Much critical analysis has been dedicated to the issue of racism and gender when looking at Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. It is easy to see why such topics might garner such interest, as Behn’s vivid descriptions of the African natives and their plight is so strongly detailed. Further, much of the story is developed around Oroonoko’s captivity and successive fall into slavery, so we can also see why many critics might center their work on this issue as well. One issue that does not receive as much attention is Behn’s feelings toward honor and its role in her work. It is my contention that Aphra Behn seeks out to explore more then just racial divide and gender indifference within Oroonoko. Through the character of Oroonoko, Behn asks her readers to explore their understanding of what it means to be enlightened, and what it means to be profane. If we question the ethical and moral values of the characters within Oroonoko, we can gain a better understanding of Behn’s feelings toward honor and society. In the early passages of Oroonoko, Behn defines her title character as a hero, but by the end of the tale, we begin to question her meaning. Behn clearly wants us to sympathize with Oroonoko early on, but are his actions truly that of an enlightened man. If they are, then we need to understand why Behn would choose to depict her character in such a way that it conflicts with the African and European Christian societies. Gender and racism may be part of the issue Behn is seeking to develop within Oroonoko, but she also roots out the hypocrisy of the actions that are committed in the name of a Christian God. While Oroonoko does seek out a more enlightened path then the Christian Europeans, we must also acknowledge that Behn describes the atrocities and failings of both the Christian and African societies within the work. Not only do the Christians fail to follow an enlightened path, but the African monarchy fails as well. It is here that we begin to see the deeper issue involved. Neither society within the work is concerned with honor or respect for the virtuous. Behn shows that neither the African nor Christian European society is truly enlightened. Oroonoko proves that enlightenment is defined by one’s honor and one’s actions, not through one’s beliefs.
Immediately upon the opening of Oroonoko, the narrator makes the point that the events within the story are of historical truth and that she was an “eye-witness, to a great part, of what [we] will find here set down” (Behn 245). In claiming that the events of the story are true, the reader is able to make their judgments of the characters from a more realist perspective. We can judge the characters according to our own life experience and feelings, rather then seeing the tale as a work of fiction and applying different standards. As we will see later, the reader’s interpretation of the characters is paramount to the understanding of what Behn is trying to accomplish through this work. By looking at the work through a historical perspective, it allows us to connect more personally with the characters, and in doing so, we can formulate our own opinions and not solely what Behn or the narrator wants us to assume. Since much of the story centers on the failings of society and the hypocrisy within it, it is necessary for us to see the work as something that has truly happened. By doing so, we get a true to life perspective of the inner hypocrisy of our own society. If we acknowledge these “historical” truths within the work, we are more likely to acknowledge them in our own lives. If Oroonoko is a real person, then we can see that we are also capable of his virtuousness.
Oroonoko does acknowledge the problems of racial prejudice and subjugation of African men and women in society. However, Behn uses these issues in a larger perspective to illustrate the significant amount of moral hypocrisy within society. The European Christians lie, cheat, and commit unforgiving acts in the name of Christianity, even to those of great virtue. Likewise, Oroonoko’s grandfather is just as manipulative. If these societies were truly enlightened, or virtuous like the royal slave, then slavery and deception would not be tolerated among any of the societies. Slavery is an issue within the story, but it is not Behn’s main issue with society. While modern readers may see slavery as a racial issue, Katharine Rogers points out that “it was not evident in the seventeenth century that enslaving black people is an extreme expression of racism. Blacks themselves saw slavery as a matter of class rather then race, and so did the Europeans” (6). Behn never truly takes a stance against slavery as all the societies mentioned in her novel take part in it. Melinda Zook, author of “Contextualizing Aphra Behn” says, “the central concerns of the narrative were not about colonialism or race. The racial ‘others’ in the story are the native Indians, not ‘the royal slave’â€¦ his treatment at the hands of the white colonists in Surinam is ‘an indignity to his class rather than his race'” (92). We may be offended that his race is subject to slavery at the hands of the colonists, but we are even more offended that a man of such virtue is subjugated to their tyranny. If race was the primary issue in Oroonoko, then the native Indians might also be subjected to the whims of the white man. The colonists acknowledged the Indians as a people of a natural state. In doing so, the colonists left them to live out their lives and did not disrupt their way of life. The Indians were not subject to slavery or the exploits of the Christian Europeans. Margaret Ferguson points out that they were “innocents ‘so adorned’ and beautiful that they resemble ‘our first parents before the fall'” (167). Behn’s descriptions of each society force the reader to compare them against one another. The heathens in Coramantien are really no better then those in Surinam. Behn’s Indians are the standard by which we are to compare. In comparing the Coramantien society and the Christian Europeans to the native Indians, we are able to quickly see their faults.
