Oroonoko | Study Guide

Aphra Behn

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Course Hero. "Oroonoko Study Guide." Course Hero. 3 Jan. 2019. Web. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Oroonoko/>.

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Course Hero. (2019, January 3). Oroonoko Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Oroonoko/

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(Course Hero, 2019)



Course Hero. "Oroonoko Study Guide." January 3, 2019. Accessed August 11, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Oroonoko/.


Course Hero, "Oroonoko Study Guide," January 3, 2019, accessed August 11, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Oroonoko/.

Oroonoko | Quotes


The pictures of the pen shall outlast those of the pencil, and even worlds themselves.


In Behn's epistolary dedication, she promotes the power of stories to preserve lives. She wants to immortalize the character of Oroonoko through her book. The reference to "worlds themselves" implies that a good book has a timeless message that outlasts the culture of its creation. Behn wants Oroonoko's story to be as enduring as an epic.


I was myself an eye-witness to a great part of what you find here.


The narrator claims the story is based on real events she has witnessed. Behn knows readers approach invented stories and true stories differently. Truth seems more relevant to readers' lives. Behn blurs the boundary between fiction and nonfiction by making the narrator's voice similar to her own. The reader is, therefore, primed to trust the narrator and to reckon with the "true" events as if they really happened.


These people represented ... the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin.


Behn describes the native South Americans in the language of the Christian religion. In many mythologies, including the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, humans lived in an early period of happiness before evil entered the world. According to the biblical story, once humans learned to sin and commit evil acts, they left Eden behind at their own peril. Behn uses this myth to contrast the dishonesty of English slave traders with the purity of native populations.


Religion would here but destroy that tranquility they possess by ignorance.


The primary purpose of European colonization was financial gain through trade. Still, Europeans also attempted to convert native populations to Christianity. The English often equated Christian religion with morality and civilization, viewing non-Christians as heathens or savages. However, Behn observes that Christian colonizers don't behave very well either. They introduce labor and profit motives to a civilization reliant on nature. Behn's use of the word ignorance, a word with a negative connotation, suggests a positive simplicity. She admires a culture she views as almost childlike in its innocence.


It is not titles make men brave or good, or birth that bestows courage.


Oroonoko has noble birth and royal titles—he's modeled after an epic hero. His modesty makes him human. As he encourages his army to choose a new leader, he tells them to look beyond traditional signs of success. This motivation will be important to Oroonoko later as he struggles to maintain his own courage in slavery. By presenting a slave as her hero, Behn agrees those without "titles" or markers of social status have more opportunities to prove their courage.


Is that all the obligation he has to be just to his oath?


The ship captain claims he'll keep his promise to Oroonoko because he fears eternal punishment otherwise. Oroonoko wonders why it takes the fear of torment in the next life for the captain to keep his word in this life. Here is where Oroonoko begins to doubt that the Christian religion makes its followers better people. The captain, a Christian, relies on his god and the abstract threat of eternal damnation to keep him honest. He can't do the right thing for its own sake in the here and now.


The man of no honor suffers ... the scorn and contempt of the honester world.


Like many epic heroes, Oroonoko has a fatal flaw. His flaw is trusting the people around him—believing everyone is as honest as he is. This quote sums up his worldview. He believes anyone who breaks an oath suffers "scorn and contempt." However, on the Suriname plantation, those who break oaths remain in positions of power.


A man of wit could not be a knave or villain.


Oroonoko is familiar with the culture of educated Europeans, who prize traits such as intelligence and wit. They equate these traits—the ability to hold a conversation and charm a listener—with virtue and goodness. Oroonoko notices the European slave master Trefry's intellect and trusts him as a result. This quote, a maxim Oroonoko believes, shows how Oroonoko has adapted to European values. He trusts that men who show signs of intelligence will also act virtuously. This trust will be broken toward the end of the novella, but Oroonoko doesn't know this yet.


The royal youth appeared in spite of the slave.


This quote separates Oroonoko's two identities: the "royal youth" and the "slave." Once Oroonoko is captured, he appears to lose his royal status. Still, this status is part of who he is; slavery can't take it away. Behn portrays Oroonoko as a hero who can transcend his circumstances. Although slavery stripped identity from its captives, Oroonoko holds on to the dignity he had in his former life.


They had lost the divine quality of man, and were become insensible asses.


The narrator reports that Oroonoko describes the slaves' plight in graphic terms. He argues humans are born with a "divine quality" animals lack. With this quote Behn emphasizes the humanity of slaves. She also depicts slavery's damage to the spirit. When humans are treated like "insensible" animals—animals that lack qualities such as reason and intellect—they become animals.


Why ... should we be slaves to an unknown people?


In Africa, Oroonoko was a slave owner. Slavery was the agreed-upon consequence of losing to another tribe or country in battle. The winning armies earned the right to slaves through their superior battle skill, but the slaves in Suriname have been taken captive by foreign powers most of them have never seen before. They labor to make money for these foreigners. The English slave traders have done nothing to earn slaves; they've simply taken them. This deceit has no place in Oroonoko's code of honor.


We are bought and sold ... to be the sport of women, fools, and cowards.


This quote, part of Oroonoko's speech to his fellow slaves, shows his true opinion of the colonizers. Keeping slaves is "sport," or a low-stakes game, for the English in Suriname. Women are entertained and impressed by the educated Oroonoko—he kills animals they won't touch. The slave masters, the "fools" and "cowards," profit from slave labor so they can live an easy lifestyle in the colonies. Since Oroonoko has seen the world of the white settlers up close, he knows what they really think of their slaves.


Though no people professed so much, none performed so little.


After multiple encounters with English colonizers and many vows to return him and his family to their country, Oroonoko's had enough. He's seen the hypocrisy in Trefry's and Byam's promises. The gulf between what the English say and what they do convinces Oroonoko he's better off without them. As an English colonist herself, Behn also sees the repeated failures of the people in power. England mismanaged the colony in Suriname and eventually surrendered to the Dutch. Behn critiques the failure of English leaders to live up to their promises in many ways.


With them a man ought ... never to credit one word they spoke.


Behn argues colonized people learn how to lie and scheme from their colonizers. Even Oroonoko, well-versed in European culture, didn't know how to be on guard against liars. Slavery has altered his view of the world. He now knows there are people who will never tell him the truth. At first he was trusting and ready to negotiate; now he's defensive and ready to fight. The story shows how an honorable hero operates in a world without honor and how his beliefs can change depending on the foes he faces.


Oroonoko scorns to live with the indignity that was put on Caesar.


Oroonoko's many identities—slave and free; European-educated and African-born; royal and common—fight for dominance. This quote shows he thinks of Oroonoko and Caesar as separate sides of himself. As he plots revenge against Byam, he returns to his original identity as an African prince. He realizes Oroonoko would never endure the punishments Caesar has endured. Oroonoko, who urged his fellow slaves to rise above their slavery, knows he'll need to do the same. As his death approaches, he returns to the mindset of a warrior who will die on his own terms or not at all.

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