In the novel Oroonoko by Aphra Behn, the main character Oroonoko is seen as having two special titles at one time by most other people in the story. One of those titles is connected to royalty, that of a prince early on in the novel and later as a king. His other title, especially seen by Europeans in the story is as an African. Both of these features are instrumental in shaping who Oroonoko is as a person and what he does in the story. Oroonoko views himself as a special person, possessing special traits that make him an important and powerful person. Oroonoko’s royalty sets him apart from everyone else in the novel and gives him a particular viewpoint that only he has. Oroonoko’s culture also has set him apart, especially from the Europeans in the story, in that his beliefs shape how he acts and sets up a fundamental difference between European and African cultures. It also separates Oroonoko and his fellow black African from white Europeans. Many critics also see Oroonoko’s roles as king and African as an opportunity for the author to comment on and give her own beliefs on subjects that were important at the time to her and to others.
One of the major issues of contention in the story among critics today is the role of race in the story and whether or not the author Aphra Behn was a racist. Many people have condemned Behn as a racist and have taken instances from the novel to show this. Derek Hughes in his article “Race, Gender and Scholarly Practice: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko” refutes much of this. One issue that Hughes looks at particularly in depth is the charge made by some critics that Behn was afraid of African sexuality but Hughes says: “The apparent evidence for this is that women in Oroonoko retreat to safety when the slave revolt starts. Margaret Ferguson attributes this to fear of rape, and the fear of rape to stereotypical slanders about the lasciviousness of the black African…and it is therefore remarkable that the women in Oroonoko do not retreat through fear of rape at all, but lest Oroonoko should ‘come down and Cut all our Throats’ (p. 111).” (Hughes 4). Hughes goes on to say: “The unrestrained sexuality of the Africans is simply imposed on the text by the modern critic” (Hughes 5) and also says about Restoration plays in general: “Almost every Restoration play portraying Europeans and non-Europeans favourably portrays love between them” (Hughes 6). By looking at the environment that produced the work and also reading the text carefully Hughes says that many accusations made against Behn are false.
Hughes also goes on to say that people have concentrated so much on race in the story that they forget about religion, and how it is used to justify slavery. Hughes states: “Nevertheless, it is this that Behn chooses to foreground: the villainous captain justifies his treatment of Oroonoko on the grounds of religion, not race” (Hughes 17). If one looks at it from this point of view it would seem to be a direct attack on or denial of the supposed belief present among some Europeans that Africans, because they had darker skin were inferior to Europeans. Europeans themselves don’t use color as a justification in the story so by exclusion it is done away with. It is also worth noting that in the story Oroonoko is tutored by a Frenchman who has taught him much and that by European standards Oroonoko is well educated. Oroonoko is also portrayed by the author, even though the narrator states that what information she has was learned directly from him, that Oroonoko was a friendly and trusting person. Religion is also a point taken up by Warren Chernaik is his article “Captains and Slaves: Aphra Behn and the Rhetoric of Republicanism”. Chernaik says that Behn attacks those who hide behind religion as a justification for slavery: “… Behn attacks the hypocrisy of professing Christians who betray, exploit, and enslave their fellow men. In two separate episodes, the virtuous pagan or noble savage upbraids nominal Christians who behave towards him in dishonourable, treacherous ways” (Chernaik 103). Oroonoko becomes a kind of moral reformer pointing out the faults and double standards of English society. The English are portrayed as greedy tricksters who will do anything to get what they want, yet at the same time professing to be religious and honorable people. Royalty also has an impact on how others see Oroonoko to a certain degree.
Oroonoko’s royalty shines through to most of the people he comes into contact with. He is held in admiration and is also feared because of it by the slave owners and others in Surinam. Some people though view Oroonoko’s royalty as a European based one and not at all concerned with his African heritage. Many people point to how Oroonoko is described in ways fitting a European in appearance and in learning as evidence that Oroonoko represents a European based royalty. Anita Pacheco says that it allows Behn’s audience to identify with Oroonoko: “This double-edged strategy, which endows the African with human stature while simultaneously assuming that human stature is by definition European, makes it possible for a text to establish identification with the “Other” while at the same time remaining complacently European” (Pacheco 1). In a sense this says the only way some people could identify with Oroonoko is by giving him European qualities that others could look at and admire. This in effect can be seen as racist in that it has no understanding or acceptance of things that are different or not based in the society of the author’s. This can come back to argue the point made by Hughes. It could also be a way by which the author gives an audience completely ignorant of foreign cultures and people a way to connect that might not otherwise be there and to also show that Oroonoko is a noble person.
Others see Oroonoko’s royalty as Behn’s support for the Stuart dynasty and also for monarchy in general. Elliot Visconsi in his article says that Oroonoko shows Behn’s support for monarchy, and monarchy’s role in protecting society from its own barbaric inclinations. Visconsi says: “Behn uses the colonies as spaces of historical description to point out two crucial facts for her Restoration audience: first, the national civilizing process is fragile and tenuous; and second, the lack of disciplined absolutist government in the colonies is reactivating barbaric tendencies which the nation has only recently overcome” (Visconsi 2). Visconsi views Oroonoko as a form of publicity for monarchy: “…both Behn’s tragicomic Widow Ranter and the novella Oroonoko rely on the affective force of the tragic plot as a medium of political education, mobilizing the fear, pity, and anxiety of the reader to promote absolute monarchy as the only defense against the latent barbarism of the English race” (Visconsi 3). Instead of the noble savage that is so often talked about, here we have the English savage. Let loose without any authority figure, like a king, the English have returned to savages themselves and are without the nobility of the Africans they have enslaved or the Native Americans they are oppressing in the colonies. Both Africans and Native Americans are shown in the story has not having any real falsity or brutal tendencies like the English. The English as slave owners are cruel in their treatment of others and this is shown in the murder of Oroonoko. Monarchy is seen as a way to stop the spread of barbarism and bring the world back into order according to the interpretation of Visconsi. Visonsi says what Oroonoko’s role in this is: “Oroonoko’s aestheticized , graceful kingship is useful as a propagandistic representation of absolutist paternalism…” (Visconsi 7). This is one of the reasons Oroonoko must be royal.
Another way to look at Oroonoko is as a symbol. Daniel Pigg says Oroonoko is not just a character in the novel: “Thus on the fictive level, Oroonoko the character merges with the world view he narrates. He becomes synonymous with the action and thought processes which he embodies” (Pigg 3). Since the story is Oroonoko’s according to Pigg then the world he creates shows what he believes to be right or wrong. Oroonoko’s love of honor and loyalty show that he cares deeply about these things and he in effect becomes a symbol of them. Oroonoko also condemns dishonesty and treachery, two things that have gotten him into the position of slavery. Oroonoko is a kind of moral guide for some, even though many would see his actions as not always living up to his ideals. These actions include his own involvement with the slave trade and his position as a warrior who conquers and kills others and leads a revolt at the end of the novel which will cost him his life.
Oroonoko’s position as a royal African influences how others see him in the story and also how others look at the story and draw conclusions from it. There are many different positions to different issues, all of them having valid points or examples to back up their claims. It can come down to how people interpret the story or actions in the book. Positions on these issues can also come down to what the society Behn wrote in was like, if it is taken into account or not, and how that society viewed things like race and slavery and how Behn was influenced by them or wrote her story as a way to educate or influence those beliefs. Behn’s Oroonoko continues to be a book that divides readers of the novel on important issues and Behn’s stance on those issues.