Gosh darnint. Not only do I fail to update my readings on my other two works that I’ve completed, but I forget to save the write-up I did on Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Oh well, at least this gives me the chance to rethink some things.
I had a hard time starting to write about this rather short novel due to its subject material, mostly, I am afraid to write anything that may seem racist or insensitive to cultural and historical fact, but I do have the Norton Critical Edition of Oroonoko that provides me with several articles about the history of slavery in the Americas and more information about the colonies. Therefore, I am fairly well informed, but still apologize for any ignorance I may show. I accept all constructive criticisms that you can provide me with.
In essence, Oroonoko is a confusing mix of romanticized and highly accurate recountation of the life of an African royal who, after an unfortunate series of events in his country, ended up sold as a slave in the British territory of Surinam. I write “romanticized” because I am not sure if I can believe the fantastic tale of Prince Oroonoko who fell in love with the most beautiful girl in his area, Imoinda, and marries her, but loses her to the lusts of his grandfather, gets her after all, and then is separated from her. Coincidentally they end up in the same colony of Surinam and are allowed to be together, but only as slaves. Parallel to this (but it is not clear if this is directly caused by Oroonoko’s desire to free himself, his wife, and unborn child), Oroonoko starts a slave revolt that fails. Oroonoko is punished, seeks revenge for the disgrace of the punishment, but before doing so wants to protect his wife by killing her. After killing her, he mourns so much for her loss (and is likely still not recovered from the extremely brutal whipping he receives) that he fails to carry out his revenge and is executed by quartering. It seems like an epic tale, but at the same time, it’s supposed to be true history. Yet, the truth of the recountation is confused by superlatives that Oroonoko, Imoinda, and the events are described with.
It is debated whether Behn observed these happenings, heard about them from others, made them up, or a combination of all three, It is reasonable to believe in the events. I learned a bi, though. I think that what surprised me the most is the way in which the indigenous people of Surinam are treated with more kindness, if out of the opportunistic desire to prevent upsetting the only people who know this “new land,” than the Africans. The interactions between the Africans and Europeans seem much more fraught by disturbingly matter-of-fact betrayal and distrust, and that must be due to a longer history between the two groups. As I know from my U.S. American history, the relations between the inindigenous people of North America and the Europeans were initially good, but quickly soured after the Europeans began moving westward and abusing trade relations.
Talking about the author is easier than talking about the text, I was excited to read something written by someone who seems to be a 17th century female adventurer. If Behn is known at all, she is known as one of the first professional female literary writers of the English language. She was also a spy (as debatable as that is, it’s pretty cool). Reading about her adventures proves that women in petticoats could have wild timelines, timelines that are full of questionable validity in a world that one imagines was run by men.Her works are not very known, but at least they have survived through the 21st century, something many of Behn’s contemporaries cannot say. I myself had never heard of her or her work, Oroonoko, but it’s refreshing to know that women were literarily active in the 17th century. I wonder if Behn’s success was promoted by taking the winning side in the English restoration period (she was a loyal Royalist supporter) and by crossing the vast barrier of the Atlantic Ocean that allowed her to cross social boundaries as well.
Yet most of her success has to do with the unusually straight-forward account she makes of Surinam and the tale of Oroonoko. His life was fascinating.
I would compare this work to those of Heinrich von Kleist, such as his tale “Verlobung in San Domingo.” Even more comparable is the work to Caroline Augustus Fischer’s “Wilhelm der Neger [William the Negro].” This is a German work from the 19th century about an African, Wilhelm, sold into slavery in England, but treated well by his master, Sir Robert, who sees Willhelm’s intelligence and and raises him like his own son. Wilhelm eventually goes to Santo Domingo and helps educate the slaves and helps them revolt.
The story is complicated by Wilhelm’s love for a girl, Molly, but Sir Robert, while wanting the best for Wilhelm, also falls in love with her. In class at the time, my professor suggested looking at the complications provided by the relationship between Sir Robert and Wilhelm and suggested that Molly helped develop their relationship more than anything else. It is fairly obvious that Wilhelm der Neger was written later than Oroonoko, since literary style played a larger role.
At any rate, Wilhelm der Neger provides an excellent work to set in relation to Oroonoko, and the parallels extend even in the fact that the authors of both works were exceptional women.
Later, when I read Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, I’ll be able to discuss both works in relation again. It will be interesting to see how the 17th century and 19th centuries compare, as well as having the author write his own story and experiences, as opposed to having them written/determined for him.