The representation of women and, more widely, gender, in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.
“Oroonoko” is a work by the first professional woman writer in English literary history. Aphra Behn, who is also an important innovator in the form of the novel, used a narrative voice that combined proximity to her readers with an unusual wealth of detail, while the plot itself involves one of the first examples of the concept of the “noble savage” in literature. Her female personas in the novel are quite interesting to analyse in terms of status, character and role in the development of the events. However, these characters have been relatively side-lined in feminist literary scholarship due to their representation in sexual manner while critics focus on Behn’s biography and her place in literary history (Jung, 2002). The white female narrator of the text is the primary character that feminist scholars or other critics focus on in order to analyse the positive representation of women.
As mentioned before, the narrator of the story in “Oroonoko” is the main interest for readers and critics who are analysing the concept of gender roles from a positive perspective. This white female narrator is no one but the writer – Aphra Behn. The black female character of the story – Imoinda – is depicted as a woman that men are interested in because of her beauty and this is why she is less interesting for those who support female rights, but the narrator on the other hand is considered noble, elite, and intellectual in the minds of the readers. The fact that the narrator is Aphra Behn is another key influence for us to sympathize with her because we already know something about her life to depict her as the intellectual and noble woman of the work. Behn also appears as a character in the second part of the story, which takes place in Surinam. The fact that Behn uses her own name in the novel, for a long time raised the question whether the story can be considered autobiographical or not, considering the fact that “Oroonoko” is based on a true story. (KLEIN, 1929). It opened a debate amongst several researchers about the truthfulness of the given events and also about the accuracy of the information provided about Surinam’s inhabitants and its fauna and flora. Some critics were satisfied by Behn’s work, while some others did not consider it as a true story and called the author – a liar due to representing fiction as truth. The fact that the Behn lived in Surinam does not automatically mean that the story should be entirely interpreted as truth. Before starting the story of Oroonoko, the narrator says that she is an eye witness to a great part of the story and but sometimes the depiction of the outer appearance of some characters and nature make it difficult for the reader to see “Oroonoko” as a true story.
Behn examines the difference between men and women and explores their rights. Her strong female protagonists are continuously searching for feminine power. They struggle to deal with the male authority and they wish to have their own authority. We also see weak and powerless female characters that undergo a low-status life, due to their gender. The presence of both types of women gives the readers a chance to come up with a conclusion about the general status of women throughout the whole story. This is why the story of Oroonoko or the Royal Slave is one of the primary references for feminist writers.
In the first part of the story, the author gives us a very detailed description of the outward appearance of the protagonist – Oroonoko. But the description of that of Imoinda is delivered only in one sentence when we first encounter her: “a beauty that to describe her truly one need say only she was female to the noble male, the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars, as charming in her person as he and of delicate virtues” (p12). It seems as if Imoinda just serves as the female equivalent of the magnificent Oroonoko. I, as a reader, knew what Oroonoko looked like because of the detailed description of his features; but when it came to Imoinda, I had to rely on my imagination to form an image of a beautiful woman. However, later on in the text, we see a sentimental description of Imoinda. Her “lovely modesty”, “softness in her look”, “the sweetness of her words and behaviour” all fit the traditional emotional role of women. Sometimes Behn describes Imoinda in a way which would suit a European woman. Uses of the words like “fair queen of the night” are seen as a contradiction when it comes to exploring racial features. We see a similar contrast in the description of Oroonoko as well, when the author describes his nose as “rising and Roman”, and his hair as “straight”. Hence, the physical representation of these two characters is not necessarily African or European, but the mixture of both. Even though Imoinda is an illustration of the ideal white woman, her body is strongly linked with the African culture. Her body serves as a symbol of her ethnic culture because of the markings added to her skin. These markings symbolize her higher social position. Only privileged Africans were allowed to be decorated with carved flowers and birds. The following passage from the text explains this well (44):
“One may imagine then, we paid her a treble respect, and though, from her being carved in fine flowers and birds all over her body, we took her to be of quality, yet when we knew Clemene was Imoinda we could not enough admire her. I had to forget to tell you that those who are nobly born of that country are so delicately cut and razed all over the fore part of the trunk of their bodies, that it looks as it were japanned, the works being raised like highpoint round the edges of the flowers.”
With the help of these descriptions, we can see that Imoinda belonged to a high social status. Then, because of her attracting beauty and the king’s interest in her, her social status became low due to being sold into slavery. Her extraordinary beauty is one of the most important factors in the story. In my opinion, it is “the” primary factor in the development of events. Her feminine beauty was the cause of the conflict between the king and Oroonoko, the downfall of Imoinda herself and also the reason for Oroonoko’s self-destruction in the end. In most of the stories which are about love and conflict, the feminine beauty is the primary cause of downfall as it leads to sexual desire and jealousy. Same things happen in Oroonoko as well. Moreover, the relationship between an uncle and his nephew is harmed due to the interest of the former in the beloved of the latter. From a humanistic point of view, this is quite disturbing and difficult to accept. I think this kind of conflicts is the main moral problem that humanity should avoid. The portrayal of female body as a sexual object in Behn’s work is quite disappointing at first, but later the feelings of the readers can be neutralized when Imoinda starts to struggle to deal with the King. As soon as she was taken into King’s Otan, her status was no different from that of a slave because she was being controlled and hidden from her true beloved. Imoinda was trying to control her body and save it for Oroonoko; however this fact is demotivating for feminists because of the importance given to the “body” of a woman. According to historian Barbara Bush, “women’s control over their bodies was arguably a major area of struggle involving power relations at a most basic level. Power over women was exercised through control of their sexuality, a form of oppression rarely experienced to the same degree by slave men”.
