Oroonoko

Historical significance

Behn was a political writer of fiction and for the stage, and though not didactic in purpose, most of her works have distinct political content. The timing of Oroonoko's publication must be seen in its own context as well as in the larger literary tradition (see below). According to Charles Gildon, Aphra Behn wrote Oroonoko even with company present, and Behn's own account suggests that she wrote the novel in a single sitting, with her pen scarcely rising from the paper. If Behn travelled to Surinam in 1663–64, she felt no need for twenty-four years to write her "American story" and then felt a sudden and acute passion for telling it in 1688. It is therefore wise to consider what changes were in the air in that year that could account for the novel.

The year 1688 was a time of massive anxiety in English politics. Charles II had died in February 1685, and James II came to the throne later in the same year. James's purported Roman Catholicism and his marriage to an avowedly Roman Catholic bride roused the old Parliamentarian forces to speak of rebellion again. This is the atmosphere for the writing of Oroonoko. One of the most notable features of the novel is that Oroonoko insists, over and over again, that a king's word is sacred, that a king must never betray his oaths, and that a measure of a person's worth is the keeping of vows. Given that men who had sworn fealty to James were now casting about for a way of getting a new king, this insistence on fidelity must have struck a chord. Additionally, the novel is fanatically anti-Dutch and anti-democratic, even if it does, as noted above, praise faithful former republicans like Trefry over faithless former royalists like Byam. In as much as the candidate preferred by the Whig Party for the throne was William of Orange, the novel's stern reminders of Dutch atrocities in Surinam and powerful insistence on the divine and emanate nature of royalty were likely designed to awaken Tory objections.

Behn's side would lose the contest, and the Glorious Revolution would end with the Act of Settlement 1701, whereby Protestantism would take precedence over sanguinity in the choice of English monarch ever after. Indeed, so thoroughly did the Stuart cause fail that readers of Oroonoko may miss the topicality of the novel.


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