Considered the first professional female writer in English, Seventeenth century British writer Aphra Behn, is a woman of mystery.
Apart from the fact that she was probably born in Canterbury in 1640, nothing is known about her background or upbringing. Born Aphra Johnson, she claimed to be the widow of a Mr. Behn, but may just as well have been a single woman who invented a deceased husband in order to create a socially respectable background. Charles II recruited her to spy in the Netherlands but never paid her for her services. As a result, she languished in debtors' prison for a spell before embarking on her writing career in order to support herself financially.
Behn wrote plays, poetry and prose fiction, and became notorious for her bawdy plays and sexually explicit poetry.
A brief summary of the bawdy and complex plot of Behn's best known play
Behn is best known, however, the the short novel or novella Oroonoko or the Royal Slave. This is a work that is sometimes regarded as an early abolitionist text and, conversely, as a highly racist one. To understand this apparent contradiction and Behn's attitude to race and slavery, this work needs to be read with a seventeenth century sensibility.
Published in 1688, the work is set in Surinam. It is framed as a true history told by a narrator who was an eye-witness to the events described. Behn may have spent some time in Surinam, and parts of the story may therefore be based on her personal experience. For example, her vivid portrayal of local flora and fauna and her detailed descriptions of the local people seem based on careful observation. On the other hand, when she describes the Amazon as being "almost as broad as the River of Thames" she seems to be relying on imagination rather than actual memory.
The story opens with a description of the colony and its native inhabitants. It then tells of the noble African prince Oroonoko, his love for the beautiful and virtuous Imoinda, and his betrayal by his grandfather the king, who takes Imoinda as a concubine. Because Oroonoko steals into the women's quarters to be reunited with his love, the king sells Imoinda into slavery. Subsequently, Oroonoko is kidnapped by a slaver and transported to Surinam.
In Surinam, Oroonoko is purchased by the overseer of the narrator's plantation, given the slave name Caesar, and reunited with Imoinda, who is at the same plantation. Imoinda becomes pregnant. Not wanting his child born into slavery, Caesar tries to buy his freedom, but is met with delays and empty promises. Desperate, he leads a slave rebellion, but the rebels abandon the lovers. Oroonoko kills Imoinda to spare her honor before avenging himself on his enemies. He is then tortured and executed as an example to the other slaves.
Behn presents Oroonoko as an exotic African slave who challenges the English colonial authorities. At the same time, he is a tragic hero who needs to capture the reader's sympathy. In order to present her hero in a positive light, Behn uses as the narrator a young British gentlewoman who demonstrates attitudes towards class, race and gender which would have resonated with her readers, but who is also impressed with Oroonoko's heroic qualities. As a result, the narrator often exhibits an ambivalence which makes it difficult to ascertain the author's own true feelings and opinions.
In particular there is disagreement about whether Behn was a racist.
Behn downplays Oroonoko's Africanness. Through the eyes of the narrator we see a man with a Roman nose, straight hair and thin lips, and "The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed that, bating [excepting] his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome." He is also exceptionally well-educated because he had a French tutor, and "more civilized, according to the European mode, and took more delight in the white nations." The narrator's descriptions of her hero and heroine often allude to European classical tradition. Oroonoko, for instance, is a "young Mars" and Imoinda a "beautiful black Venus." While such classical allusions appear aimed at creating a favorable impression on Behn's readers, a modern reader will see them as evidence of racial snobbery if not outright prejudice.
The narrator uses a similar approach in her descriptions of the Surinam natives, who "have all that is called beauty, except the color which is a reddish yellow." She seems to regard them quite ambivalently. In one part of the story she describes them as living innocently in an Eden-like paradise unpolluted by civilization, yet in another section she describes their savage nature. When she visits a native village, she shows their simplicity and their awe of the European visitors. Yet she also describes the barbaric self-mutilation practices of their warriors and the horrific acts they commit when they rebel against the colonial authorities.
The narrator also seems to make a point of repeatedly mentioning the dangers of living in a country where white people are outnumbered by potentially mutinous natives and slaves. By having her narrator do this, Behn undoubtedly intended to create an exciting frisson of fear in her seventeenth century readers.
Gender and Honor
Although the story is told by a female narrator, women in Oroonoko are generally two dimensional characters who are subject both to class norms and male standards of honor.
When he addresses the slaves prior to the revolt, Oroonoko tells men who are concerned for their families "that honor was the first principle in Nature" and that if a woman chose to remain behind as a slave to avoid the dangers of flight she should be "abandoned, and left as prey for the common enemy."
In the narrator's world, female virtue is closely tied to class norms. For a lady of quality, death is preferable to dishonor. When the king sells Imoinda into slavery, the narrator believes he should "have had so much value and consideration for a maid of her quality as to have nobly put her to death, and not to have sold her like a common slave." However, when the overseer Trefry admits that a slave refused his advances, Oroonoko, not knowing that the slave in question is Imoinda, expresses surprise that Trefry does not force her to yield, and the other men laugh at his "civility to a slave."
Because Imoinda is a virtuous princess, Behn gives her an honorable death. A grief-stricken Oroonoko slits her throat as an act of mercy to save her honor, and she meets her death willingly, "smiling with joy she should die by so noble a hand."
Behn's attitude towards slavery is unclear.
Because Oroonoko describes the brutal treatment of slaves and paints an uncomplimentary portrait of many white colonists, it is often regarded as an early abolitionist text. This may at first sight seem to be supported by Oroonoko's passionate plea to his fellow slaves concerning "the miseries and ignominies of slavery ... under such loads, burdens and drudgeries as were fitter for beast than men."
However, a closer reading of this speech shows that Oroonoko justifies his argument by complaining that they were not slaves that were won honorably in battle. Instead they were "bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools and cowards." It is not slavery per se that angers Oroonoko, but that he is commercial property who is morally superior to his masters, rather than an honorable war captive. In fact, Oroonoko himself was a slave owner. Many of the other slaves recognized him because he had sold them into slavery. Oroonoko's tragedy is not that he is a slave but rather that he is a prince who has fallen from nobility into slavery.
The narrator constantly alludes to the "quality" or class of her characters, and class seems to have been a more important consideration for her than race.
As a prince, the royal Oroonoko stands at the top of the social hierarchy. His defining quality is nobility, and he is portrayed as a natural and regal ruler who is both admired and feared.
Below Oroonoko in the social hierarchy are two classes of white men: gentlemen of quality who recognize Oroonoko's natural superiority, and dishonorable villains who are responsible for his betrayal and punishment. Notably, the most barbaric of Oroonoko's betrayers, the one who actually tortured and executed him, was further down the social scale in the narrator's world since he was not English but "a wild Irishman."
On the bottom rung of the social ladder are the slaves, the despised group into which Prince Oroonoko, "the Royal Slave," has fallen.
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Oroonoko is notable for its realistic and often vivid descriptions, and the introduction into prose fiction of philosophical concepts such as the noble savage and anti-colonialism. Consequently, while critics often disagree on their interpretations, this novella is regarded as an important and influential work in the development of the English novel.