Category: Fiction/War – Paperback: 144 pages – Publisher: Penguin Classics – Source: My own bookshelves
First Published: 1688
It’s been a while since I read it but I wanted to write up a few thoughts on my last book jar pick, Oroonoko, before I choose another title from the jar and before I begin writing up the books read during the recent readathon.
Back when I pulled this title out of my book jar I was delighted to tackle one of Behn’s full works after only reading extracts of her plays and poetry before. She’s widely proclaimed to be the first English woman to earn her living solely from writing and Virginia Woolf famously said every woman should go lay flowers on her grave in thanks. I knew Oroonoko involved war, slavery, gender politics and a shocking suicide pact but I deliberately didn’t read the book’s introduction or anything online before diving in…
Unfortunately, my horridly anachronistic expectations of what this seventeenth century novella might be left me feeling very disappointed with the reality of it. I had forgotten that Behn was a staunch Tory and how that viewpoint must obviously affect her story of an African prince who ends up trapped in the slavery system, nobly fights against it but is ultimately destroyed. It’s not slavery that she seems to think is bad, it’s the fact that the wrong people sometimes get caught up in the system.
Oroonoko is more an argument for regulation of slavers than a plea for compassion or abolition.
Here’s the rough outline of the plot: In their home nation of Coramantien (modern day Ghana) Prince Oroonoko falls in love with Imoinda and marries her. The king also falls in love with her and forces her into his harem, she and Oroonoko secretly meet, are discovered and Imoinda is sold into slavery. Oroonoko is told she is dead and goes back to fighting tribal battles until he is captured by the English and sold into slavery himself. He’s transported to Surinam in the West Indies and discovers Imoinda is a slave there already. They live as husband and wife, she gets pregnant, he wants to take her home so their child is not born a slave but his request is denied so he causes a rebellion. The rebels are promised an amnesty by the colony’s deputy governor but punished when they surrender… so Oroonoko decides the only honourable thing to do is kill the deputy governor – after first killing Imoinda so no one can harm her or the baby when he is arrested for this crime.
Imoinda is delighted that her husband will take care of her by murdering her and smiles when he slits her throat and slices her face off. Oroonoko is too grief-stricken to actually finish his plan and kill the deputy governor and instead is captured and executed by dismemberment to make an example of him. Oroonoko remains stoically calm, smoking a pipe, as bits of his body are hacked off until he keels over dead.
There are so many things about this tale that make me want to shudder.
There is little compassion for the slaves around the doomed lovers on the Surinam sugar cane plantation and the constant emphasis on Oroonoko’s noble savage nature and royal bloodline status was very, very uncomfortable for me. The moral seems to be that this hideous life is fine for those who don’t look like a classical Greek hero with black skin or who aren’t fluent in French and English, that it is only the cultured European-like Oroonoko that can see how hellish it is. The slavery equivalent of the princess and the pea. Vile, vile idea.
There’s also the fact that Oroonoko doesn’t have a problem with slavery so long as he’s in his natural place in the hierarchy: above it. He’s sold slaves to traders in the past before he was captured himself and had no problem doing business with them. He causes a rebellion to free himself because he feels he has been captured under ignoble circumstances (betrayed by a friend rather than defeated in war), not because he wants to help friends or fight against a greater injustice. He comes to despise the other slaves as deserving their fate because they show no pride and weakly submit to bad masters, they appear to be ‘naturally inferior’ to him. In fact, every other slave and all his owners instantly recognise him as being special and they all treat him better than the rest of the slaves.
The Dutch repeatedly serve as a threat to all those who think the deceitful, cruel English are bad which no doubt stems from Behn’s own feelings on the situation of the monarchy in England in 1688 – James II was about to lose the throne to William II, more commonly known as William of Orange and already ruler of the Netherlands. Which raises the question is this even a tale about honour and slaves or is it an allegory of post-Civil War England‘s attitude to their King?
The narrator is disturbingly untrustworthy to both Oroonoko and the reader – she gives him terrible advice that she must know will harm him and tells us repeatedly that she was somewhere when this or that terrible thing happened to him but her excuses for being elsewhere are flimsy. She bleats constantly about how she could have spared him whichever tragedy it is if only she had been there. While Imoinda is an interesting portrayal of a pregnant woman ready to go into battle and stand alongside her man who accepts death when he proposes it instead, the English narrator appears to be a coward plagued by guilt for looking the other way at crucial moments. This pair of passive and ineffectual women offer no fuel at all for the argument that this is in some way proto-feminist in tone.
Behn’s Tory politics and iron-clad belief in monarchy as the right order for the universe are taken to some extreme places in this text and I admit I struggled far more with the book’s moral perspective than the long sentences and elaborate phrasing of the period. In the past this text has been praised and derided as anti-slavery, pro-slavery, fictional, genuinely biographical, allegorical… And there’s still plenty of politics and plot to be teased out by a modern reader and debated.
Yet, as much as the rational part of me found some interest in trying to analyse and dissect Behn’s intentions and draw conclusions about them, the reader in me was thoroughly depressed by the gore-dripping, pride-without-compassion Tory agenda at the heart of this tale. I find Behn’s politics repellent and as interesting as the historical relevance of the text and the questions it raises are, nothing would induce me to read it again.
Further Reading: Iris’s thoughts as a Dutch reader, Do read A Course of Steady Reading’s series of four posts on Oroonoko – they provide brilliant context and plenty of food for thought
Buy the book: Book Depository