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Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave by Aphra Behn

Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (1688)

by Aphra Behn

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A story of slavery. written in 1688, this 17th century literature is remarkable in its telling of a tale of Oroonoko and Imoinda, their love, the grandfather king who put his own lust above his grandson and heir to his own detriment, the tribe and to Oroonoko and Imoinda. Oroonoko comes to distrust the God of Christians because the Christian is never honest but he continues to try and be patient. He finally can stand things no longer and chooses freedom to his own destruction at the hands of his Christian captives. ( )
  Kristelh | Nov 16, 2013 |
This book is, by all accounts, Aphra Behn’s most famous work. She wrote erotic poetry and plays but this ‘novel’ is why her name lives on in the 21st century. I placed the word novel in inverted commas as academics and scholars still argue to this day as to whether it can be described as a novel. More importantly was it the first novel in English?
Many of the afore-mentioned scholars and academics will argue that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was the first novel and the English writer is often referred to as the ‘father of the novel’. However, it could, and has been, argued that Oroonoko was written in a novelistic form but personally I believe it comes under the heading of ‘novella’. The sound of hairs being split can be heard all around the country.
The story is fundamentally about the African prince Oroonoko (a mis-spelling of the river Orinoco) and his wife Imoinda. Both are captured separately by the British and brought to Surinam as slaves. Oroonoko could be cruelly interpreted as a simple romance story with its theme of boy meets girl, love at first sight, boy loses girl and then boy finds girl. However, for today’s audience the story has become secondary to the themes of colonialism, racism and the innovative writing style of Aphra Behn.
Aphra Behn is credited not only with developing the pioneering female narrative but for addressing the inequality between men and women in the seventeenth century. Black people are not the only slaves in the book, women are also shackled by the mores of the day. Oroonoko is seen as one the literature’s first abolitionist expositions. It’s portrayal of racism and slavery is credited with aiding the cause for the abolitionists.
The racism and depiction of slavery make Oroonoko an uncomfortable read. However, coupled with the horrific descriptions of the deaths of Imoinda and Oroonoko the book becomes not only an uncomfortable read but disturbing one. However, when you re-read Oroonoko you realise how theatrical, fantastic and unrealistic many of the scenes in the book are: his killing of the tigers, his encounter with the electric eel and in particular Oroonoko’s death which has him being slowly hacked to death while he passively continues to smoke only, “at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk, and his pipe dropped, and he gave up the ghost.”
Aphra Behn’s theatrical past is writ large throughout the book and ironically it is mostly due to Thomas Southerne’s stage adaption of Oroonoko after Behn’s death that the story became celebrated and has continued to be re-read, reinterpreted and used as a rallying point by anti colonialists, abolitionists and feminists throughout the last 400 years.
But, of course, one must put the book into context. It was written by a woman at a time when women were subjugated to man’s laws and rules. The seventeenth century was a time when women were seen as no better than the servants who worked in their household. What is more remarkable about Aphra Behn was that she was able to make a living from her writing. However, it should be remembered that many women in Britain had writings published during the seventeenth century but those names are now only remembered by academics and those studying English Literature (as I am); Lady Mary Chudleigh, Lady Jane Cavendish and Katherine Philips to name but a few.
Is this book read by anyone outside of the academic world? No, is the short answer. Sadly, its relevance is only to those who are using it for study purposes be that at school, university or as part of a thesis or book. I believe if it stopped being used a study tool at seats of learning then the book would cease to be published. Hopefully, that day never comes.
Let me leave you with words from the greatest woman writer that ever lived, Virginia Woolf,

“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... Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.”
  Kitscot | Nov 15, 2013 |
Nobility and intelligence are no match for the white man's perfidy. ( )
  raizel | Jul 29, 2013 |
Aphra Behn is herself as interesting as the story. A professional writer, is this is reputed to be the first ever novel, having turned writer after release from a debtors prison but also a spy, anti-slavery and suspected of taken a black lover, which as a white woman would have been strictly taboo back then. Behn's literary background is as a playwright and you can certainly feel this in her writing as there is a certain rhythm throughout although the strange use of punctuation, in particular apostrophes, initially feels rather odd.

It is interesting that Oroonoko is described as a person ,with handsome features, rather than a pure commodity as at the time when this book was written 'Blacks' would have been seen as lesser lifeforms but then there seems little distinction between the imported slaves and the local Indians tribes. The book can certainly be seen as anti-slavery because it is the Oroonoko who is the one having all the noble characteristics, loving, honest, brave, lenient etc. He is tricked into slavery rather than captured in battle and even his home country is depicted as having a structural society rather than just a group of Blacks running around with spears killing each other where even battles are pre-arranged.In contrast the few Whites come out with any credit. They are painted as duplicitous, cruel and cowards. However it is also a dig at socity as a whole because very few people of authority, black or white, come out totally unscathed, even the King back in Orookono's home is also seen as a liar and impotent.

But it also it can be read as a love story, Oroonoko loses his position in his homeland as a direct consequance of his love for Imoinda, also described in very flattering terms, and it is this love that eventually leads to his death.

On the whole the story is showing its age but is still worth a read ( )
  PilgrimJess | Feb 21, 2013 |
I enjoyed this, I got a lot out of it because Aphra Behn turned up in a trilogy of books I recently read (The Winter Queen) with the main character of book 1 being the inspiration for this book. It is a romance on one level, lovers torn apart finding each other through fate, but the book also deals with slavery.

The language does take a bit of getting used to, but as an E.S.O.L. teacher, it would be useful to show some of it to my students as Benn's spelling reflects pronunciation more than modern spelling does at times. ( )
  soffitta1 | Dec 28, 2012 |
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I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this Royal Slave, to entertain my reader with adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure;
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140439889, Paperback)

When Prince Oroonoko’s passion for the virtuous Imoinda arouses the jealousy of his grandfather, the lovers are cast into slavery and transported from Africa to the colony of Surinam. Oroonoko’s noble bearing soon wins the respect of his English captors, but his struggle for freedom brings about his destruction. Inspired by Aphra Behn’s visit to Surinam, Oroonoko reflects the author’s romantic views of native peoples as being in “the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin.” The novel also reveals Behn’s ambiguous attitude toward slavery: while she favored it as a means to strengthen England’s power, her powerful and moving work conveys its injustice and brutality.

A new single-volume edition of this early anti-slavery novel
Includes introduction, carefully modernized text, chronology, suggestions for further reading, and explanatory notes

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:59:42 -0400)

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"When Prince Oroonoko's passion for the virtuous Imoinda arouses the jealousy of his grandfather, the lovers are cast into slavery and transported from Africa to the colony of Surinam. Oroonoko's noble bearing soon wins the respect of his English captors, but his struggle for freedom brings about his destruction. Inspired by Aphra Behn's visit to Surinam, Oroonoko reflects the author's romantic view of native peoples as in 'the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin'. The novel also reveals Behn's ambiguous attitude to African slavery - while she favoured it as a means to strengthen England's rule, her powerful and moving work conveys its injustice and brutality." "This new edition of Oroonoko is based on the first printed version of 1688, and includes a chronology, further reading and notes. In her introduction, Janet Todd examines Aphra Behn's views of slavery, colonization and politics, and her position as a professional woman writer in Restoration."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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