Aphra Behn's Great Deception: Oroonoko Or, The Royal Slave

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Virginia Woolf once wrote: 'all women ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.' Mainly working as a playwright, Behn released several works from poetry to prose fiction, chronicling the plights of women. Her portraits of the convent, nuns, and Catholic lords illuminate injustices of the patriarchal systems in place during her lifetime.

Her most famous novel, Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (1688), introduces the reader to an inherent contrast: can a person be born royal and become a slave? By depicting Oroonoko as the embodiment of qualities revered by European men, but also making him African and therefore black-skinned, Behn raises questions about the foundation of slavery in the Restoration Period. The contrast between Oroonoko's treatment as a general in Africa and as a slave in the West Indies illuminates these eurocentric standards for royalty. Through Behn's depictions of Oroonoko's love for Imoinda in each of these discrete settings, I contend that she speaks to more than just the subjugation of slaves, but more broadly, the subjugation women and slaves alike. Furthermore, her narrative suggests that one's place in society should be determined by merit and not skin color or sex.

Behn opens Oroonoko with a preface, establishing a perspective to share her story. By dedicating the story to Lord Maitland, Behn suggests that the story of Oroonoko is worthy of his consideration. She introduces Oroonoko and the place where she first encountered him –– Surinam, of the West Indies:

The Royal Slave I had the honor to know in my travels to the other world; and though I had none above me in that country, yet I wanted power to preserve this great man… 'tis by such illustrious presidents as your lordship the world can be bettered and refined; when a great part of the lazy nobility shall, with shame, behold the admirable accomplishments of a man so great, and so young.

Behn's grand introduction of Oroonoko serves two functions: first, for her story to be published, Behn needed to make concessions to her lord. By currying his favor, she hopes, some of the revelations she shares through Oroonoko's story may inspire him to reflect on his leadership. In a time where Behn views the nobility as 'lazy' or stagnant, she suggests this story might give them a cause for change. Second, Behn establishes Oroonoko as an equal to Lord Maitland, despite the color of his skin. In so doing, Behn ascribes to him a disposition that stresses merit, noting his 'admirable accomplishments,' but also one inherently tied to his superficial beauty and innate royalty. In her story, she likens many of Oroonoko's external features to those of Roman men, probably because those are the only standards for 'royalty' or 'worthiness' that her audience could understand. Moreover, by presenting her story from a religious angle –– one grounded in nature –– Behn can use Oroonoko's code of honor, passion for Imondia, and royalty, to highlight the injustices enacted by his captors.

Behn's story begins in Coramantien, an African kingdom where Oroonoko serves as an illustrious general, the sole heir to his grandfather's throne. Although Behn's character is yet to meet Oroonoko, she shares his origin story second-hand. Through war, Behn says:

'he [learns] so much humanity; or to give his accomplishments a juster name, where 'twas he got that real greatness of soul, those refine notions of true honor, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry.

Oroonoko derives his sense of self-worth from these wars and the tutoring he receives from a French scholar. His grasp of honor, wit, strength, and tactfulness reflects not only his high social-standing and education but also his impressionability. At only 17 years old, his perception of the world is shaped almost entirely by his tutoring and encounters in war. These experiences, and Behn's linguistic accounts of them, 'refine' Oroonoko's character. Like a sculptor carving the edges of her masterpiece, Behn, too, intends to construct Oroonoko's internal disposition finely. Behn aligns her descriptions of Oroonoko with common connotations of royalty: educated, honorable, beautiful, skilled in battle. But Behn makes the distinction that Oroonoko develops his sense of self-worth from the merit and honor of his actions, not from his physical features or his royal birthright.

Oroonoko's treatment of Imoinda reflects his higher value for honor, but also represents women's subordinate status in his society. The first threat to Oroonoko's code of honor comes when his grandfather, the old king, takes an interest in Imoinda. Behn likens this conflict to a matter of freedom. Imondia is 'a mistress he could not with all his strength and courage retrieve,' making Oroonkono a slave to his forlornness. Until this point, Oroonoko's seems to derive his sense of self from his success in war, honor, education, and compassion for others. But when his weak, dying grandfather expresses interest in Imoinda, Oroonoko must respect his elder's wishes. Here, Oroonoko's sense of honor, his respect for the king's order, supersedes his passion. But after losing Imoinda, Oroonoko's sense of self begins to crumble.

Although Behn eloquently describes the nature of Oroonoko and Imoinda's love –– even suggesting in one instance that it's very essence might 'defy the most expert mistress' (Nature itself) –– the fact that Oroonoko cannot own Imoinda passion causes him to feel anguish. I believe, by establishing 'owning her passion' as the requisite for romance, Behn alludes to Imoinda's inherently subordinate status. Despite sharing many of the same innate qualities of beauty with Oroonoko, her sex lowers her; and, in this instance, it enslaves her body to the old king.

In the ensuing conflict between Oroonoko and his grandfather, Behn expands on their differing interpretations of honor. She posits that man's 'only crime and sin with woman is to turn her off, to abandon her to want, shame, and misery.' Honor, or in this context, the ways men treat women, becomes one of Behn's measures for determining worth. Oroonoko's grandfather, however, feels that obedience to the king is akin to obedience to God, and therefore his subjects must obey his wishes. He takes Imoinda not out of spite for Oroonoko, but because he believes that his higher status entitles him to her body. The king does not care not for Imoinda's reservations as they do not accord with his desires. Consequently, Oroonoko 'mourns the loss of a mistress he could not with all his strength and courage retrieve,' indicating that his love for Imoinda, despite its more innocent origins, depends on his possession of her as well.

