Oroonoko | Study Guide

Aphra Behn

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Course Hero. "Oroonoko Study Guide." January 3, 2019. Accessed August 13, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Oroonoko/.


Course Hero, "Oroonoko Study Guide," January 3, 2019, accessed August 13, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Oroonoko/.

Oroonoko | Context


Literary Models for Oroonoko

Though Oroonoko's story takes place in Africa and South America, it reflects western European literary traditions. Behn borrows from genres such as medieval courtly romance, heroic drama, and travel narrative.

Medieval prose romances, written for aristocratic audiences and often based on Arthurian legend, were popular in England at the beginning of the 17th century. These romances often took place in a royal court, giving rise to the term courtly love. Noble knights pursued ladies in distress. Lovers were separated and then reunited. Oroonoko and his love interest, Imoinda, have a similar story in many respects.

Oroonoko is a prince in an African court. His goals include victory on the battlefield and reunification with his lover. Like a medieval knight, he's conflicted between his duty to the king and his love for Imoinda. His actions are guided by a strong sense of honor, like the chivalric code of Western medieval romances. Behn describes Oroonoko as having "refined notions of true honor" and "softness ... capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry," phrases recalling a romantic hero or knight in a medieval romance.

Behn, a playwright, was also inspired by the heroic drama of England's Restoration period (1660–88). These dramas featured themes of courage, love, and honor, which Behn adapted for Oroonoko. The larger-than-life traits of Behn's protagonists Oroonoko and Imoinda may have been borrowed from characters of heroic drama that display extraordinary virtue and valor. Heroic plays took cues from ancient epics with clear heroes and villains. Noble heroes perform sacrificial good deeds and face down monstrous enemies. Behn similarly depicts Oroonoko as a courageous warrior and Suriname's colonizers as evil cowards. Heroes of heroic drama may also deliver long speeches, such as Oroonoko's speech calling his fellow slaves to rebel.

Western drama and epics affect Behn's physical descriptions of her characters. Behn frequently describes Oroonoko and Imoinda's unusual beauty. But both lovers have traits considered attractive in a Eurocentric culture. Oroonoko's height, his "rising and Roman" nose, the shape of his mouth, and his long hair all conform to Western ideals of attractiveness. Oroonoko also has a Western classical education and conducts himself like a member of a "European court."

Behn was one of several Restoration playwrights to depict non-European royal princes who act like European monarchs. These characters display a form of nobility her English readers and audience understood. It also showed respect for the English royal family and monarchs such as James II, whom Behn admired.

The narrator, a British woman recounting her travels to South America, has many similarities to Behn herself. In this respect Oroonoko forms a travel narrative, or collection of observations written by a visitor to a foreign country. Many travel narratives come from the perspective of a Western visitor in a non-Western land, noncolonized or colonized. Readers, presumed to be Western themselves, experience new surroundings through the story.

Truth and Fiction

The subtitle of Oroonoko includes the phrase "A True History." Behn's narrator assures the reader she's recounting true events involving a real hero. Many details may reflect Behn's own time in Suriname, and she references historical personalities and events. However, almost all the main characters are fictional, and so is the plot. Oroonoko is fiction described as truth, combining elements of storytelling and memoir.

This technique immerses the reader in the story. By insisting she's recounting the truth, Behn's narrator gains authority. The assertions of truth also increase the story's emotional impact.

Behn frequently includes a modified version of herself as a character in her writing. The narrator of Oroonoko resembles Behn in many ways. She's an Englishwoman with in-depth knowledge of the novella's Suriname setting. She describes Suriname's flora, fauna, weather, and plantations in intimate detail. However, the narrator has an inflated social status compared to Behn. The narrator's father is a governor of several colonies, and she resides at the best house on the plantation.

The character of William Byam, the villainous deputy governor, is based in fact. Byam was Suriname's deputy governor until 1667, when the Dutch took over the colony. Lord Willoughby, the actual Englishman who founded the colony of Suriname, does not appear in the novella but is referenced as the absent governor. Willoughby was the ruler of the colony, but he frequently traveled, leaving Byam in charge. Other English and Irish characters, such as the sympathetic Trefry and Colonel Martin and the cruel Banister, were modeled but not named after real colonists. The colonists' behavior in the story is modeled after Behn's observations in Suriname.

