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In Oroonoko by Aphra Behn, there are several problems which can be related to Behn’s political views. Slavery and the issues surrounding it make people betray, hurt, and kill one another. The image Aphra Behn wants to leave to the readers is that two beautiful and honest people died because of the establishment of slavery. The idea of authority and power, including female position and powerlessness. contributes
Women both black and white have less power than men in Oroonoko. Even though in Oroonoko the oppression is by race and not by gender, Behn’s status as a woman is different from the men in the colony. Although she is more privileged than the slaves, because she is white, she is still powerless to prevent violence and change the way of how the events happened, despite her claims of authority. Her mother and sister have some influence, but when important decisions are made they are not consulted, mainly if it is felt their opinions will be different from the men’s “My mother and sister were by him all the while but not suffered to save him” (Behn, pg. 76). This is obvious from the number of times that decisions to punish Oroonoko are made without the narrator’s knowledge or while she has gone away. Behn identifies with Oroonoko when he is powerless, especially in his exclusion from and opposition to the dominant culture.
Despite her protestations of power and importance in the colony, it seems that she has power to stop Oroonoko, but not to actually help him. She considers herself part of the dominant power while persuading Oroonoko to stay or teaching him aspects of European culture, but when the Europeans chase, punish and kill Oroonoko, she is a woman who can do nothing about it, while they carry out such evil actions.
When Behn gives Oroonoko’s description, it can be interpreted that members of the inferior race are nobler than the superior race. Therefore, this enforces her attitude against slavery. For example, Behn considers Oroonoko not as essentially African, but as essentially different from other Africans. His skin is “polished jet” and “perfect ebony” instead of “brown, rusty black”; his nose is “rising and Roman instead of African and flat”; his lips are thinner than those of the other Africans (Behn, p.15). Not only his looks are almost the same as an European, but his character and education are more like those of a noble European prince rather than some “African savage”. “He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court” (Behn, pg.15). This makes Oroonoko an African nobler.
Oroonoko is a great person and shows it in different events of his life. After he was betrayed by the captain into slavery and was sold to an owner, he told his betrayer that he has learned a lot from him. “Farewell, Sir! It is worth my suffering to gain so true a knowledge both of you and of your gods by whom you swear” (Behn, p.41). Instead of feeling hate towards the captain, Oroonoko tells him how he is better off knowing what kind of person he really is. Only a man like Oroonoko could speak that way to an evil man.
Relating these statements to the fact of power mentioned earlier, we can also see how good, and forgivable Africans are. These are the values of those who are suffering into slavery. While Oroonoko is a slave he clearly proves that slaves can be as noble as free men, but he is also an educated nobleman who himself kept slaves and sold men into slavery when he had power in Coramantien. Far from resenting this fact, the slaves respect and welcome him as a king when he arrives at the plantation. Oroonoko gained the respect both as a Prince and for his skill in battle and his honor. He is known to be strong and skilled both at fighting and intelligence because of his knowledge of languages. He is not treated as a common slave, Behn says “he endured no more of the slave but the name,” (p.44) being allowed to spend his time talking to visitors such as Behn rather than work on the plantation. This gives him a considerable amount of power despite the fact that he is a member of the oppressed. As a result, when he tries to organize rebellion with the slaves, they are willing to follow him and he is able to install real fear in the Europeans.
Through Behn?s account and graphic detail of Oroonoko?s life, she earns the right as a woman to write about and praise Oroonoko for his greatness. In the closing lines of her story, Behn concedes that she, “by the reputation of her pen” has the authority to convey such a story. Behn not only acknowledges her authority of Oroonoko’s story, but her own greatness as author as well. And by being overwhelmed by Oroonoko’s life, Behn takes the privilege to inform us about who she and the others around her viewed as a Hero.
Behn explores issues of race and slavery, absolutism and power, as presented through a female narrator. The book gives an accurate picture of the times Behn lived in through the fictional account of the tragic story of the black prince.
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