," thus liberating him from Plutarch's text and giving him one inscribed with his own name. But she fears that her biography, written by a "mere" female, is doomed to obscurity, censure, or both. There is an uneasy relationship here between racial and gender prejudices: through literary skill the narrator may be able to overcome her readers' prejudice against black protagonists, but her skill cannot change the fact of her own femaleness. Oroonoko, in his literary reincarnation, will thus continue to suffer the neglect and confinement that characterized his life, not because of racism, but because the narrator is confined in a sexist literary power structure.

The narrator's next sentence confirms her declaration of textual impotence. "For the future therefore I must call Oroonoko Caesar; since by that Name only he was known in our Western World" (p. 169). She "must" call Oroonoko by the name that entangles him in the white drama, the word "therefore" connecting this necessity causally to the foregoing discussion of female inferiority, as if she, too, were caught in the colonial script and contributed to his sufferings because powerless to do otherwise. Thereafter, Oroonoko's original name does not appear in the text except when he uses it. The narrator's subjection to the narrative convention of naming mirrors her subjection to the political system in Surinam, and henceforth she plays a dual role in the text, as advocate for the downtrodden prince and as participant in the prejudice and distrust that ensure his final defeat. Like Brutus in Plutarch's narrative, she has Oroonoko's "intire Confidence" (p. 177), but she turns out to be part of the conspiracy against him.

The narrator is a key figure in the "Actions and Sports" (p. 176) that the whites use as "Diversions" to turn Oroonoko's mind and energies away from rebellion. These activities serve white colonial interests by making the land safer for colonization. Oroonoko kills a tiger that had stolen a cow and another that had "long infested that Part, and borne away abundance of Sheep and Oxen, and other Things, that were for the Support of those to whom they belong'd" (p. 181). He also catches one of the dreaded "Numb-Eels," which were supposed to render someone unconscious merely by a touch of the bait on his fishing line (pp. 182–83). The shift here from human interaction to combat against monsters suggests the use of another narrative model, Hercules' twelve labours, often taken as civilizing actions to subdue the savage and monstrous elements of the Mediterranean world. The script of Hercules, like that of Achilles, ennobles Oroonoko by endowing him with superhuman strength. It also helps to disarm his otherness by giving it a familiar literary form and by directing his violence away from the monstrosity of slavery itself. Hercules, however, performed his most famous exploits at the command and in the interests of another and, like Oroonoko, he was caught in debasing servitude to an unworthy master.21 The allusion to Hercules is thus not merely conservative in its ideological thrust; it highlights the exploitation by whites of Oroonoko's labour. The ideological conflict in this allusion centres on Hercules' dual role in relation to acts of exploitation. Each successful labour proves the injustice of his enslavement, but each act also kills or subordinates another being whose right to autonomy is never entertained. Similarly, Oroonoko's Herculean adventures separate him from savage native elements which he tames (including the disgruntled Amerindian villagers) and from other African slaves left behind on plantations, thus proving his right to freedom by showing his "legitimate" superiority over those who will remain enslaved.


The colonial diversion, with its Herculean overtones, is presented as a narrative "Digression" (p. 189), showing once again that Oroonoko cannot leave one script without entering another. The last part of the novel recounts Oroonoko's attempted rebellion against the scripts in which he has become entangled. As in Coramantien, the rebellion has two phases, an overt "criminal" act of defiance that fails, followed by his sullen withdrawal from society. Oroonoko rouses his fellow slaves to mutiny, but, as in Coramantien, there are problems with his plan. Although his rhetoric is high-flown, he does not appreciate the practical obstacles to a successful escape. A slave named Tuscan warns him that the women and children are "unfit for Travel in those impassable Woods, Mountains and Bogs" that surround them (p. 191). Oroonoko's response is theoretical; he tells them "That Honour [is] the first Principle in Nature" (p. 191) and that "the more Danger the more Glory" (p. 192). Attempting to encourage the slaves, he cites the example of Hannibal, "a great Captain, [who] had cut his Way through Mountains of solid Rocks" (p. 192). Oroonoko has learned well the "Lives of the Romans, and great Men" (p. 175) taught him by the narrator, but Hannibal is an inauspicious choice since his efforts, too, were doomed: he crossed the Alps but failed to achieve his goal of conquering Rome.22 In mentioning Hannibal Oroonoko invokes another script for heroic failure.

