Oroonoko Themes
by Aphra Behn

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Oroonoko Themes

The main themes in Oroonoko are slavery, race, and primitivism.

  • Slavery and race: In Africa, Oroonoko is a prince and a general, a well-respected young man with a bright future ahead of him. In Surinam, Oroonoko is nothing more than an impudent slave who leads an unsuccessful rebellion. Both racism and slavery are depicted as forces that strip away peoples' identity and humanity. 
  • Primitivism: Oroonoko, a prince, is kidnapped, sold into slavery, and sent to live in a British colony. There, the deceitful and sinful colonists are contrasted with the innocent, primitive natives, whose culture is idyllic by comparison.

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Thematically the work touches on values typical in Behn’s fiction, including the right of women to select their spouses and the paramount value of romantic love. The two dominant themes, however, are opposition to slavery and the celebration of primitivism. In terms of modern understanding, both themes must be severely qualified. The celebration of primitive tribal life is calculated to appeal to a contemporaneous audience fascinated with the New World. Although she develops the theme in both Africa and Suriname, her most extensive depiction of primitive nobility relates to the New World. The indigenous peoples of Suriname demonstrate the superiority of the primitive over the more complex European civilization. A people guided by modesty, simplicity, and innocence, they have no concept of sin, no natural sense of guilt, no words for falsehood and deception. They have no need of complex laws to govern their behavior, but are guided by a natural sense of right and wrong. Admirably adjusted to their environment, they live a life of basic virtue and do little harm. Behn cautions that European mores and religion could only harm their idyllic lives.

As for its antislavery message, the approach is less clear. Slavery is depicted as...

(The entire section is 349 words.)