Oroonoko

The New World setting

Blending literary elements is always a difficult task; Aphra Behn took on the challenge with Oroonoko. Restoration literature had three common elements: the New World setting, courtly romance, and the concept of heroic tragedy. John Dryden, a prominent playwright in 1663, co-wrote The Indian Queen and wrote the sequel The Indian Emperour. Both plays have the three aspects of Restoration literature, and "Behn was certainly familiar with both plays",[12] influencing her writing as seen in the opening of the tale. Behn takes the Restoration themes and recreates them, bringing originality. One reason Behn may have changed the elements is because Oroonoko was written near the end of the Restoration period. Readers were aware of the theme, so Behn wanted to give them something fresh. Behn changed the New World setting, creating one that readers were unfamiliar with. Challenging her literary abilities even further, Behn recreates the Old World setting. Behn gives readers an exotic world, filling their heads with descriptive details. Behn was the first person to blend new elements with the old Restoration essentials. The New World was set in the contemporary British Caribbean, not in Mexico as previous centuries were accustomed to. With a new setting came a new villain, the British and their practice of Colonialism. The New World gave readers knowledge of a foreign place, “a colony in America called Surinam, in the West Indies”.[13] Behn paints a picture-perfect New World unspoiled by natives—one that contrasts with Dryden's previous work. Unlike Dryden, she does not blame cruelty on distant tyrant leaders; instead, she places the blame on Colonialism. Behn's New World seems almost utopian as she describes how the people get along: “with these People, … we live in perfect Tranquility, and good Understanding, as it behooves us to do.”[14] This New World is unique during this period; it is "simultaneously a marvelous prelapsarian paradise and the thoroughly commercialised crossroads of international trade”.[15] It seems hard to believe that in such a romantic setting Behn can blend heroic tragedy, yet she accomplishes this effect through the character of Oroonoko. The Old World changes as Behn recreates the trade route back across the Atlantic to Africa, instead of Europe, becoming “the first European author who attempted to render the life lived by sub-Saharan African characters on their own continent.”[16] There were few accounts of coastal African kingdoms at that time. Oroonoko is truly an original play blending three important elements in completely original ways, with her vision of the New World constituting a strong example of the change.

Although Behn assures that she is not looking to entertain her reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, she does exactly this to enhance and romanticize the stories of Oroonoko. Ramesh Mallipeddi stresses that spectacle was the main mediator for the representation of alien cultures in Restoration England.[17] Therefore, Behn describes Oroonoko’s native beauty as a spectacle of 'beauty so transcending' that surpassed 'all those of his gloomy race'.[18] She completely romanticizes Oroonoko’s figure by portraying him as an ideal handsome hero; however due to the color of his skin, his body is still constricted within the limits of exoticism. Oroonoko has all the qualities of an English royal, but his ebony skin and country of origin prevent him from being a reputable European citizen. Due to these foreign qualities, his Englishness is incomplete. He has the English-like education and air, but lacks the skin color and legal status. Behn uses this conflicting description of Oroonoko to infuse some European familiarity into his figure while still remaining exotic enough. She compares Oroonoko to well-known historical figures like Hannibal and Alexander and describes Oroonoko’s running, wrestling and killing of tigers and snakes. Albert J. Rivero states that this comparison to great Western conquerors and kings translates and naturalizes Oroonoko’s foreignness into familiar European narratives.[19] These historical allusions and romantic gallant feats allowed English readers to relate this exotic character with their own Western history and narrative tradition.


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