The pitiful white militia defeats the slaves not by superior force but by "perplexing" them. Their whips inflict pain but are not deadly. Whips also have a symbolic value, however, which the English augment by crying out "Yield and Live! Yield, and be Pardon'd!" as they fight (p. 194). As in Herodotus, where the Scythians resort to whips to put down a slave revolt, the use of whips forces the Africans to "remember they are slaves" and causes them to lose courage.23 The whites also attack their eyes and faces to demoralize them further (p. 194), a tactic Julius Caesar himself is said to have used successfully against Pompey's cavalry.24

In this victory, hegemony is again a factor. Language and symbols are the primary colonial weapons: victory by the whites is complete when Byam makes "use of all his Art of Talking and Dissembling" to obtain Oroonoko's surrender (p. 195). Oroonoko is not at first convinced by Byam's professed deference, but Trefry, himself deceived into "believing the Governor to mean what he said" (p. 196), makes the decisive plea, again becoming an unwitting instrument of the colonialist cause. The narrator's failure to prevent the treacherous whipping of Oroonoko follows a similar pattern. She fears, with other whites, that Oroonoko will come and "cut all our Throats," even though he has specifically promised that he "would act nothing upon the White People" (p. 176). She distrusts that promise, she says earlier, because of his "rough and fierce" spirit, a view that now helps to cause her absence at a crucial moment.

Equally prejudicial is the immediate division of the white camp along gender lines: the "Females," accepting their role as weaker beings, "fly down the River, to be secured." While the narrator says that she has "Authority" to preserve Oroonoko, her actions place her firmly within the female stereotype. Her betrayal comes from those deep-seated aspects of culture that are hardest to shed. Oroonoko's suffering may thus be said in a broad way to be caused by the prejudice of European culture against blacks and women. The narrator's "spontaneous" consent to the male-dominated system helps to perpetuate Oroonoko's subjection in the colonial system. The subtle, unconscious workings of hegemony explain why she believes she has "Authority" when, in fact, she does not.

With the failure of his first plan, Oroonoko begins to plot a more radical escape through death. He also plans to "take a dire Revenge" on Byam for subjecting him to the "contemptible Whip" instead of merely killing him, proof that the whip's symbolic value is not lost upon Oroonoko: "No, I would not kill myself, even after a Whipping, but will be content to live with that Infamy, and be pointed at by every grinning Slave, till I have completed my Revenge; and then you shall see, that Oroonoko scorns to live with the Indignity that was put on Caesar" (p. 199). This is the first time Oroonoko's original name has appeared in the text for some thirty pages and it comes as a bolt of lightning. It shows for the first time that he distinguishes between his two identities of prince and slave. One is a maker of dramas, the other a character in someone else's drama. As Oroonoko begins to compose a script to compete with the powerful white script, he reclaims his former name in a symbolic attempt to summon his princely power. "The Indignity that was put on Caesar" is not only the indignity of whipping, it is also the indignity of treacherous assassination. Oroonoko's new script will be a script of suicide to pre-empt the script of assassination already composed for him by the colonists. His ultimate failure to escape Caesar's toils indicates how deeply he is bound in the colonial net.

After Oroonoko reclaims his former name, he begins to re-enact sections of his African life. In addition to imitating other literature, Behn's novel now begins to imitate itself, as if Oroonoko's earlier life as a prince, which has already become the stuff of legends enjoyed by the narrator, Trefry, and others in Surinam, has become a script to be reused. As we might expect, Oroonoko is no more successful now than he was then. After he has killed Imoinda, he wastes himself in grief and remorse:

He remained in this deplorable Condition for two Days, and never rose from the Ground where he had made her sad Sacrifice…. but offering to rise, he found his Strength so decay'd, that he reeled to and fro, like Boughs assailed by contrary Winds; so that he was forced to lie down again, and try to summon all his Courage to his Aid. He found his Brains turned round, and his Eyes were dizzy, and Objects appear'd not the same to him they were wont to do. (pp. 203–4)

His condition here parallels directly the Iliadic episode, mentioned above, in which Oroonoko, believing Imoinda to be dead, languishes "for two Days, without permitting any Sustenance to approach him" (p. 158), yet when he rises to do battle he is able to do "such Things as will not be believed that human Strength could perform" (p. 159). In both cases, Oroonoko is certain his beloved is dead and starves himself, but in the second instance his original strength and determination have been eroded by the ordeal of slavery. Both his body and his "Brains" fail him this time, suggesting that the colonists' linguistic weapons, deceptions, and whipping have affected his mind. In spite of himself, he has internalized the colonists' view of himself as their inferior.25

Whereas Oroonoko's Achillean script was partially successful in Coramantien, here it is disastrous. Achilles himself had the favour of gods who could "distil nectar inside his chest, and delicate / ambrosia, so the weakness of hunger [would] not come upon him," but Oroonoko has no such protecting deities. Thetis promises to preserve Patroklos's dead body from decay while Achilles takes his revenge upon Hektor,26 but Oroonoko's enemies discover him by the "Stink" of Imoinda's decaying body (p. 204).

