April 12th: Oroonoko

Does the narrator (Behn) ultimately seem to favor or disfavor colonialism? Consider how her attitude towards the native people has shifted from the first books.

10 thoughts on “April 12th: Oroonoko

  1. Certainly coming out of the conclusion of Oorinoko we get the sense of Behn’s ambivalence towards colonialism. Whether we can say there is a full acceptance of the colonized peoples is still questionable, we are still working under the noble savage paradigm here. However certainly the violent confusion wherein our eponymous hero kills his love and then himself certainly shows a great distain for the affects of colonization. Going off the parallel between Romeo and Juliet and Oorinoko and Imoinda, this paints the colonizers in the light of the anti- visionary and hateful elder Montegues and Capulets- not a positive light at all. The fact of Imoinda’s pregnancy as well heightens the tragedy of the conclusion of the story, highlighting how the colonization and enslavement has not just ruined the lives of these once noble people, but also siphoned possibilities for the future.

  2. Although modern readers would likely take Oroonoko’s ending as a sign that Behn disapproves of colonialism, I would have to disagree. While Behn certainly condemns Oroonoko’s treatment and ultimate death at the hands of the colonial government, she does not condemn their ultimate right to rule over other slaves. Oroonoko is unique because he was born a king, and kings cannot be enslaved. The narrator’s attitude towards native Surinamese remains condescending and patronizing, and she never hints that the colonial overlords should not be in charge. In fact, the narrator mourns that the king let go of some of his holdings: “’tis to be bemoaned what His Majesty Lost by losing part of America” (Behn 1134). Though Behn condemns Oroonoko’s horrible death, she does not go as far as condemning the entire system.

    • I would agree with this assessment. From the gruesome nature of Oroonoko and his wife’s demise it is rather evident that Behn has some general sense of the immorality of slavery but doesn’t go so far as to condemn it. Behn seems to view colonialism in a morally ambiguous light, recognizing the innate evils that are associated with it but still subscribing to it. As stated, Oroonoko’s royal status makes him a special case in Behn’s eyes – she didn’t make this a story about your average slave.

      • Behn does not seem to be openly for or against colonialism because of her differing attitudes towards Oroonoko and wife and the Surinamese. While she obviously disapproves of Oroonoko himself being used as a slave, made evident by his pitiable and horrific fate, he is, as previously stated, a special case. It is clear that Behn is not in favor of a king being a slave, and it appears that her opinion of slavery is generally a negative one, but the question was about her opinion on colonialism, not slavery. These insitutions did tend to go hand in hand, but not in all cases. In the case of the Surinamese, Behn described at the beginning the peaceful, profitable relationship between the two cultures, though the tone of the description is still somewhat patronizing. This is a positive depiction of colonialism; colonialism without slavery, profitable relationships between the colonizing and the colonized. She does seem to be in favor of this kind of situation, taking into consideration that the colonizing group still maintained a certain level of control, preserving a racial, cultural, and economic hierarchy.

  3. Behn in the earlier passages of Oroonoko, characterizes the indigenous people she encounters as being noble and lacking the capacity to lie. This is polarized by the deceit and lack of moral standing Behn later characterizes the whites and african slaves of possessing. The author ultimately uses the interactions of her diverse character web as a means by which to juxtapose slavery in a global context. Surely the treatment of Oroonoko is unjust and the narrator describes at great length the sorrow and grief her party feels when Oroonoko accepts death. Yet, in the context of the story, the author does little to condemn the institution of slavery. The slaves are still cowards and the masters wield control over their property. When the women learn of their captive’s birthright as King, do they even consider the implications of their actions. It would appear to Behn that in her warped conditioning in a tropical colony that her construct of divine right of kings and humans as property are shaped by ultra specified experience the efforts of colonialism are from crown and god and that may must suffer, even savage kings for civilized king.. To me this is exemplified in the death of Oroonoko and Imoinda, instead of the indigenous people’s loss of a future, I believe the author instead falls short of the implications and is only describing a loss of innocence. Surely the descriptions are vivid and include death, yet Oroonoko has escaped description up until this point. He is clearly characterized as an other quality individual who does not fit into this muddled world of forced generational slavery and intercontinental travel. Ultimately, the author paints a stagnant picture of colonialism, one which is either supported nor rejected simply interwoven into the story as the omnipresent character who slowly takes all that is mysterious away from life.

  4. I agree with Hannah and bestbw. Although the narrator seems sad that Oroonoko has died, she doesn’t seem to disapprove of or condemn colonialism as a system. I would agree that it is more of a “modern” thinking or sentiment to feel sadness that colonialism has brought such loss or terror, but this was reality in her time period and this was also a product of British imperialism, so whatever the royals did was God ordained. I do not think Behn thought that her attitude towards colonialism has shifted.

  5. When looking at Behn’s view of colonialism I think it’s important to examine not only her depictions of the native people, but her portrayal of the white colonialists. Take Byam, for instance. Initially he befriended Oroonoko and promised him eventual freedom. However, he never followed through on his word and was ultimately the one who seeks out Oroonoko to whip him and orders his death. He is described in a negative light, as “one that loved to live at other people’s expense” (1139). Banister is another colonist who is depicted in a negative light, almost as barbaric. However, of all the white men, Oroonoko appreciates Banister’s upfront nature regarding his barbarity. So although the narrator seems a bit indifferent toward colonialism as an institution, it is important to note that she portrays colonialists in a very negative fashion which potentially alludes to a more negative view of colonialism than is initially visible.

  6. I think she has developed a sense of disgust and certain disappointment with colonialism. We hear this when she says “they fed him from day to day with promises, and delayed him, till the Lord Governor should come, so that he began to suspect them of falsehood, and that they would delay him till the time of his wife’s delivery, and make a slave of that too, for all the breed is theirs to whom the parents belong.” (1128). The condescending tone and dog like comparison given to Oroonoko shows Behn’s attitude about the Surinamese, but most importantly the attitude of her own people. She witnesses and acknowledges how they keep feeding him promises, but never confronts her own people’s actions. On a sidenote, did anyone think it was interesting that his new name is that of a famous Roman emperor that was killed by those he was close to, and how Behn admits when talking about the tiger’s heart that although it will have no value with the men, “that nothing can receive a wound in the heart and live” then goes on to talk about how this proves that notion to be wrong (1131). Her language about the Indians, how they are used by the Dutch and English, as well as her comparisons when encountering them also show her strong view on colonialism. I believe that she admires Oroonoko for his royalty and value but still thinks of him as a slave.

  7. I got the feeling that Behn was almost neutral towards the idea of colonialism. I don’t believe she necessarily condoned it, but she certainly didn’t seem to vehemently oppose it either. I think that the fact that Oroonoko was a king, rather than just a regular man, helps to prove this. She certainly seemed to believe that Oroonoko’s enslavement was wrong. But this had more to do with the fact that he was a king, meant for nobler pursuits. If anything, I think this story promotes the idea that usurping natural kingship was the true wrong, rather than enslavement and colonialism.

  8. With no blatant opposition or support of colonialism, Behn’s views seem quite ambivalent. On the one hand, the protagonist repeatedly separates Oroonoko from the rest of the Africans before condemning his slavery, making a great distiction between her views on Oroonoko and on colonialism in general. However, Oroonoko and Imoinda’s death is set up like a tragedy, and their smiling faces show the sweetness of death compared to a life in slavery.

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