Oroonoko as Royalist Allegory
Aphra Behn was born in the midst of the English Civil War and by the time of her death in 1689, she had seen Charles I executed by his own parliament, the overthrow and restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, and finally the deposition and replacing of James II on religious grounds. The only cultural context that Behn ever knew was one marked by major cultural and political turmoil which pitted the Royalist conservatives (Tories) against the Parliamentarian liberals (Whigs). In such a political climate, it is only natural that the artistic and literary output of this time period is marked by a sense of agitation about the English state of affairs, and Behn’s 1688 novella Oroonoko is a blatant example of this. In summary, Oroonoko recounts the tale of an idealized and highly romanticized African prince who is sold into slavery by his grandfather (the king) and is taken to the Dutch colony of Suriname by way of the Middle Passage, where he eventually leads a slave revolt, performs a mercy killing upon his wife, and is eventually executed. Operating as a reactionary response to the political turmoil of this time, Oroonoko is an allegorical narrative that asserts the divine right and honor of kings, a sentiment which echoes Behn’s own Royalist political leanings. While Behn’s work is known for its major contribution to the development of the novel, it is also a text that is highly conditioned by the culture of political anxiety in which it was written.
In order to fully comprehend the allegorical aspects of the novel, it is necessary to examine the significance of “royalty” and “royal blood” in 17th century England. The monarchs of England (as well as many other Western societies) are notable in that their authority was considered a grant from God, which would indicate that divinity was present within the actual person of the monarch and their lineage. Anita Pacheco writes about the conceptual basis of hierarchy, saying that, “. . . through the mysteries of blood, virtue is supposedly transmitted from one generation of the ruling class to the next, so that power is legitimated on the grounds of worthiness, authority presented as hereditary and innate. . .” (494). In other words, the circumstances of a royal’s birth are crucial because by being born in that position, they are said to be naturally granted the idealized virtues and elevated status of divine authority. These notions were central in Royalist ideology and are even more critical considering the context of the time, which saw Parliamentarians seeking to overthrow what they believed was the authority of God, which was made manifest in the person of the monarch. The nature of Royalist belief is critical to understanding the political climate of the time, which was marked by mutual anxiety and violent conflict between two parties who supported radically different notions of government. Written about a royal prince whose authority and honor is challenged by corrupt officials, Oroonoko is a text that is clearly shaped by the political climate of the time, allowing it to operate as an allegorical novel about the divine authority of royalty and the corrupt nature of those who attempt to remove them of their power.
From the onset of the novel, Oroonoko is characterized with the highly admirable characteristics which Behn deliberately implies to be the result of his royal status. When he is introduced, the narrator notes that he has, “. . . that real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honor, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry . . .” (79-80). While this conveys the reverence the narrator (or Behn herself) holds for this man of royal birth, Oroonoko is also shown to stand out amongst others, almost as though he is inherently different them by virtue of his birth. This is manifested even in his physical appearance, where it is said that, “. . . he was adorned with a native beauty, so transcending all those of his gloomy race that he struck an awe and reverence even into those that knew not his quality . . .” (79). Oroonoko’s character is established in such a way that even his humanity seems negligible, since he is clearly being portrayed as someone who appears as God-like to others. What is significant about Behn’s writing here is that it paints a picture of royalty in the way that she sees it to be: divine, without fault, and untouchable. Oroonoko’s perfections are so, according to Behn, because those qualities are afforded to those of royal birth, who are models of God’s perfection and are thus bestowed upon to maintain authority on earth. Therefore, the Godly presence of Oroonoko is intended to represent the nature of all royals, who are too bestowed with the perfect virtue of kings and are too exalted among men.