It is clear that the character of Oroonoko is Behn’s way of contrasting the enlightened with the profane. Oroonoko’s virtue does not allow him to be deceptive of others. It is only when he is wronged against, that he rebels and fights back. This is evident when he finally has to acknowledge his grandfather’s treachery, and later when he realizes he will always be subject to the Christian Europeans. Behn defines Oroonoko’s virtue in his handling of these people. Oroonoko is forthright and always holds true to his word. Beyond his own truth, Oroonoko seeks the highest in others as well. We do not see a naiveté in Oroonoko; we see a conscious choice to seek out the best in others. He trusts until he has a reason not to trust. He sees honor as something that should be between man and God and between men as well. Honor is so important to Oroonoko that it also makes him capable of the profane, similar to that of the Europeans. Daniel Pigg suggests that Oroonoko’s “construction [sometimes] changes. He can be a talented speaker of European languages, be knowledgeable and sympathetic to some of the dire political events of seventeenth-century England, be a master of rhetoric, be a passionate lover, and even be a barbaric murderer” (106). Oroonoko’s profanity may be that he accepts the general laws of society and engages in slave trade. Conversely, He does not see this as a dishonor as he had to fight and conquer in order to gain them. It is common during this period that people of conquered lands were subjects of the victor. We can also see a leaning toward the profane in the killing of Imoinda. Nonetheless, we must also acknowledge his reason for doing so. Oroonoko was not content with leaving his wife to the subjection of the European Christians. He devised a way in which both Imoinda and he could die with their dignity in tact. While this act seems ruthless and barbaric, we see that his notion of honor outweighs his notion for profanity.
Due to Oroonoko’s good nature, we must acknowledge the positive attributes of Oroonoko’s native land. However, we must also look at how his society has failed him and his love for honor. In her article, Melinda Zook notes that “His aristocratic code is, nonetheless, his undoing as he is continually deceived by the ‘degenerate’ whites. His own people fail him as well, and he declares that they are ‘by nature slaves'”(Zook 92). Zook sees Oroonoko as Behn’s ideal cavalier, one that is ultimately betrayed by both family and his people. In Coramantien, we immediately begin to see the failings of Oroonoko’s family. Oroonoko’s plight begins when his grandfather claims his bride to be. Oroonoko is not allowed his wife, as the king has chosen her to be one of his. Here we can see the possessiveness of Oroonoko’s native rule. The society retains hedonistic qualities, but Oroonoko’s virtue in the face of adversity speaks highly of his personal enlightenment. Coramantien law is not kind to Oroonoko, as the king has the right to whatever bride he chooses. The king holds little virtue, as possession of Imoinda is more important than his relationship with Oroonoko. Behn disrupts our notion of family bonding and we place judgment upon the king for his profane behavior. The king feels entitled to whatever woman he chooses. Women are seen and treated as property, and love holds little value as the monarchy truly governs all. Katharine Rogers supports this conclusion as she says, “Subjection of women was almost universal in black Africa. Wives might not eat with their husbands and never spoke to them ‘but on their knees'” (Rogers 4). In Africa, we see a society governed by law, not by honor or spiritual virtue. Like the Christian European society that Oroonoko will soon belong, his home society is structured with rules and regulations that do not always benefit the virtuous. Through Oroonoko’s plight in his native land, Behn notes the limitations of both the king and the society in general. In Oroonoko’s dealings with the king and the rules of his native land, we must acknowledge the failure that society has placed upon him. If Oroonoko was not captured and deceived, his nature, most likely, would not have allowed him to stay. Should the king have been of higher virtue, Imoinda may not have been subject to slavery at all.