As the search party surrounds him, he grasps wildly for narrative models, finding three different ones from different parts of his past. The image of a dizzy and weak Oroonoko warning his pursuers to "approach no nearer, if they would be safe" (p. 204) and that "Fatal will be the Attempt of the first Adventurer" (p. 205) is a pathetic re-enactment of the scene in which Oroonoko leaps naked from Imoinda's bed, grabs a nearby battleaxe, and promises "the certain Death of him that first enters" (p. 153). This time his attackers are not scared off but merely delayed. Once again the whites rely on language more than on action, entreating Oroonoko to give himself up while they keep a safe distance (p. 205). As he holds off the whites, who approach him like hunters surrounding a lion, he "cut a Piece of Flesh from his own Throat, and threw it at 'em" (p. 205), in imitation of yet another heroic script, this time taken from the culture he observed on his visit to the Indian village.27 Finally, he imitates the tiger he himself had killed during his "Herculean" adventures, who "feebly wounded him" in the thigh with her claws as she died (p. 180); Oroonoko can only wound Tuscan feebly in the arm before falling completely into the hunters' power (p. 206). His capture in this manner provides a graphic staging of the lion-intoils simile, itself an echo of Plutarch's description of the death of Caesar, thus re-enacting and completing his subjection to the role of Caesar written for him by his masters.

By killing Oroonoko, the whites ironically give him exactly what he wants. The "Barbaric" Bannister does what all Oroonoko's well-meaning friends are unable to do: he liberates the slave from his hated captivity. Behn suggests that the actions of the whites backfire another way: the "rude and wild … Rabble" and the "inhuman … Justices" who presided at Oroonoko's execution, she says, "after paid dear enough for their Insolence" (p. 208), implying that some power, perhaps the Lord Governour when he finally arrived, made them atone for their crimes. The passage corresponds to one in Plutarch's "Life of Caesar":

But the great genius which attended [Caesar] throughout his lifetime even after his death remained as the avenger of his murder, pursuing through every sea and land all those who were concerned in it, and suffering none to escape, but reaching all who in any sort or kind were either actually engaged in the fact, or by their counsels any way promoted it.28

By condemning Oroonoko to the fate of Caesar, the whites also condemn themselves to the fate of Caesar's enemies, unconsciously admitting their guilt. While "Caesar" may be subject to their power, they are themselves subject to a divine principle of justice that pursues and finally punishes them. Behn suggests that Caesar's toils return to ensnare the hunters, subjecting them to a part of the text they perhaps did not read carefully enough.


There remain several different levels on which we can read Behn's literary allusions. The allusions are the most striking examples of a process of "scripting" that goes on throughout the novel, in which those in power shape the lives of those they dominate by means other than what Gramsci would call "direct control." Whether the narrative model is a famous story, a ritualized "ceremony," or a new pattern composed by the powerful for a specific situation, some degree of hegemony or "spontaneous" consent appears to be involved on the part of Oroonoko and his friends. In Oroonoko's case this can be seen in those actions he consciously controls: his plan of seeing Imoinda in private, his withdrawal from the battle, and his impractical plan for the slave mutiny are actions where he displays an internal lack of will, judgment, or foresight. In situations beyond Oroonoko's control, such as the whipping, execution, and imposition of Caesar's name and biography upon him, hegemony can be seen most clearly in his allies. When the narrator and Trefry help to keep Oroonoko subdued, they are involved unknowingly in colonial machinery. The failure of acts of resistance is due as much to internal factors as to external force or control. The allusions suggest that it is difficult for people to think and act independently of the cultural biases and patterns that surround them, whether they are natives of the culture in question or displaced aliens. Allusions are a particularly appropriate means of making this point, since they force readers to rely on prior knowledge that is usually acquired from the same education and cultural indoctrination that gave rise to the hegemony.

If hegemony is effective, it may be argued, then Behn's message is essentially conservative. Behn's Toryism and her refusal to criticize slavery have been widely acknowledged, and the evidence discussed here could be used to bolster that view of her. She may evoke our sympathies for Oroonoko, but the failure of his attempted rebellions establishes a pattern that begins to carry the weight of destiny. The pattern of failure could reassure a white, aristocratic audience that such uprisings are always doomed and that, while subjects and slaves may have legitimate complaints, they can never really change the status quo.

