Great Novel No. 2: “Oroonoko”

Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave

By Aphra Behn

***

The next item in my 100 Great Novels list was published only ten years after The Pilgrim’s Progress. Things had both changed and stayed the same in England during that time. I made mention in my last review of the Civil Wars and the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II. His successor, James II, was on the throne, but not peacefully. And once again the Church was at the crux of it all. James was a Catholic and that didn’t sit well with the Protestant government, who viewed Catholicism as the next worst thing to pagan religions. He declined to give up the faith he had been brought up in, married another Catholic, and produced a Catholic heir. In 1688, the same year as Oroonoko‘s publication, Parliament again revolted with help from a Dutch army led by William of Orange (there were no Williams in Apple or Banana) who became William III.

Pardon the history lesson. But the politics form a more significant part of the undertones in this work than they did in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Oroonoko is a prince in West Africa (specifically, what is now called Ghana) who is much admired by his people for his prowess in battle. He falls in love with the woman Imoinda, but his grandfather the king steals her away for his harem. This doesn’t stop Oroonoko from sneaking into her bedchamber, but they pay the price. The king sells Imoinda into slavery and makes Oroonoko believe he has had her killed. Eventually Oroonoko is himself captured by a slave trader and brought to the British plantation colony of Surinam. His adventures after that form the second half of the story.

As you can probably tell, there is a good deal of melodrama in this story, and it came as no surprise to me that shortly after its publication it was adapted into a play by a man named Thomas Southerne–or that the play soon became more famous than the original book. There are many scenes which would play well to a large, popular audience. The narrative flows well, helped by the lack of chapter breaks but not just because of them. Unlike The Pilgrim’s Progress the episodes follow on from one another in a more natural way, so much so that I found myself finishing the book in only one day. It’s also a good deal shorter than the last book, and could be properly called a novella today, without too much fat and unnecessary detail but neither does it have too little colour or lack of impact.

But what about that sub-subtitle? “A True History.” Taking the text at face value, this is a story narrated by Aphra Behn herself. It shares with The Pilgrim’s Progress the peculiarity of a first-person narrator telling a story about someone else. John Bunyan wrote as if he had a dream starring other characters; Aphra Behn writes as if she had met Oroonoko in Surinam and was a witness to events. In neither case does the narrator take an active part. But the majority of scholars today believe that while Behn may have gone to Surinam, the story of Oroonoko is probably fictional. The narrator here also describes certain things that happened to her (such as her father being made Lieutenant Governor of the colony and dying on the voyage there) which is known could not have happened to Behn. The debate continues, however, since all the European characters are not only historical figures but were actually also in Surinam at the time the story is set. It doesn’t help that when it comes to finding out the truth of events, Behn’s own life is to a certain degree as mysterious as the story she tells. I find it curious that, like Bunyan, Behn seems to have felt the need to find an excuse for writing long fiction. Bunyan pretended he had a dream. Behn pretended that her story was of a real person. Once again we are only dipping our toes into the pool of fiction. Was it really thought that people wouldn’t sit down to read lengthy passages of prose if they thought it was made up or had no edifying purpose? This is an issue that will come up again in the next book, Robinson Crusoe.

I mentioned that the politics of the day played a role in the story. More to the point, they played a role in the writing of it. At first glance there would seem to be no political leanings whatsoever, especially if you didn’t know the history–or the fact that, unlike Bunyan, Aphra Behn was a firm royalist. She even worked as a spy for Charles II and in a way that led to her writing career: when Charles failed to pay her, she wound up in debtor’s prison and turned to writing as a means of supporting herself. In Oroonoko, then, we have an example of what was to her an ideal leader; noble, trustworthy, and courageous. The book is sometimes also seen as a argument against slavery, with one of the most amoral characters being the slave trader who deceives the African prince by inviting him aboard ship as a guest before promptly clapping him in irons.

Oroonoko was not a success when it came out, though the play was well-liked. During the Victorian Era the book fell out of favour due to passages that the culture now found far too licentious. That changed when later writers, especially Virginia Woolf, began to reassess Aphra Behn and her place in the canon of Western writers and feminist literature. On the whole, I would say that while I enjoyed Oroonoko, I’m not sure if I’d recommend it as a must-read. Perhaps Virginia Woolf was right when she said, “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Perhaps her place on this list is deserved more for her successful career as a whole than for the notoriety of any particular work.

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