Upon his capture by slave traders, Oroonoko is transported to South America in which he encounters the hypocritical nature of the Christian Europeans. Arlen Feldwick and Cary J. Nederman note that it is here that “the failure of supposedly modern Christianity to serve as a practical source of virtue forms a central thread of Behn’s widely acclaimed novel” (223). It is not the whole of Christianity that Behn takes issue with, it’s that she does not necessarily feel that it guarantees a virtuous life for those who practice it. This is proven over and over again as Oroonoko’s trust in the Christian Europeans is repeatedly broken. Throughout his dealings with the Christian Europeans, Oroonoko is consistently confronted with their hypocrisy and deceptions. The captain of the transport ship had little trust for Oroonoko because he did not “trust a Heathenâ€¦a man that had no sense or notion of the God that he worshipped” (Behn 259). The captain does not trust Oroonoko because he is not a Christian, but it is he who lies and deceives Oroonoko. Due to the prisoner’s refusal to eat, the captain asks Oroonoko for help in keeping the other slaves from continuing their rebellion. The captain promises their release upon land fall, and due to his “aristocratic” (Zook 91) nature, Oroonoko takes him at his word. Oroonoko is finally freed and he advises his shipmates of their safety. However, once they arrived at shore, Oroonoko and the prisoners were sold off as slaves. Oroonoko now begins to realize the lack of honor among the Christian Europeans. They dishonor their faith by using deception and lies. Oroonoko’s conversation with the captain shows the difference of virtue among the Christians and the “heathen’s” (Behn 259) elevated concept of honor. Oroonoko puts faith in not only the captain’s words, but the captain’s faith in God. Oroonoko quickly realizes there is little honor to be found within the captain. It is a similar situation that he later finds among many of the Christian Europeans. During his capture at the end of the story, The European Christians dress Oroonoko’s self-inflicted wounds only to have him tortured and dismembered among his fellow slaves. Behn describes the horrendous details of his execution, to further show the Christians lack honor and dignity. We see that “the executioner came, and first cut off his members, and threw them in the fire; after that, with an ill-favoured Knife, they cut his ears, and his nose, and burned them” (Behn 278). Finally they severed his arms and his head. The European Christians attempted to keep Oroonoko from dying with honor or dignity. During his execution, Oroonoko refuses to give in to their evil. He accepts his death with dignity, no matter what the colonists do to him. Oroonoko’s honor is both a blessing and a curse. No matter what the circumstance, he keeps his own faith among men and always honors their word, even when it is obvious that he should not. Behn’s exposing of the hypocrisy within the Christian Europeans, and the failure of Oroonoko’s own society to support him, shows that both societies are of a profane nature. Neither society is truly befitting of Oroonoko. If Oroonoko was to survive, it would only have been achieved outside the realm of either society.
The critical analysis of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko does involve the issue of race and gender, but we must consider these issues in relation to her notion of enlightenment and the profane. While slavery may seem like an issue that revolves solely around racism, most societies during the time see it as an issue of class. It is not that Oroonoko is black that makes his subjection to slavery so appalling; it is his social rank that Behn seeks to point out. Can an enlightened society truly subject its noblest people to bondage? Behn sees this as profane. Should Oroonoko not have been of high virtue, and of a noble background, we could make the case that Behn sought out to disparage slavery altogether. Because Oroonoko dealt with slaves himself, it nullifies such an argument. Behn finds profanity not necessarily in slavery, but in the lack of societies to hold true to their honor. The king does not honor Oroonoko; he is more concerned with possessions. The Europeans do not honor Oroonoko, as the continuously cheat, lie, and murder him through dismemberment. Oroonoko stands above these communities as he takes them for their word, even when he was previously deceived. Honor is the primary issue in Oroonoko, a quality that Oroonoko displays throughout the work. Issues of racism and gender are common themes in Oroonoko, but only in their relation to honor. Zook sees that “Oroonoko’s heroic status is unquestionable. He is Behn’s ultimate aristocratic hero” (Zook 91). Oroonoko rises above the profanity within society; it is his honor that leads him into enlightenment.
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