This is a paper I wrote for my 17th and 18th Century Lit class. Since, I am proud of this paper I figured I’d put it up on my portfolio.
As we read Oroonoko we noticed that Aphra Behn drew from what she witnessed and was a part of in South America. I would like to use the focus of this paper on the cultural differences between the African slaves and the slave owners when Oroonoko and Imoinda are sent to Surinam. Then I would like to provide you, dear reader, with my reaction to the blatant differences and similarities.
First, the struggle between Oroonoko and his grandfather over Imoinda, the lovely lady that both of them had fallen for. There is a blatant similarity between Oroonoko and his grandfather and the king’s relationship with his son(s) in England. It is common knowledge that the king would get the woman because he is king and so Oroonoko’s grandfather got Imoinda to join his harem. Oroonoko was stonewalled and his beloved had to give herself to his grandfather, though she felt that her virginity had been given to Oroonoko.
This is something that we do see rather often in monarchies when there is a struggle between father and son, so it was pretty accurate. The only issue is that it hits a little to close to home. The king pretty much gets whatever he wants.
The second item on my list is the naming of possessions. When Oroonoko arrived in Surinam he was renamed Caesar by his owner. This was a way of taking away his rights as a human being. Imoinda was not renamed, as if her humanity didn’t matter because she was a woman. It is not a common instance in our culture in America to rename humans after they’ve already had one for their entire life. We do it with pets, but not with humans. Oroonoko became nothing more than a possession to be bought and sold over and over again. He wouldn’t make it that long, but that is what would have happened. There also seemed to be a lack of a language barrier, because in the first part Oroonoko would not understand being cunning, so it would not be that easy for him to understand the people of Surinam.
The third object on the list is the clear difference in the two cultures is the relationship between men, women, love, and death. The African belief is that if a man loves his wife and he believes that she would not be taken care of he would kill her himself, or if he tired of her he would kill her himself. If he did not love his wife, the man would have someone else kill her or leave her in a worse situation. The white owners would just leave him or her be. The wife may be bruised (until she died sometimes) but she would still be around when he died. It would not matter whether she would be in a good situation or not.
This is most potent when Imoinda begs Oroonoko to kill her when she does not think that she could escape with her man and her child. He was shocked that she suggested it before he did, but they were going to go through with it. I personally did not expect it. Often times in slavery the slaves would adopt the master’s beliefs. It was obvious that he did not do this, despite the fact that it would make it easier for them all.
This was one of the more unusual books than what we had read previously, though I greatly enjoyed it. The writing was easier to handle than Jonson and it went smoother than Evelina, so I almost wished I could go back in time and read it again with the class. The substance of Behn’s characters combined with her vague beliefs in slavery made for an interesting read. It seemed like she was giving the pros and cons of it, though we’d say that the cons outweigh the pros. The novel worked because it made you think and question things without being obvious. It also helped the people of its time understand other cultures. This is definitely one of the highlights of Behn’s career.
Sparknotes; Oroonoko Characters; 19 December, 2011
Sparknotes; Oroonoko; Study Guide; 19 December, 2011
Oroonoko; Aphra Behn.