April 7: Oroonoko

Oroonoko is a tale about Africans from a clearly Western viewpoint. How does the tale characterize Africans? How do these characterizations play into concepts of the “noble savage” or European colonialism?

13 thoughts on “April 7: Oroonoko

  1. There is clearly an underlying ideology of white supremacy in this narrative. When describing Oroonoko, the narrator notes, “he was adorned with a native beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race”. The narrator calls the Africans a gloomy race. While complimenting Oroonoko, the narrator is also making a clear distinction between whites and those of the gloomy race. The whole story revolves around the certain nobility and grace of Oroonoko, but continually reinforces the notion that he is a rare gem among his race. Most of the Africans are characterized as ignoble or not worthy. The underlying racism of the 17th century in the European colonialist attitude is clearly at work in this tale.

  2. The Africans are characterized indirectly through the descriptions of Oroonoko himself. He’s often described as more perfect and beautiful than the whole of his race, and this is usually done by comparing him to that of a Westerner, with such descriptions as “the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man….his face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony…his nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat” (1111). There is a definite separation between Africans and Westerners in these descriptions, with Westerners being described as the obvious superior of the two. Oroonoko’s handsomeness and good character is described by comparing him to Western society, essentially saying that he’s not only handsome for an African – he’s even more handsome than CIVILIZED men. While this story does attempt to elevate the tale of Oroonoko, making him appear more than just the savage most audiences would initially see him as, it still ends up putting down African society in the process.

  3. Not only does the narrator characterize the African people, but also the Natives whom the British live peacefully with trading things. While it is not the Natives that the British enslave, they have a similar viewpoint of supremacy that is clear in the narrator’s description of them as “the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin.” While this is flattering in a sense, it also has a degrading aspect, as if the entire race of people has no knowledge or modern advancements, as if they are children in comparison to the more capable adults (the British). Similarly, the narrator has a degrading tone when describing the Africans by comparing Oroonoko to them as if he is an exception to the otherwise “hostile,” “barbaric,” and ill-educated couterparts. In complementing the abilities of Oroonoko, the narrator degrades the abilities of the African people.

    • The narrator does seem to be complimenting the Natives with which the British co-inhabit Surinam, but at the same time they are belittling them, relegating them almost to the state of another, less evolved species. The British narrator claims to live “in perfect tranquility, and good understanding” with the Natives, yet there is clearly a hierarchy between them, and the narrator describes the Natives in such a way that makes them seem inferior, unintelligent, and simplistic (1110). Even though the innocence of the Natives could be seen in a positive light, the tone of the description is patronizing. When describing Oroonoko, the narrator seems almost surprised that Oroonoko as a person could exist, coming from a race that is not white. Instead of what the narrator says about Oroonoko, the most telling indication of the narrator’s opinions and point of view is the way in which the main character is described. The idea of the noble savage relates directly to Oroonoko in that he is considered to be above his race; he is an exception to the race from which he comes, in the eyes of the narrator. Though he himself has impressed the narrator, he is not considered to be indicative of his race, and because of his race he is patronized by being made to seem even more impressive despite his lineage.

  4. The narrator makes a point to characterize the love affair between Oroonoko and Imoinda as inherently European. She writes that Oroonoko “had right notions of honour, so he made her such propositions as were not only and barely such, but, contrary to the custom of his country, he made her vows that she would be the only woman he would possess while he lived” (1112-1113). To a Eurocentric audience, this is a really romantic gesture, a “notion of honor,” but in his culture this would probably seem foolish. In this culture, he would seem especially foolish considering this is his first real relationship with a woman. The text reads, “I have often heard him say, that he admired by what strange inspiration he came to talk things so soft, and so passionate, who never knew love, nor was used to the conversation of women” (1112). He barely knows women, in a culture that is not monogamous, but he is dedicating his life to Imoinda right when he meets her. I feel like he would look like a love struck child in this culture, yet the text paints Oroonoko as admirable for doing this. It feels like a story straight out of an English fairy tale or a courtly love story more than something consistent with the actual culture.

  5. The story of Oroonko clearly views Africans as being inferior to the white colonists. Oroonko is regarded relatively highly by whites,and even the man who buys him, Trefry, “loved him as his dearest brother” (1124). He is only so well-esteemed because he possesses traits that the white men associate with themselves and their equals. It is made clear that Oroonko is an exception among the other members of the black population. The narrator is surprised at Oroonko’s wit and intelligence, and she is impressed because Oroonko has proved her false that African men lack the bravery, conversation, and morality that white men possess. Even his physical beauty is attributed to his separation from most of the other black men, stating that “His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat” (1111). At the beginning of the story, when the narrator is describing the natives in general, the description perfecting embodies that “noble savage” concept of a character who hasn’t yet been corrupted or encountered Western civilization. The narrator says that “it seems as if they had no wishes” and that their “simple nature is the most harmless” (1109). This is a degrading view of the idealized Native people as being less than the Western colonists because they aren’t capable enough, or are too naïve, to understand anything more than simplistic things like nature.

