*While I used the Broadview book I have, I found a link to the story so you can read it yourself: http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/oroonoko/
*I will try to be broad so there are no spoilers*
Oroonoko by Aphra Behn is a really interesting piece of work. Oroonoko, an African prince, and Imoinda, his love interest, are the main characters. The short story follows Oroonoko and Imoinda on their journey from royalty to slavery and details all the troubles they face together. It is very well written: the plot is thick and the ending makes the reader think. It has been altered into many different versions and today its reputation is connected to the anti-slavery movement. Whether or not it was initially written for that political reason is debatable, but either way there are elements of the story that are anti-slavery. However, this story was written in 1688, “which was a period of upheaval for the British government due to James II’s precarious position as king” (Broadview 202). Broadview argues that due to her support of King James II, Behn’s short story may have been more influenced by her dislike of the Anglican Church, since those against the King support the Anglican Church. After all, “Oroonoko’s most hypocritical characters claim to be Christian” (Broadview 202), but that is a post for a different day. While there is evidence that Aphra Behn’s short story was influenced by anti-slavery beliefs, one cannot eliminate the idea that slavery may not have been the story’s driving meaning.
The first element that is antislavery is how continued tragedy is seen throughout of the story. The reader wants Oroonoko to find resolution so badly, but this proves very hard for him, especially since he is a slave. Throughout the story readers sympathize for the slaves and hope for a happy ending. Readers become attached to the characters and their purity and attidude. While both the hero and heroine are slaves, they are portrayed as real people and not property. In slavery times, slaves were bought and sold like livestock. Owners believed slaves’ only purpose was to serve them without question. In Oroonoko this is not the case. Instead, the young prince is treated with respect even from his owners.
However, there are also characteristics in Oroonoko that do not condemn slavery, in fact there are parts where it looks like Behn approves of the awful practice. Excluding Oroonoko and Imoinda, all the slaves within the short story are seen as secondhand citizens. Overall enslavement is also not portrayed as a crime, rather only the enslavement on the prince. There are also parts that claim slavery is needed for industry and above all and above all, one could claim the ending of Oroonoko is proof Behn did not write the story to denounce slavery.
There is truly enough evidence for either side of the slavery argument. While it is possible Behn wrote the story with no intention for it to be interpreted as an anti-slavery piece, the work did prove to be valuable throughout the abolitionists’ movement.
What do you think? Did Behn write the work with an anti-slavery view? Did you enjoy the story?
Black, Joseph Laurence. The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century: General Eds.: Joseph Black . Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2012. Print.
*Here’s a link to the story so you can read it yourself: http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/oroonoko/