Although it was not popular duing Behn's lifetime, today Oroonoko (1688) is Aphra Behn's most widely read and most highly regarded work. Oroonoko: or the Royal Slave remains important. It also influenced the development of the English novel, developing the female narrative voice and treating anti-colonial and abolitionist themes. It developed the figure of the noble savage that was later to be made famous by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Scholars have debated which work should count as the first novel in English. The honor often has gone to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719); Defoe is often referred to as "the father of the novel." Other scholars insist that Oroonoko should have the honor in that it was written in a novelistic form and is not too short to be disqualified. In any case, Behn receives credit for influencing the development of the British novel at or near its origins.
Scholars also cannot determine with certainty whether the narrator of Oroonoko is intended to represent Aphra Behn and whether the narrative is intended to be telling the truth. Behn began writing narrative fiction instead of plays around 1682, when her reputation suffered after she was arrested for writing against the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son, who claimed the throne. Oroonoko evidently is drawn from Behn's (likely) experiences as a young woman living in Surinam. It is written in a mixture of first and third person narration, and it does not flow strictly in a chronological manner but begins with the narrator's first-person account of Surinam as a British colony and with a description of its native people.
The narrator reports that the British cannot enslave the people because of their vast numbers; instead, to work the land, the colony has to import African labor. After this, the narrative switches to third-person narration, and the setting changes to Coramantien, today's Ghana, on the west coast of Africa, where we see local life and finally meet the protagonist, the young prince Oroonoko, who is shortly enslaved and transported to the British colony of Surinam. The story moves to Surinam and changes once again to first-person narration when Oroonoko meets the narrator. It continues in first-person narration with the narrator, when not on the scene, hearing firsthand accounts from those who are witnesses.
The final section of the story concerns Oroonoko's revolt and the horrible death of the hero, who is willing to die rather than bear the name of slave. This is one of British literature's earliest depictions of the "noble savage"--a person of innocence and true grace over against the contemporary city-dweller.
Oroonoko is notable for its groundbreaking depiction of the horrors of slavery, and it has come to be called one of literature's first abolitionist tracts. After Oroonoko rouses the sugar plantaion slaves to revolt, they are hunted down by the Island's Deputy-Governor and surrender. Despite the governor's promises, Oroonoko is whipped brutally, his flesh shred and pepper poured into his wounds. In an effort to regain his lost honor, Oroonoko feels compelled to take the life of his beloved wife Imoinda, who is carrying the child he would not have raised as a slave. His own horrid death by dismemberment is beyond description, and it served the abolitionist movement well. (Even so, readers should note that in the narrative, Oroonoko sells his own captives in war as slaves to the British.)