Aphra Behn: Oroonoko 1640?–1689
(Pseudonym of Aphra Johnson or Aphra Amis; also Aphara, Ayfara, and Afray; also wrote under pseudonyms of Astrea and Astraea.) English novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, and translator.
The following entry presents criticism of Behn's novel Oroonoko (1688). See also Aphra Behn Poetry Criticism.
Oroonoko is Behn's best known work and critics consider it her best book—the novel which earns her a place among the most noted writers in English literature. The book is set in Surinam and chronicles the struggles and ultimate destruction of the title character, an African slave. Oroonoko represents the ideal man and is often regarded as the first "noble savage" character in English literature. Through her work in Oroonoko Behn is credited with adding realism to the novel genre and advancing its development.
Behn is believed to have been the first woman to earn her living as an author. After the death of her husband, Behn was engaged by Charles II to spy on disaffected British citizens in Antwerp, Holland. She returned to England destitute and spent time in a debtor's prison. Looking for a means of making a living, Behn turned to writing, primarily plays. She soon developed a reputation for writing material as bawdy as that of her male counterparts. As a supporter of the Tories, Behn was prohibited to write for the stage from 1682 until 1688. During this period she wrote Oroonoko, which critics have considered far superior to her plays. Behn claimed that the book resulted from events which she experienced as a young woman in Surinam. According to Behn, her father was appointed to a junior position in the colonial government but while en route with his family to the colony he died. The family spent several months in Surinam before boarding a returning vessel. Behn filled her novel with remarkably detailed and realistic descriptions of the area, the people, and colonial life, supposedly based on her first-hand observations. However, at the turn of the century scholars refuted Behn's claim, arguing that she had never been to Surinam and that she based her novel on secondary sources. Despite these factual uncertainties, it is apparent that the novel reflects Behn's social and political philosophies, especially her pro-Royalist stance. She died in 1689 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Plot and Major Characters
Oroonoko is the tale of an African prince, himself engaged in the slave trade, until he is captured and sold into slavery in Surinam. When his West Indian lover, Imoinda, becomes pregnant, Oroonoko cannot face the idea of his child being born into slavery and he escapes. The eponymous protagonist is often considered the first example in English fiction of the "noble savage." Deriving from the philosophical ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this concept supposes that members of preliterate and so-called primitive cultures exist in a state of grace and possess innate virtue. The novel juxtaposes Oroonoko's views and concept of honor with those of the colonists who ultimately betray and kill him.
Although Behn has attracted much critical attention as an early and very popular woman writer, critics have focused almost exclusively on Oroonoko, especially noting its realistic tone, unprecidented for romantic fiction in Behn's age. Myra Reyonlds has written: "At a time when French heroic romances, with their high-flown adventures, unreal characters, and stilted dialogue, were the only works of fiction, Mrs. Behn's short, simple, vigorous, and affecting story of real life comes with a startling sense of novelty." Until the twentieth century it was assumed that this realism sprung from Behn's personal experiences; however, in 1913 Ernest Bernboun argued that Behn had never been to Surinam and that the novel was based on secondary sources. The debate over its varacity continues in the late twentieth century. In 1988 Katherine Rogers placed the argument in new light, writing that Behn's true accomplishment was "imaginative creation building on a foundation of fact, which probably included personal experience." Recent scholarship has also revised the earlier assumption that Oroonoko is one of the first anti-slavery novels. Anita Pacheco has argued that the significance of the protagonist is not that he is a slave, but rather that he is a prince. Other critics agree that the book must be viewed as a political defence of pro-Royalist sentiment in Restoration England.