Written by Aphra Behn
|Penguin Books, 2004|
A curious book, born out of its time - the origins of the novel as a legitimate form of expression, imperialism, the emergence of women writers, and enlightened ideals all conflate to influence Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. There are no easy answers here, no simplistic, fill-in-the-blank answer to "this novel means __________." From a modern perspective, the ethics are contradictory and more than slightly off-putting, and while this novel is sometimes heralded as an antislavery polemic, it's decidedly more complicated than that. Hold your breath, folks, as we dive into the exciting world of slavery, imperialism, and the trope of the "nice white lady."
Plot synopsis time: Meet Oroonoko, West African Prince and all around most eligible bachelor; he falls for the beautiful Imoinda, who is soon sold into slavery in Surinam by Oroonoko's not-so-friendly grandfather. After being kidnapped himself by a slave trader, Oroonoko (through what can only be described as incredible luck, fate, or more likely plot convenience) ends up on the same plantation as Imoinda. One marriage and conceived child later, Oroonoko attempts to lead a slave revolt so that his child won't be born into slavery. It ends in disaster and a suicide pact between Oroonoko and Imoinda ensues. Ultimately, Imoinda is killed and Oroonoko is captured and killed by colonial officials. Not exactly an uplifting tale.
|Aphra Behn, 1670s|
So let's talk about slavery, specifically that Behn's narrator is pretty ambiguous about the whole affair. Yes, we the readers like Oroonoko and Imoinda, and no, we do not like the slave traders and the colonial officials. Behn crafts these characters carefully, and the reader is manipulated by Behn much like Oroonoko is manipulated by imperialism. Oroonoko is a tragedy, and it is Oroonoko who falls victim to a clearly unfair system. But here is the complication that many readers don't seem to grasp: just because Oroonoko is a tragedy about slavery does not mean that it is strictly antislavery. I'll leave Behn's other writings outside of this discussion except to say that she is not exactly the poster-child for Enlightened thinking.
|Oroonoko, by Suu999|
Oroonoko is immediately identified with the European tradition and culture, in terms of his appearance as noted above, and also in the description of his court, which is distinctly formatted after a European model. This correlation between Oroonoko and Europe is made more prominent at the conclusion of the book, during which Oroonoko is juxtaposed with other slaves. Here Behn reveals a troubling paradigm: the other slaves in Surinam are described as cowardly and depict Euro-centric views regarding African savagery. Since Oroonoko continues to be associated with European ideals, the traditional power dichotomy is reinforced as he becomes the de facto leader.
|Pears soap ad, 1885|
Final thoughts? It's ambiguous, and not the effective antislavery campaign I had expected. The writing isn't to my taste, and I feel that this book has remained prevalent because of the content rather than the artistry. Behn effectively joins the ranks of the "nice white lady" trope (she may actually be the founder). You know the type - you've read those books or seen those movies - those Enlightened Caucasian characters that may have good intentions to somehow eradicate racial disparity or help the impoverished minorities, but in doing so themselves they seem to unintentionally amplify their own status and imply that minorities cannot help themselves, thus further reinforcing traditional power structures. These types seem popular lately...
|The Help, 2009|
|Freedom Writers, 2007|
|The Blind Side, 2009|
Oroonoko, Aphra Behn - full text to download through Project Gutenberg
Teaching Guide - an excellent discussion of Oroonoko via post-colonialism