“Contrary to the custom of his country…” : Gender and Values in Oroonoko
Aphra Behn’s genre-blending tale Oroonoko melds travel narrative with fictional biography to tell the story of Prince Oroonoko, “the royal slave.” Although Behn writes of Oroonoko’s honor as unique among men, her admiration for him seems to derive directly from how closely he mirrors the prime model of a nobly descended, Christian Englander. Indeed, Behn measures and praises Oroonoko’s masculinity only in terms of these parallels. Other males, such as Oroonoko’s grandfather, are emasculated through their failure to conform to these standards. The femininity of Oroonoko’s bride, Imoinda, is also a subject of praise in that it embodies the normative values of beauty and modesty of the time. This essay argues that Behn’s juxtaposition of native qualities with values of the period constructs the gender of her characters in such a way that they function only as dark-skinned representatives of white virtue. Furthermore, this paper will analyze the texts of Oroonoko and Addison and Steele’s The Spectator to demonstrate how certain writers of the time dealt with “the other” via subjective cultural standards.
Behn introduces us to Oroonoko as an African warrior-prince in possession of unusually Caucasian physical traits. She writes, “...
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