While reading Oroonoko, we can see that Behn plays with the conventional gender roles. Some characters often possess some qualities of the opposite gender. It is noticeable throughout the story how gender stereotypes alternate with gender reversals. Oroonoko is both characterised by manly actions as by his feminine features (1999, Nevstold). He is presented as a brave man, for instance by winning wars in Coromantien, by winning fights with enormous tigers in Surinam and so on. He fears nothing and deliberately seeks danger to prove himself and to test his strength and power. His masculinity is briefly described in the following passage (46):
“He had a spirit all rough and fierce, and that could not be tamed to lazy rest; and though all endeavours were used to exercise himself in such actions and sports as this world afforded, as running, wrestling, pitching the bar, hunting and fishing, chasing and killing tigers of a monstrous size.”
Even though he is described as someone possessing inhuman strength, we also see his feminine side as well. According to Behn’s description, he has long hair and female carving. Moreover, he also acts “like a long-suffering romance heroin”. Oroonoko is represented as a soft and sentimental man, which are typical qualities of women. He expresses his feelings without being embarrassed and is not afraid to his sentimental side. The way he speaks is soft and passionate, which proves he is quite an emotional man. “While Oroonoko felt all the agonies of love, and suffered under a torment the most painful in the world”. Oroonoko does not seem to feel pain when he cuts himself and is being tortured to death; however he cannot bear the tormenting heartache when he is afraid that he will lose Imoinda.
Imoinda on the other hand, has masculine features as well as delicate beauty. She stands by Oroonoko in a fight against the white slave owners. Although she is pregnant, she joins her husband in a fight. Imoinda is described as a courageous woman and she blindly trusts Oroonoko. She is good at using bow and arrow and manages to wound several people. She even puts a deadly wound on the governor with a manly weapon such as a poisoned arrow. Her masculinity is also shown at the end when she rationally embraces the fact that she has to die and doesn’t respond to Oroonoko’s proposal emotionally. We can say that Imoinda is both psychologically and physically strong character. In the first part of the novel, the reader might find it difficult to develop sympathy for her, but in the following events we can see that Imoinda is indeed a powerful character.
It is essential to explore the role of Imoinda as a property through marriage as well. In the novel, the important reason for two people to get together is love; however, in the African culture, marriage to a beautiful woman was a symbol of status and this is why so many men attempt to possess Imoinda. Being a property through slavery is of course much more difficult than the former. When a woman is sold into slavery, she is deprived of any personal rights over her body. They knew that if they were to oppose their owners, the punishment would be more horrifying than them doing hard labour on the plantation or becoming mistresses of the owners.
It was mentioned before that the narrator was seen as elite and primary motivation for feminists, but she is quite powerless compared to Imoinda in the story. The narrator is absent on the two crucial moments: firstly, when Oroonoko is brutally whipped. Secondly, when he is tortured to death in the final part of the novel. If the narrator was powerful, why would she run when things got worse? When the black slave mostly needed her power, she is absolutely out of reach. Adding to that, she cannot exercise her power to stop Oroonoko’s mistreatment even though she claims that she is powerful. But we can say that she had a positive influence on Oroonoko throughout the story. Both Imoinda and the Narrator encourage Oroonoko in a different way. Imoinda is considered powerful since she plays an active role in Oroonoko’s fight for freedom, opposed to Behn who is only able to use her power to retell the story afterwards. While Imoinda is almost exclusively defined through her body, the narrator contrarily was characterised by her literary voice. Imoinda was a voiceless, active woman; on the other hand, Behn had voice but she was passive. Behn was passive primarily because of the fact that she was a woman as well and couldn’t rise against the imperialists. This indicates the dominance of male power over feminine in the colonial society. Even though men and women were different when it came to exercising power, they were quite equal when it came to hard labour in slavery. All slaves, men or women, have equal price because they both do the same labour.
In conclusion, we can say that the story of Oroonoko is really influential because it was written by the first female writer in English Literature who defended women’s value. However, due to the setting of her work she had to be more creative and make distinctions between her characters. Throughout the whole novel, we cannot unlink race and gender from each other because Behn has linked them very strongly. She has balanced the role of both genders by giving them the features of each other as we mentioned before. The story of Oroonoko was a great impact on the following female writers and it acted as a primary reference for feminist critiques. As a result “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (Virginia Wolf, 1929).
(Re)Textualizing the Female Body: Maternity and the Negotiations of Power in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1929)
Sarah Klein Shifting Power and the Evasion of Responsibility in Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (Helen Ibbotson)
The Sexual Construction of Male and Female Characters in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave (Sandro Jung)
Aphra Behn and the Beginnings of a Female Narrative Voice (Nestvold)
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