Oroonoko | Study Guide

Aphra Behn

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Course Hero. "Oroonoko Study Guide." January 3, 2019. Accessed August 5, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Oroonoko/.

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Course Hero, "Oroonoko Study Guide," January 3, 2019, accessed August 5, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Oroonoko/.

Oroonoko | Themes

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The Toll of Slavery

Behn writes for 17th-century readers who have accepted slavery as a way of life. Oroonoko's fight for freedom and his condemnation of slave traders reveal the human cost of slavery. He and Imoinda lack power over their own bodies and lives.

When Oroonoko is captured, his nobility is put to the test. Slavery becomes a trial of character for the hero. At first he fights using the skills of diplomacy. He negotiates with the ship captain for his release from chains and tells his fellow slaves to accept their fate with courage. In Suriname, however, he learns that good behavior won't make slavery any better. The condition is dehumanizing no matter how nobly he and others try to bear it. Plus, he can't negotiate with the European slave masters because they don't keep their promises. After failed attempts to buy his freedom from Trefry, Oroonoko sees he's trapped as a slave no matter what. He determines the only way to fight violence is through insurrection and rebellion. His captors then punish him brutally. The story shows that slavery brings out the worst and most violent of human impulses.

Slavery also affects Oroonoko and Imoinda's view of the future. Once they realize their unborn child will never enjoy freedom, they decide death is better for both the child and Imoinda. When Oroonoko pushes his fellow slaves to rebellion, he tells them slavery will last for eternity. They will never be anything other than slaves unless they resist. Their names have been changed, and their families have been separated. Their identities are irrevocably altered. After the rebellion, the slaves give in to their masters, revealing how slavery has affected their view of themselves. They see they can only survive through obedience. Oroonoko's final fate shows them the cost of resistance and the lack of power even the royal slave has over his own life.

The Honor Code

To Oroonoko, honor means keeping his word, living with dignity, and defending his people. Honor is more important to him than life. This dedication to a code, a feature of many heroes in epic and medieval literature, elevates Behn's hero to a higher plane than the rest of the characters. The honor code affects Oroonoko's actions both as a warrior and as a frustrated slave.

When Oroonoko fights, he comes to win. After the loss of Imoinda, what breaks through Oroonoko's depression is the possibility his army might lose. When Oroonoko battles the slave traders in Suriname, he continues to fight after his fellow slaves have betrayed him for the other side. If he is under attack, he will defend himself to the point of death.

However, honor includes obeying the terms of the world in which he operates. When the narrator sees that Oroonoko is growing restless in Suriname, she wants to ensure he won't harm the settlers. Oroonoko agrees "he could do nothing that honor should not dictate." When Oroonoko gives his word, he keeps it. Otherwise, as he explains to the ship captain, "all brave and honest men" will despise him. Even when Oroonoko is surrounded by dishonest men such as slave traders, he obeys a higher law than those around him.

European Colonialism and Power

Colonialism, or the process of occupying and controlling another country, extended the British Empire around the world. Behn doesn't condemn colonialism—she accepts England's domination of other countries as an essential part of trade. Still, she examines colonialism's impact on native populations and on the colonizers themselves.

Behn's narrator imagines the native population living in blissful harmony with nature before colonists arrived in Suriname. Their innocence means they don't have any concept of dishonesty, vice, or evil. She compares them to Adam and Eve in biblical legend, who lived in peace before knowledge was introduced to the world. With knowledge came sin. Behn compares the colonizers' attempt to civilize native populations with the devastating introduction of knowledge to people who were better off without it. Colonizers introduce religion and laws, practices the Europeans consider necessary to preserve order. However, Behn's narrator argues that these practices only teach native people to lie, scheme, and manipulate. The African country of Coramantien has strict laws, but the citizens follow these laws and respect them. Even the cunning king, who abuses his power to marry Imoinda, feels guilty he didn't give her an honorable death. Behn portrays Coramantien as more civilized and self-regulated than the European society that enslaves Coramantien's people.

Colonialism may sustain England's economy as a whole, but it can also corrupt individuals. Behn's narrator observes how power reveals the vicious nature of settlers such as Byam. The council of English colonizers, with whom Byam discusses Caesar's fate, consists of lawless men who swear and fight with one another. They are encouraged to govern their slaves with fear and intimidation; Byam sends quarters of Caesar's body to slave masters so they can scare their slaves into obedience. Behn portrays some slave masters, such as Trefry and Colonel Martin, as essentially decent men, but they don't have as much power as those who are willing to govern through violence. They can't stop Caesar's punishment and death.

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