Dehumanizing Nature of Slavery in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko
Oroonoko is an anti-slavery text, but it is not a text arguing for the liberation of slaves. Rather, the character Oroonoko is the vehicle with which Aphra Behn exposes the Englishman’s failings to uphold the very values he uses to exemplify and rationalize his superiority over other races—chiefly: Christianity, morality, and civility. As discussed in class, Oroonoko represents many allegorical virtues that earn him distinction from his own race, of which three are most closely paralleled in contrast with the failings of the white man: honor, purity, and courage. The significance of these virtues is in their establishment by a white, female narrator. Behn claims the authority to tell Oroonoko’s story with a white narrator, but simultaneously taints that authorial whiteness with a female’s voice, thus rendering it a conflicting report. However, Behn’s use of a white narrator places her in a uniquely powerful position to craft Oronooko as a critical commentary on the exploitation of slaves, wherein she names slavery as the cause for dehumanization in the white man.
Behn’s concern for the debilitation of white humanity is evidenced from the onset of Oroonoko. “And [this history] shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues, there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention” (Behn, 2183). While in class we considered the necessity for Behn to fortify her female narrator with claims as to the truth of her report, her desire for the captive attention of the reader, not just the temporary interest, is also at play. Behn uses several words that suggest that the information she is about to relay is truthful, but more importantly, that it should be read as but a piece of a larger picture. “Proper merits” is latently ironic because so much of the story does not occur on proper merits—Oroonoko is betrayed by “the captain,” a man whom he had a predisposition to trust because of their longstanding partnership in trading slaves. However, although Oroonoko was not accorded the merit due to him, he reclaims it himself in his verbal exchanges with the captain, denouncing a man who would jeopardize his honor for an intangible god (Behn, 2203).
There is also significance in withholding the name of the man who succeeds in capturing Oroonoko and his attendants through trickery. By only referring to him as “the captain,” Behn prevents the reader from dismissing the occurrence (which we are meant to read with indignant, angry, emotion because we experience it from Oroonoko’s point of view) as the actions of one individual. The ambiguity of the captain’s identity forces the white reader to feel ashamed on behalf of the unnamed individual who is representing white people in his relationship with Oroonoko. With regard to the nature of the shame the reader is meant to feel, Behn appears to leave that open to interpretation. While the modern-day reader would likely read it through the glaze of shame that a black man was enslaved by a white man, I contend that Behn’s concern at the time of writing this was not over the fact that Oroonoko was being enslaved, but how it happened. The faceless, lying, white captain effectively works to communicate Behn’s fear that the expanding slave trade was causing Englishmen to regress in their moral judgment.
In his essay “Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”: Cultural Dialectics and the Novel,” Oddvar Holmesland proposes that Behn regards this regression with regretful hindsight, that is, Oroonoko is evidence of a moral regression that has already taken place. “Oroonoko is victimized by civilized brutality, against which he pits the honesty, honor, and loyalty nurtured in a seemingly more natural order” (Holmesland, 61). In concurrence with my own reading, Holmesland does not interpret Behn to be against slavery as an institution, rather, he proposes that she has employed her narrator to embody the inherent instability in rapid colonization, and to meditate upon the cultural shift from royal romanticism to colonial expansionism. However, Holmesland goes so far as to say that the narrator is the vehicle through which Behn tries to claim the authority to report Oroonoko as a true story. “To recognize the instability of the narrator’s position in Oroonoko is also to acknowledge the complexity involved in her effort to create novelistic verisimilitude” (Holmesland, 60). The characteristically European perfections the narrator ascribes to Oroonoko would seem evidence to the contrary; Behn’s insistence as to the story’s authenticity naturally imbues the reader with a desire to read closely to find falsehoods, and therein lies her true goal. She is not, as Holmesland says, purposefully using the instability of her narrator to further the authenticity of the story. Rather, the instability of the character serves to reveal the reader’s disinclination to recognize slavery as having a negative, uncivilized effect on the psyche of the white race and draw the reader into these reflections via Oroonoko’s discourse.
Among the many discourses available to examine and interpret in Oroonoko is that of the reconciliation (or lack thereof) between distinct values. These values may be separated into two camps, one representing old-school values consistent with those Oroonoko holds, and the other representing an emerging new school whose qualities are murkier. According to Holmesland, the narrator and protagonist exist to engage with one another as representatives of these schools. “In effect, the protagonist embodies the narrator’s way of mediating between the best of the aristocratic and progressive worlds, thus fashioning a model for the modern age” (Holmesland, 67). It is important to note the lack of one-on-one exchanges we actually witness in the story, as this suggests that the schools of value (aristocratic and progressive) were rarely engaged with one another in a productive way.
This lack of productivity is chiefly evidenced by the narrator’s apparent unwillingness to expend herself in assistance to Oroonoko beyond what is comfortable for her, for twice she leaves him in his hour of need. “We were all (but Caesar) afflicted at this news; and the sight was gashly; his discourse was sad, and the earthly smell about him so strong that I was persuaded to leave the place for some time (being myself but sickly, and very apt to fall into fits of dangerous illness upon any extraordinary melancholy)” (Behn, 2225). If we recall Holmesland’s assertion that Caesar embodies the model synthesis of aristocratic and progressive values, it would stand to reason that progressive values (the narrator) are somehow weakened in the presence of aristocratic ones (Caesar), and so must remain separate to retain their strength. However, it is also important to note that the narrator left at another’s insistence, whom we may assume to be of the same progressive school the narrator represents. Might we then conclude that progressive values draw their strength from the number of people who subscribe to those values, while aristocratic values have an inherent strength? If this is the case, then an anti-slavery reading of the text denounces the emerging values as devoid of the natural, honorable resilience Caesar exhibits.
Behn’s concern over the natural order is evidenced by her choice of hero: an African prince who we are meant to read as wrongfully enslaved. In her essay, “Oroonoko: Birth of a Paradigm,” Moira Ferguson contends that a more specific concern of Behn’s is over what is being sacrificed to pursue the colonial mindset. “The conflicts of the narrator over colonialist assumptions come most into play after the rebellion. Objectively and silently, she condemns it while mourning the cold-blooded torture and murder of a royal prince, the destabilizing of power” (Ferguson, 355). Destabilization features prominently throughout the story as a backdrop for the paradoxical enslavement of a royal person. By establishing Oroonoko as a motif for the aristocratic values, Behn flattens his character to his allegorical likenesses, impressing his blackness upon the reader through his European perfections that dramatize the cruelty Oroonoko experiences in his dealings with white men. Corralled into one entity, blackness and aristocratic values function to create a distinct sense of separation between the past and present, and the impossibility of their reconciliation is evidenced by Oroonoko’s death—for all of his traditional perfections, he does not survive. The uncharted territory of the present is then encapsulated within her narrator, who gives voice to the instability of the colonial mindset while withholding a renunciation of colonialism itself.
Behn’s chief priority with Oroonoko appears to be opening a dialogue with regard to the changes occurring in the psyche of the Englishman, and desirous of considering colonialism as inhibiting humanity. “They cut Caesar in quarters, and sent them to several of the chief plantations” (Behn, 2226). Oroonoko’s embodiment of traditional values is thus literally torn apart, the savage push towards expansion evident in the decision to send pieces of Oroonoko’s body out. It is as if the aristocratic values of decency and honor have been ravaged by the drive to push outwards, and Behn is issuing a sharp warning that the colonialist endeavor to expand his sovereignty cannot be deemed successful if colonists arrive to their destinations devoid of humanity.
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