Behn injects an uncomfortable amount of reality into the narrative by including names and practices her readers might know. The true horror of slavery was practiced by real people—a fact Behn doesn't let her readers forget.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade in Suriname

In 1688 when Oroonoko was published, African slavery in North and South America was growing as a viable economic system. England was among the European nations to play a major role in the slave trade. Slavery sustained the nation's economy. Food production in colonies such as Suriname ensured robust trade, and plantation owners needed labor for the harvest.

In the 16th century, English colonizers started exploring the potential of the "New World" across the Atlantic Ocean. African slavery was already an established practice in other European colonies, with Portuguese and Spanish colonizers enslaving Africans for sugar production. By 1624 England had its own sugar colonies in the Caribbean.

In 1647 English nobleman Francis Willoughby, 5th Baron Willoughby, known as Lord Willoughby, became the governor of Barbados, an island in the Caribbean West Indies. He wanted to expand his empire and had his eye on Suriname, a nearby colony in the northeast corner of South America. Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) had traveled to Suriname along a South American river known as the Orinoco or Oroonoko, the probable origin of Oroonoko's name.

Willoughby and other English settlers looking for financial gain set up settlements in Suriname. The colonies produced sugar, the Caribbean's main export and an expensive crop demanding many laborers. These laborers came from the transatlantic slave trade, part of a massive global exchange system transporting millions of enslaved Africans to the Americas.

European countries fought to control valuable colonies such as Suriname, a major source of sugar exports. Despite Lord Willoughby's efforts to keep Suriname under British rule, the Dutch took over the colony in 1667. Behn mentions the Dutch takeover in Oroonoko. She sees the transfer of power as a missed opportunity for British prosperity.

The slave trade wasn't abolished in England until 1807. England wouldn't outlaw slave ownership for about 26 more years. During Behn's lifetime, the system of buying and selling human beings for labor was a largely accepted part of reality.

Behn's Attitude toward Slavery

Was Behn against slavery? Though Oroonoko bears graphic witness to the physical and emotional brutality of slavery, its narrator does not condemn the practice. She lives on a plantation with slave owners. Even Oroonoko himself is a slave trader in his African nation, working closely with an English ship captain.

The book's attitude toward slavery as a larger global system is ambiguous. Behn depicts slavery as an economic reality despite its injustice to the enslaved. She observed the commercial gains England could make as a nation through the slave trade. There is evidence Behn believed slavery was good for England's economy, though this belief wasn't universally held. She wishes England had kept the colony of Suriname and increased the power of the British Empire.

Behn differed from her contemporaries in her attitudes toward African and South American people. Behn depicts colonized tribes in Africa and South America as admirable, innocent, and sincere. Her narrative shows no desire to convert Africans and Native Americans to Christianity or suppress their cultural traditions, unlike most English settlers of Behn's time. Nonetheless, her writing still reflects a racist concept of European dominance. She portrays Oroonoko, an English-speaking prince with a Western education, as superior to other Africans. Oroonoko helped popularize the idea of the "noble savage" who was closer to nature than the supposedly civilized Europeans.

Behn's book questions the civility and morality of white European slave traders. Oroonoko often criticizes the merits of a religion that allows humans to treat others the way Europeans treat their slaves. While settlers such as the deputy governor Byam are duplicitous and evil, others such as Trefry and Colonel Martin are morally conflicted. Still, each settler plays an active part in sustaining the slave trade—including Behn's narrator, who protests the treatment of Oroonoko as an individual but not the system as a whole.

Though Behn doesn't argue for abolition, her hero Oroonoko does. The narrative doesn't shy away from describing the brutality of his punishment after a failed rebellion. It indicates how the physical punishment of slaves was commonplace. Behn exposes her readers to the graphic suffering of a hero they've come to admire, giving them a glimpse of a slave's reality.

Readings of Oroonoko changed with the times. Many English theatergoers became familiar with the story through a 1696 theatrical adaptation by Irish playwright Thomas Southerne (1660–1746). These audiences focused on the tragic love story. When the antislavery movement gained ground in the 18th century, abolitionists used the tragedy of Oroonoko as evidence of slavery's barbarism. In the late 1980s to early '90s scholars began to study Oroonoko through postcolonial and feminist lenses, exploring issues of race and gender through Oroonoko, Imoinda, and the narrator. By presenting slaves as fully realized individuals, Behn encourages readers to consider the impact of slavery and colonization.

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