To portray the mechanics of power, however, is in some sense to criticize them, even when no solution is offered. The detail with which Behn depicts the multiple and subtle means of control used on Oroonoko and his friends works against the continuing effectiveness of such control, for if hegemony depends upon belief, then it can be upset by changes in belief fostered by literature. The subversive potential in the novel is emphasized if we interpret it not as a modified romance to entertain aristocratic readers but as an extended disquisition on the nature of power both domestic and colonial. I have called for a consideration of Oroonoko's predecessors not as figures but as narratives. All the men are great aristocratic warriors, but all are also caught in complex webs of power and engaged in political struggle. Their stories can therefore be said to have power and rebellion as their main subject. Behn uncovers a tradition of resistance in the midst of the literary tradition, although, as I have suggested, it does not extend to those on the lowest rungs of society.

Furthermore, although none of the heroes can usurp authority for himself, each is the beneficiary of an apotheosis of sorts after death. According to legend, after his death at the hands of Deianira, Hercules was made a god by Zeus. By an act of senate after his death, Julius Caesar was worshipped as a god in Rome. Achilles, though not deified, enjoys a reputation for greater virtue, cunning, and strength than Agamemnon, as a result of Homer's contrasting characterization of the two.29 Thus in some sense all three heroes triumph over their oppressors. Each story contains a coda in which previously inescapable powers, including death itself, are re-evaluated and shown to be malleable.

As we have seen, Oroonoko's story has a similar coda hinting at the later downfall of his oppressors. In the final paragraph the narrator hopes that Oroonoko's "glorious Name" will, along with Imoinda's, "survive to all Ages" (p. 208). In light of the other narrative models, this plea for lasting fame may be read as a call for a re-evaluation of the power structures that doomed Oroonoko to failure.


1 Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans trans. John Dryden, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough (New York: Modern Library, 1932), p. 892.

2 Exceptions include Adelaide P. Amore on the parallels between Oroonoko and Christ in her introduction to Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, or, The Royal Slave: A Critical Edition, ed. Adelaide P. Amore (Lanham, New York, and London: University Press of America, 1987), pp. xxxii–xxxiii; Laura Brown on the links to literature memorializing Charles I in "The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves," The New EighteenthCentury, ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 57–59; and Margaret Ferguson on the parallels with Shakespeare's Othello in "Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," Women's Studies 19 (1991), 169–73.

3 See Martine Watson Brownley, "The Narrator in Oroonoko, " Essays in Literature: Western Illinois University 4 (1977), 174–81; Katherine M. Rogers, "Fact and Fiction in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, " Studies in the Novel 20 (Spring 1988), 1–15; William C. Spengemann, "The Earliest American Novel: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, " Nineteenth-Century Fiction 38 (1984), 384–414; Rose A. Zimbardo, "Aphra Behn in Search of the Novel," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 19 (1989), 277–87.

4 My distinction here is similar to one between "direct control" and "hegemony" made by Antonio Gramsci, "The Intellectuals," Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 12.

5 Robert L. Chibka, "'Oh! Do Not Fear a Woman's Invention': Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, " Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30 (Winter 1988), 510–37.

6 Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the idea that authors are owners and masters of the characters in their texts in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 7.

7 My use of the terms "synchronic" and "diachronic" as well as the idea of well-known myths as "scripts" that can shape social interaction is influenced by the work of Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1974), especially pp. 35–36 and p. 123.

8 I am here taking issue with Laura Brown where she argues that "In Behn's text 'reductive normalizing' is carried out through literary convention, and specifically through that very convention most effectively able to fix and codify the experience of radical alterity, the arbitrary love and honor codes of heroic romance" (p. 49). Mary Louise Pratt's essay, from which the phrase "reductive normalizing" is taken, makes a distinction between "informational" and "experiential" discourses that is similar to the synchronic/diachronic distinction I employ. The typical way of normalizing the colonial native is to reduce him/her to a static list of "manners and customs." Experiential narratives may be equally reductive, Pratt argues, but have a greater potential for parody, dialogism, and critique because they portray "situated human subjects" (p. 150). See Pratt, "Scratches on the Face of the Country; or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen," in "Race," Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 138–62.

9 Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, The Works of Aphra Behn, vol. 5, ed. Montague Summers (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1915), p. 139. References are to this edition.

10 See Turner: "Religious myths—and their episodic components—[can] constitute dramatic or narrative process models which so influence social behavior that it acquires a strange processual inevitability overriding questions of interest, expediency, or even morality" (p. 122).

11Gramsci, p. 12.

12The Works of John Dryden, ed. Edward Niles Hooker and H. T. Swedenberg, Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956–), vol. 9 (1966), I.ii. 182–83. Further references in the text are to line numbers of this scene.

