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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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This book was an extremely difficult read; prose in its most jawbreaking style. Thanks goodness it was short, because what should have been a single afternoon's read was instead stretched out over eight uch-I-can't-stand-this-let-me-read-something-else days. Had it been a regular-size novel, I'd still be reading it until kingdom come. I found the ending repugnant, horrific, and morally disgusting, and I'm glad I could move on quickly to the post-1700 books on the "1,001 books to read" list. ( )
  MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
"Shall we render Obedience to such a degenerate Race...Will you, I say, suffer the Lash from such Hands?",, February 11, 2015

This review is from: Oroonoko (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
As one of the earliest novels in English, it's interesting to see what fiction was like in the 1680s.
This is the tale of Prince Orinooko, only surviving grandson of the rather despotic 100-year old king of 'Coramantien' in Africa. He falls in love with local beauty, Imoinda, but she has caught the eye of his grandfather too, who makes her part of his harem. The first part of the novel, the description of the royal court and related adventures was quite interesting (a rather 'English' imagining of the place, I think, with its French tutor and European courtly ideals: "refined Notions of true Honour, that absolute Generosity, and that Softness, that was capable of the highest Passions of Love and Gallantry.")
Then the two lovers are separately sold into slavery and here one must suspend disbelief, as our hero's new owner in Surinam, aware of his slave's qualities, "began to conceive so vast an Esteem for him, that he ever after lov'd him as his dearest Brother" and "he was received more like a Governor than a Slave." However, that doesn't mean life is going to be easy, as Orinooko comes to the belief that "there was no Faith in the White men or the Gods they ador'd...a Man ought to be eternally on his Guard and never to eat or drink with Christians, without his Weapon."
How Orinooko's observations cause him to act forms the concluding part of the tale.

Despite being 330 years old, this is perfectly readable, though I have to say it didn't exactly 'grab' me as a read .
However from an historical point of view, it's of interest both to see the development of the novel, and to observe how the Black race was portrayed as against Victorian opponents to slavery like Harriet Beecher Stowe. While the latter gains her readers' sympathies by focussing on Uncle Tom's Christianity and long-suffering, and creates a rather child-like character, Aphra Behn shows a man who repudiates all Christianity stands for and who is 'all man' in his fearlessness - "a Prince, whose Valour and Magnanimity deserved the Empire of the World" and "Who struck an Awe and Reverence." ( )
1 vote starbox | Feb 11, 2015 |
Oroonoko by Aphra Behn is the 17th century story of an African Prince and his beloved, both sold into slavery separately, then reunited on a slave plantation in Surinam. The story is a narration by a Englishwoman colonist, and asserted to be true. The story of love, conflict with tribal traditions, enslavement, reunion, and rebellion is a compelling narrative, despite the 17th century prose style. ( )
  BobCulley | Sep 11, 2014 |
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 |
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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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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:53 -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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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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W.W. Norton

An edition of this book was published by W.W. Norton.

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