Initially to Oroonoko, Imoinda's loss of virginity represents the death of her pure nature. Initially, this loss enslaves Oroonoko, metaphorically. The sanctity of their love, an integral part of his soul, is breached. Oroonoko soon comes to realize that these terms of virginity, purity, and religion are flawed. He can still be free with Imoinda if he 'set an ill precedent to [his] predecessors, or abandon [his] country and fly with her to some unknown world, who never heard [their] story.' Because these measures would violate Oroonkono's code of honor, an integral piece of his refined comportment, he must find a loophole in this code to be with Imoinda.

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Oroonoko conscripts members of his grandfather's court to help arrange a secret meeting with Imoinda. But the old king receives word, and, in response to Imoinda's infidelity, sells her into captivity, a punishment he recognizes as unjust in hindsight. In a moment of clarity, Behn describes the old king's state of reflection, saying:

So that the king being old, and not able to defend himself in war, and having no sons of all his race remaining alive but only this, to maintain him on his throne; and looking on this as a man disobliged, first by the rape of his mistress, or rather a wife; and now by depriving of him wholly of her, he feared, might make him desperate and do some cruel thing, either to himself or his old grandfather, the offender.

The old king tells Oroonoko that he executed Imoinda because he recognizes that he needs Oroonoko to help continue the legacy of the kingdom. With the idea of her death ingrained in his head, the king hopes Oroonoko can move on and lead his nation so that his legacy can stand the sands of time. Perhaps Behn includes this half-confession from the king, a man supposedly of equal royal status to her catholic lord, because she wishes to point out the ways his actions could have 'disobliged' Oroonoko, and in turn, sent the rest of his kingdom into disarray. Interfering with marriage and possessing women, then, become one of Behn's indicators for lack of honor –– therefore, if these men do not have honor, she suggests that they are not fit to lead.

Behn's representations of slavery in the West Indies further expands on the distinction between honor and innate royalty. In the West Indies, unlike in Oroonoko's kingdom, slaves are auctioned, not won. When the ship captain auctions Oroonoko, he immediately expresses his dissent with these systems, but because of his honor, vows not to act violently –– as he views himself, technically, to be a guest of their land. The distinction Behn makes between Oroonoko and the other slaves in particularly fascinating. Behn describes Oroonoko's relationship with his owner, Mr. Trefry, saying:

He begged Trefry to give him something more befitting a slave, which he did, and took off his robes: nevertheless he shone through all, and his osenbrigs…could not conceal the graces of his looks and mien; and he had no less admirers …the royal youth appeared in spite of the slave, and people could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it.

Though Behn refers to Trefry's wit and discourse with Oroonoko, the primary –– and perhaps only –– reason he treats Oroonoko with greater respect than other slaves comes from his appreciation for his external features. He even calls Oroonoko “Caesar,” emphasizing his admiration.

Trefry, essentially, treats Oroonoko as an equal in every regard except title. Soon after Oroonoko's arrival, Trefry introduces him to a slave he sees fit for a man of his features –– Clemene. Oroonoko, immediately struck by her beauty, recognizes her as Imoinda. They wed and soon conceive a child. Behn writes:

This new accident made him more impatient of liberty, and he was every day treating with Trefry for his and Clemene's liberty, and offered either gold or a vast quantity of slaves, which should be paid before they let him go, provided he could have any security that he should go when his ransom was paid.

Oroonoko's impatience with his condition ultimately marks his downfall. Though only a slave by title, Oroonoko can not accept his status as a lesser human, and, in turn, seeks to liberate not only himself but Imoinda and the other slave on Trefry's plantation. In another land, Oroonoko hopes he can empower his compatriots.

Oroonoko inspires Trefry's slaves to revolt with him, but his plans are thwarted. Oroonoko's army, outnumbered, surrenders, and he is taken into custody. After much deliberation, his English captors decide his fate:

…they all concluded that (Damn 'em) it might be their own cases, and that Caesar ought to be made an example to all the Negroes, to fright 'em from daring to threaten their betters, their lords and masters; and at this rate no man was safe from his own slaves.

Behn illustrates, at this moment, the priorities of Oroonoko's captors: control is of their most significant concern. But if the English consistently live in fear of their slaves revolting, are they not slaves themselves? Metaphorically, Behn suggests that dominion over another human is the antithesis of freedom. Instead of setting Oroonoko free, which Trefry intends initially, these men dismember him for violating their trust. Death, though not by his own terms, becomes the ultimate moment of liberation for Oroonoko. And he faces this fate the only way he knows how: with honor.

Although disguised as a slave narrative, readers such as Virginia Woolf were able to recognize the proto-feminist elements in Oroonoko. Through Behn’s construction of Imoinda, she illustrates not only the ways that white Christian men dominate slaves, but more broadly, the ways men possess women.

By stressing merit in Oroonoko's comportment, I believe Behn intended to suggest to Lord Maitland and her audience that these qualities of honor should be of higher regard than birthright. Furthermore, in her final depictions of Oroonoko's death, she also seems to suggest that dominion over any human –– woman, slave, or both –– inherently contradicts notions of freedom. And how could humanity possibly move forward, if they remain slaves to these patriarchal systems?

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Aphra Behn’s Great Deception: Oroonoko Or, The Royal Slave. (2021, April 19). WritingBros. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/aphra-behns-great-deception-oroonoko-or-the-royal-slave/
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Aphra Behn’s Great Deception: Oroonoko Or, The Royal Slave [Internet]. WritingBros. 2021 Apr 19 [cited 2024 Jun 16]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/aphra-behns-great-deception-oroonoko-or-the-royal-slave/
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