13 See James Winn, John Dryden and His World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987), p. 388, for Dryden's contribution to the translation of Plutarch's Lives.

14 Aphra Behn, Abdelazer; or, The Moor's Revenge, vol. 2 of Works, p. 14. As lines are not numbered in this edition, references are to page numbers. Cf. Margaret Ferguson's article above, which first directed me to this play (p. 179n31).

15 In addition to Brown, Chibka, and Margaret Ferguson, see for example Moira Ferguson, Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670–1834 (New York: Routledge, 1992), chap. 2; Wylie Sypher, Guinea's Captive Kings: British Anti-Slavery Literature of the XVIIIth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942), pp. 110–13; Michael Echeruo, The Conditioned Imagination from Shake speare to Conrad (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1978), p. 80.

16 See the OED, s.v. "toil" and The American Heritage Dictionary, Appendix of Indo-European Roots, s.v. "teks-."

17 The concern of white colonists over the power of a multitude parallels that of Caesar's adversaries in Plutarch's narrative. At one point, Caesar is elected high priest over Catulus and Isauricus: "When the votes were taken, [Caesar] carried it, and excited among the senate and nobility great alarm lest he might now urge on the people to every kind of insolence" (Plutarch, p. 858).

18 Margaret Ferguson finds that Oroonoko and the narrator are "both victims and beneficiaries of the international system of the slave trade" (pp. 168–69); Moira Ferguson notes the irony of Oroonoko's "temporary identification with slaves whom he may have originally sold into slavery" (p. 31) and discusses other ways in which the novel is complicated by class distinctions. The point is also discussed in Stephanie Athey and Daniel Cooper Alarcon, "Oroonoko's Gendered Economies of Honor/Horror: Reframing Colonial Discourse Studies in the Americas," American Literature 65 (Sept. 1993), 437.

19 Some editions of Oroonoko print "Loves of the Romans." See for example Oroonoko, ed. Lore Metzger (London and New York: Norton, 1973), p. 46. Mary Vermillion notes that only "Lives" is consistent with the first edition of Oroonoko published in 1688; see "Buried Heroism: Critiques of Female Authorship in Southerne's Adaptation of Behn's Oroonoko," Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660–1700 16 (1992), 37n13. Although "Loves" indicates a more specific type of story, it does not alter my point.

20 Behn used this kind of deference ironically, both here and in other works, to assert her superiority; see Larry Carver "Aphra Behn: The Poet's Heart in a Woman's Body," Papers on Language and Literature 14 (1978), 414–24; Judith Kegan Gardiner, "Aphra Behn: Sexuality and Self-Respect," Women's Studies 7:1/2 (1980), 67–78. Gilbert and Gubar discuss the "bitter irony" of such poses when used by female writers (p. 62).

21 For an outline of Hercules' story, see Apollodorus, The Library, trans. James George Frazer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921), II.iv–II.vii. Hercules' comment to Odysseus in Odyssey 11 is also relevant here: "For I was son of Kronian Zeus, but I had an endless spell of misery. I was made bondman to one who was far worse than I, and he loaded my difficult labors on me"; see The Odyssey of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 184. For a translation that predates Behn, see that of George Chapman in Chapman's Homer: The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Lesser Homerica, ed. Allardyce Nicoll (New York: Pantheon, 1956). For further discussion of transformations of the Hercules model in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, see Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare, and Dryden (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962).

22 On Hannibal see Plutarch, pp. 213–32, 372–88.

23 Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey de Selin-court (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), book 4, p. 272.

24 Plutarch, p. 881.

25 Athey and Alarcon also discuss the parallels between these two scenes, but they focus on the acts of violation that precede the arrival of Oroonoko's pursuers (p. 436).

26 Homer, Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), book 19, pp. 401, 392–93.

27 Soldiers competing for the "Generalship" in war cut off their own noses, lips, and eyes, says the narrator, "so they slash on 'till one gives out, and many have dy'd in this Debate. And it's by a passive Valour they shew and prove their Activity" (p. 188).

28 Plutarch, p. 894.

29 See Apollodorus, II.vii.7; Plutarch, p. 893; and Homer, Odyssey, book 24. In book 24 of the Odyssey Achilles has a chance to gloat a bit when he says to the soul of Agamemnon that his political status as "lord over numerous people" did not prevent him from suffering an early and inglorious death. Agamemnon then goes on to describe the grand funeral of Achilles, at which both gods and mortals mourned and brought gifts even greater than those normally reserved for a king's funeral (Lattimore translation, pp. 346–47).