  6. The narrator avoids explicating blatant racist sentiment by simultaneously characterizing Oroonoko and the African people trough comparison. Oroonoko is immediately described as superior to his race, “adorned with a native beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race” (1110). Furthermore, Oroonoko is described as superior to other Africans because “he learned so much humanity,” as well as “morals language, and science” (1111). This surprises the narrator (“I was as greatly surprised when I saw him”) because she sees his appearance as so ostensibly different from the rest of Oroonoko’s “gloomy race” (1111). The narrator implies, however, that Oroonoko’s knowledge was obtained, not by his own volition, but with the (“necessary”) help of Europeans. Not only are the aforementioned ideas inherently colonialist, but they ever so accurately conceptualize the idea of a “noble savage.” For example, Oroonoko is described as more beautiful than fellow Africans, but it is also implied that he, as an African, is ultimately a savage being, and cannot achieve nobility unless aided by Europeans.

  7. As y’all have previously mentioned, the author voices her epistemic lens throught what she has been taught by her predominately white social circle. However, I must counter that given her circumstance she must have some intimate knowledge of the native people that would be base for her work. I believe that each and every work we have read thusfar has held some political connotation and Oroonako is no exception. Behn wields her predecessors characterization of the ideal hero and morphs a character out of her exotic ‘other’. Yet is this other quality of Oroonako where we can experience the familiar scene of the court by structure while incorporating foreign elements into dialogue and narrative description. Think about on page 1115 where Oroonako experiences the realization that he is a cuckold to his King. The one beloved whom he cares more for in the world is being coveted by the man he is sworn to. For a European audience this would seem acceptable given the cultural and even human difference assumed by such geographical differences. The author however I believe uses Oroonako as a Noble Savage type character through his stoic endurement of such a traumatizing event. The frenzy this sends the Prince into is uncontrollable yet he keeps his duty to state showing that inner rage can be complimented with a moral heart. While this may have been considered finge writing for the time it is interesting as contemporary critics to examine how writers from the colonial age interpreted the exploitation of native peoples and incorporated their learnings into their literary work.

  8. On page 1110, Aphra Behn characterizes Africans and all people who are not of “pure” European descent as objects to be bartered, sold, and treated like less than people. Though not uncommon in the time, it is incredibly difficult to read about my own ancestors as nothing more than a bargaining chip in a greater scheme of trade for sugar, slave labor and domination/control of a separate continent.

    behn characterizes Africans as a larger cog in the working relationship of the Western world owning Africa in as much a sense as it possessed in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. She talks about how they were “delivered on such a plantation”, as if they were akin to a Fedex package arriving on someone’s doorstep . They “receive their number by lot”, akin to an animal being tagged for slaughter in a butcher shop. As the seller or buyer, you must be “contented with your lot”, because sometimes a bunch of grapes in a grocery store comes with several shriveled or with a bit of mold.

    Need I go on? Yes, this is a product of its time. Yes, Behn was just doing what all others were doing. But it’s terrible to read and reminds me of how lucky I was to be born in the time that I was, as a “mulatto Jew”. I probably would have been first off that boat, hands cuffed and ready to be sold to the highest bidder. It’s a cold, ugly world that Behn writes about in such pretty, pretty language.

  9. This tale provides a perfect example of the stereotypical “noble savage.” Oroonoko is a prince is his own land, but a slave in the British’s eyes. These conflicting roles give Oroonko a noble, stoic quality that come from his royal birth, and these qualities contribute to the notion of him as a “noble savage.” At the end of the day, he is from Africa, which makes him savage in the European lens during this time period. But despite this status as “savage” he manages to befriend respectable people (Mr. Trefly) and behave in pretty much every way according to courtly rules. The juxtaposition of his treatment and his behavior indicate that Behn, while not an ardent opposer of slavery, believed that there were certain individuals, such as royals or nobility, who did not deserve this fate.

  10. This story greatly plays into the “noble savage” point of view. From the first paragraph, we are told that it is a story about a “royal slave” and from this point onwards we get the idea that it will be a story about Western imperialism and colonialism (Behn 1108). As Kevin mentions in his post, Behn writes that Oroonoko is so noble and superior to the other Africans because he has been “civilized” by the Westerners or British imperialists. The European’s seem impressed that an African could be so smart or seemingly “better” than other African’s, but they rationalize this by saying that he has learned this from the European’s and that this is a benefit of colonialism.

  11. The narrator characterizes the Africans in this narrative as being inferior beings when compared to the the western white colonists. Oroonoko was a slave from the viewpoint of the British, but seen as a noble from the viewpoint of his own people. Oroonoko is described and characterized as “transcending all those of his gloomy race” (1110). He is shown as surpassing his race in terms of beauty and nobility, but since he is of African descent he is seen as being lesser then the Europeans. The Europeans were also the ones who gave Oroonoko the knowledge he posses, as they were in the process of trying to educate the savages.

  12. The characterization of Oroonoko is greatly plagued by the white attitude towards Africans or “savages” at this time. Any time he is described as beautiful it is very carefully mentioned that this is despite his race. For instance, he is described as follows: “his face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony /his nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat” (1111). Countless times his apparent beauty is made to seem as a rarity for African people by the European attitudes. Furthermore, he is often displayed as more than a slave, being included in more civilized activities with the Europeans and noted as a “noble savage.” However, the fact that he had been lied to and ultimately never granted the rights out of slavery show the true attitudes of the Europeans no matter his nobility.

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