At a Glance

  • Oroonoko is set in the 1600s, at a time when many countries, including Surinam, were under British colonial rule. Behn depicts how British imperialism, in tandem with the Atlantic slave trade, fundamentally changed life in Africa and certain parts of South America. Brave, intelligent Oroonoko is a victim of imperialism, which is depicted as an evil, corrupting force.
  • Aphra Behn depicts the natives of Surinam as innocent, good-natured people. She emphasizes the fact that they regularly trade beads, bins, and needles to prove that the natives are creative, and she claims that the people of Surinam have no words meaning lies or deception. By praising so-called primitive cultures, Behn criticizes colonial regimes, as well as Western European culture.
  • Behn took the name Coromantien from a slave trading station in Ghana. Though the country of Coromantien is a fictional invention, it does stand in for many coastal African countries which were targeted by slave traders in the 1600s.


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)



England. Setting of the novel’s present-time narration. In 1688 England was a nation in crisis. After issuing a series of unpopular laws and producing an heir to his Roman Catholic throne, King James II struggled to retain power. In December, he fled the country and was replaced by the Protestant prince William of Orange. Although many people feared James, Behn remained fiercely loyal to him. Her novel, which chronicles the tragic destruction of a heroic prince, reflects the sorrow she felt during James’s political struggles.


Suriname. European colony on the northeastern coast of South America (now independent Suriname) to which the African prince Oroonoko is taken after he is enslaved in Africa. Behn probably visited Surinam during the early 1660’s. By the time she wrote Oroonoko, the colony had been ceded to the Dutch, a fact that would have underscored for her contemporary readers her themes of futility and loss.

Within the novel, Surinam is not only an exotic land filled with unusual wildlife, but also an edenic paradise. Behn describes the colony’s inhabitants, who live without shame or deception, as “so like our first Parents before the Fall.” They represent the “first State of Innocence, before Man knew how to sin.” In depicting Surinam as a prelapsarian world, Behn follows the satiric tradition of writers such as Michel de Montaigne, who contrasted the primitive virtue of “savages” with the corruption of European society.

By the time Behn wrote Oroonoko, Surinam was no longer an entirely primitive land. It had been colonized by the British and participated in the...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977. Duffy’s sympathetic biography scrutinizes the known details of Behn’s life. She also offers a comprehensive treatment of Behn’s London literary career.

Hunter, Heidi, ed. Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. The book offers a selection of previously unpublished essays on aspects of Behn’s works. It includes an essay by Charlotte Sussman that centers on the character Imoinda and explores the plight of women under polygamy and slavery.

Link, Frederick M. Aphra Behn. New York: Twayne, 1968. Link’s readable study offers a comprehensive account of the life and works of Behn. He provides a concise critical evaluation for each of the prose romances.

Rogers, Katharine M. “Fact and Fiction in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Studies in the Novel 20 (Spring, 1988): 1-15. Rogers examines the accuracy of numerous details cited by Behn in Oroonoko. The article finds the book generally accurate in its portrayal of Africa and Suriname but mistaken in some details.

Sypher, Wylie. Guinea’s Captive Kings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942. Sypher places Oroonoko within the context of eighteenth century antislavery literature. His analysis shows that, by combining the antislavery theme with that of the noble savage, Behn swayed sentiment against slavery.