Behn depicts the natives of Surinam, with whom the British live, as being in "perfect peace," as innocent as Adam and Eve. Their native innocence is set against the corruption of civilization which is identified, in this work, with Europeans (1). The native people are portrayed as having basic human virtues such as creative artistry ("beads of all colors, knives, axes, pins and needles") and modesty ("very modest and shy and despite living practically naked, there is never seen among them any improper or indecent behavior," 2). They have basic survival skills which are lost by advanced technological societies; they can climb trees and fish for food. Morally, they are far better than the European slave traders, who also lie (although the vast majority of Europeans were not slave traders). The African prince Oroonoko is a model of nobility and honor, a magnificent physical powerhouse capable of killing two tigers that the whites could not kill. Oroonoko also will die for his belief in freedom.
Behn's presentation of the natives and cololonists is mixed, and despite the model of the noble savage, she fully embraces the innate superiority of European people and European culture. The natives really are depicted as savages: "they cut into pieces all they could take, getting into houses and hanging up the mother and all her children about her" (54). When the narrator accompanies her social group of whites to the native village, the natives practically fall down in adoration of their skin, clothes, shoes and hair. Also, Oroonoko is portrayed as beautiful in terms of European physiognomy: "The most famous statuary cou'd not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot...His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth, the finest shap'd that could be seen...The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble, and exactly formed, that, bating his colour, there cou'd be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome" (8). Oroonoko is exceptional even among his people because he was educated and taught manners by a French tutor. His great virtue might be attributed to his nonnative education.
Oroonoko is highly regarded as an anti-colonial text. It sheds light on the horrors of slavery and paints many of the white colonists as brutal, greedy, and dishonest. Behn, like other writers from her era, felt greatly disheartened that her countrymen could behead the late king Charles I (1649) and that countless assassination attempts continued on his son, the restored Charles II. Such writers feared that the British possessed a general predisposition towards violence, greed, and disobedience. For instance, the British slave trading captain first befriends Oroonoko, but later betrays him and twice lies to him, and then sells him to Trefry. In addition, Byam, the real-life historical deputy-governor of Surinam, also pretends friendship with Oroonoko and similarly assures him over and over again of his eventual freedom. Later, however, Byam hunts him down, whips him, and without a thought orders he be put to death. The author refers to Byam's greed ("he was one who loved to live at others' expense" and illustrates how he acts with kindness and friendship to someone's face and then plots behind his back (70).
The barbarism Behn fears is inherent in the British nature is particularly apparent in the character Bannister, "a fellow of absolute barbarity," the member of Byam's elected council who condemns Oroonoko to death. Bannister captures Oroonoko and tells him honestly that he will "die like a dog," to which the African prince replies gratefully that he has finally heard a white man tell the truth (76-77). Even Trefry, who indeed is truthful and kind though he is an overseer of slaves, remains blind to the plight of all the other slaves in his charge. And while he defends Oroonoko, he never takes action on his and Imonida's behalf; he remains passive and helpless. Finally, even the narrator, who means well and befriends Oroonoko, runs away at the first sign of trouble. Like the other whites, she is two-faced. She assures him of her undying devotion, but shewarns immediately after that she and the others do not "trust him much out of our view, nor did the country who feared him" (48).
If this pattern is common among British colonists, Behn suggests, the British are not suited to engage in colonialism.
Oroonoko is regarded by scholars as having advanced the cause of abolitionism. The colonists certainly appear evil towards Oroonoko and others. The whites who whip Oroonoko act very cruelly in rending the flesh from his bones: "when they thought they were sufficiently revenged on him, they untied him almost fainting with the loss of blood, from a thousand wounds all over his body...and led him bleeding and naked as he was, and loaded him all over with irons and then rubbed his wounds, to complete their cruelty, with Indian pepper which had like to have made him raving mad" (67). These descriptions would have horrified seventeenth-century Europeans.
Even so, Behn fails to criticize colonialism's use of slaves altogether. It seems to be all right to treat slaves like the overseer Trefry does--being nice to them rather than cruel. Behn does not signal discomfort that slaves cannot retain their own names and are forced to leave their families and friends forever. Thus, though she writes of the horrors of slavery, she never suggests that it should be outlawed as an institution. Although Oroonoko suffers as a slave, he never regrets taking slaves himself. He merely justifies the practice of slavery in Africa as the fate of men honorably taken in war (after all, it is better to be a slave than to be dead). Oroonoko never seems troubled by the idea that the slaves he took honorably in war were then sold by him to the British for his own profit. Although he suffers the brutalizing whip before his ultimate death, the hero never shows regret over having been complicit in selling his own countrymen to the British.
The Female Narrative Voice
Behn's work is important for her innovations in developing the female narrative voice. In her case, this voice invites readers into the plot with a familiar tone that bears a resemblance to an ongoing everyday conversation. The narrator's voice is suggestive of someone using the epistolary form, writing a letter. For instance, some lines read, "I have already said..." or "I forgot to ask how..." In addition, the narrator's active and knowing involvement in the plot, and her follow-up conversations with those who were present when important events took place, provide a great sense of authority that makes the story believable and approachable. For instance, the narrator might not have been on the scene when Oroonoko was killed, but her mother and sister--who are eyewitnesses--inform her of the horrid happenings, which she can convey to her readers with immediacy and authority.
This pattern becomes a central feature of the female narrative voice. The narrator is considered an "intrusive narrator," someone who more or less interrupts the narrative when she deems fit to interject a personal aside on the basis of additional knowledge or interest. On the journey to the native village, for instance, the narrator makes a rather long digression by informing the reader how she came to be in Surinam: her father died on the trip to his new post as lieutenant-general, and now she and her family must wait for transport back to England. As a travel writer of sorts, she also provides her readers with a description of the local flora, fauna and cultural customs of the natives. Behn's narrative strategy would influence such major novelists as Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and George Eliot.
Oroonoko Questions and Answers
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