Behn continues the narrative with subtler but nonetheless poignant illustrations of the prince’s naturally elevated status. Oroonoko is tricked into slavery by being guided (along with his people) onto the ship of a slaver, whose corrupt Captain had previously befriended the prince only to betray him. What is notable is that the Captain is shown to be a villain less because of his occupation, but more so because (as Oroonoko tells him) of the fact that he betrays his honor by kidnapping a man of the prince’s status (104). While Pacheco argues that this instance shows the prince separating his sense of morality from that of Christians, I would instead suggest that this moment is meant instead to distinguish the elevated position of Oroonoko from that of others, including both his people and the Captain. Oroonoko himself is a slave trader and has never had any objections to the practice on moral or honorable grounds; it is only when he himself is taken as a slave that the practice of enslavement becomes a dishonorable practice in his eyes. In this light, it can be interpreted that Behn wants the audience to understand Oroonoko as a person who (at one point) had the right to act however he wished, regardless of honor, simply by virtue of his position of royalty. In this way, Behn once more seeks to separate the hero of this story from the other characters on the basis of his eminent and divine status.
Another key aspect of Oroonoko is that it deals with the problem of having corrupt individuals in powerful positions, something which is meant to mirror Behn’s abhorrence of the eventually victorious Whig party. The condemnations of such officials appear throughout the latter half of the story, exemplified by the description of Deputy Governor Byam as, “. . . a fellow whose character is not fit to be mentioned with the worst of the slaves” (128). In this statement, Behn seeks to discredit the ideologies and actions of the authoritative individual (Byam) by aligning his character with those considered the dregs of society. Though Byam is not based on any specific historical figure, nor is he meant to represent a specific individual, Byam and his forces are meant to represent an authority that is both criminal and unlawfully in power. In an instance of more generalized criticism, Oroonoko puts forth a poignant denunciation of his captors, saying, “. . . there was no faith in the white men, or the gods they adored; who instructed them in principles so false that honest men could not live amongst them . . .” (130). While one can assign this quote as evidence of anti-colonialist fervor or even abolitionist sentiment, I propose that this statement be read can be read as a general vilification of those who were granted power by corrupted means, which is the case with the power dynamics in Oroonoko. In this context, this statement can be read as evidence of Behn’s attempts to deliberately discredit the authority of the Whig party, whom she believes also seized power and wielded it unjustly. The way in which Behn deals with the problem of corrupted authority is indicative that Oroonoko is meant to be read as a condemnation of those whose power is questionable, especially in comparison to those whose power she considers entirely indisputable.
Oroonoko has been analyzed on a number of different critical platforms, most of which analyze the novel’s depiction of slavery, and while there are fewer detailed attempts to align the work with the political climate of the era, it is generally agreed upon that it is an allegorical work born of Behn’s conservative Tory ideology (Pacheco 491). Oroonoko must be understood as a work that was quite literally borne out of the time it was created in, rather than any specific interest in African society or the question of slavery. Because Behn was so influenced by her political beliefs, it is perhaps most accurate to conclude that her text was written out of these specific sentiments before any obscure beliefs about colonialism or racial superiority. Throughout all of the scholarly analyses of the novel, it always remains that Behn was living and writing during an extremely unpredictable, uniquely violent, and innately explosive time within English history, the nature of which clearly translated into her writings. Despite the fact that female writers were most often writing for the sake of making a living, the texts that have survived from their efforts have undoubtedly been altered and influenced by the climate of the era. Furthermore, while women may have been “cut off” from participation in politics and other realms of society, works like Oroonoko show how women like Behn were nonetheless affected by the turbulence of their respective eras. Most importantly, such works stand out within the British literary canon because they represent the desires of their female authors to assert their voices within the political, social, and cultural climates of the day. Just as Aphra Behn made her voice heard with Oroonoko by communicating her political sentiments, the generations of women that followed her would prove that writing was an effective means of revealing the nature of the societies they lived in as well as state their beliefs about that nature.
Pacheco, Anita. “Royalism and Honor in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 34.3 (1994) 491-506. JSTOR. Web. 14 April 2016.
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works. London: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.
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