Questions on Oroonoko
Note: It may help you, when searching for repeated words, to consult the e-copy of Oroonoko at http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/oroonoko/.
DEDICATORY EPISTLE: Examine this document for any parallels to the novel itself. Here are some topics to get you started: the narrator, the characters, and themes.
THEMES: Here is a statement from DLB about B’s plays: “The themes of love, honor, and tyranny of oppressive filial obligations reflecting the values of greedy, authoritarian society, and the related ideas of intrigue, seduction, betrayal, join with the tense situations and heroic and villainous character types to become staple features of Behn’s plays.” Do you find some or all of these same elements in Oroonoko? In other words, is there continuity between B’s plays and her most important novel? (Rather than trying to catalog all of the parallels that the sentence suggests, it would be better, especially if you write a response paper, to focus on a small subset of the listed themes. Say more about less.)
SETTING: Make a chart that highlights the similarities and contrasts between Coramantien and Surinam. Doing so may become part of a larger argument about the unity of this two-part novel.
NARRATOR: Behn’s narrative of an African prince who is tricked into slavery and dies tragically in Surinam is seen through the lens of a female narrator who resembles but is nonetheless probably not Behn herself. What sort of portrait of her emerges from the novel? We frequently say that one is either “part of the solution, part of the problem, or part of the scenery.” Does one or more of these characterize Oroonoko’s narrator? Pay special attention to moments where the torture takes place in the narrator’s absence. Here are some key pages to consider: 48-49, 68, 72, and 75. Finally, is the narrator telling us the truth she claims to be propagating on page 9? (Think, for example, about Oroonoko’s combat with the tiger on pages 52-53—plausible? And how can a narrator who tries to persuade Oroonoko to be contently enslaved really have his best interest in mind?)
SLAVERY AND HONOR: Is Oroonoko “a polemical assault on the slave trade”—i.e., “an emancipation treatise” (DLB)? You may find it illuminating to review pages 14, 16, 36, 44, and 66. Further, what is the relationship between slavery and honor in your analysis of the novel? If, according to Oroonoko/Caesar on page 62, “honour was the first principle in Nature that was to be obeyed,” could it be that making some comment on slavery is not the author’s fundamental objective? Could it be that honor is closer to the heart of Oroonoko’s tragedy than slavery is? (If you wanted to write a term paper about this topic, your answer could expand, via research, from the narrator’s attitude toward slavery to Behn’s own attitude. Be careful, though, to avoid the intentional fallacy. You could also examine the relationship between slavery and honor and British society’s attitude toward slavery. What conclusions emerge about white Europeans’ attitudes toward slavery? The English attitude toward and role in slavery are potentially very fruitful areas of inquiry. If they interest you, you may have found your term paper topic.)
RACIAL GROUPS: What is Oroonoko’s relationship to the Europeans and to the natives of Surinam whom the narrator calls “Indians”? In other words, what things does he have in common with each group? How are the natives portrayed? How is Oroonoko portrayed, especially on pages 14-15? As you may know from reading Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals,” that it was fashionable to picture denizens of the new world as noble savages. Does this convention further your analysis of any of the racial groups in the novel (Africans, Europeans, “Indians”)? In particular, what do you make of the narrator’s various references to Adam and Eve and the original paradise described in the opening chapters of Genesis? For these, see, for example, pages 5, 10-11, 51, and 56ff. Include in your answer an analysis of the visit that Oroonoko and the Europeans make to the Indians (56ff.)—a fascinating episode worthy of a long response paper—and be sure to make a connection to Hobbes’s take on human beings in the state of nature. How does Behn’s account of the Indians deconstruct itself? Finally, is there any connection between the portrayal of Surinam’s native population and the colonial impulse? In other words, does a particular portrayal of an indigenous people make a European more or less likely to colonize a foreign land?
NAMES: Oroonoko is a river in South America, which makes it a bit strange that an African prince would bear that name. On pages 43 and 45, however, Oroonoko and Imoinda are renamed Caesar and Clemene. Put these appellations together with his education on page 14 and the reference to the Romans on page 14, Oroonoko’s physical description on page 15, and the reference to Plutarch’s Lives on page 49. What is going on? Your answer may well augment the answer to the previous question about racial groups. For good measure, throw in the reference to “Venus and Mars” on page 16 (cf. “Mars” on 13). (If you want to write a response or term paper about this question, you will need to read Plutarch’s life of King Cleomenes and figure out parallels between him and Oroonoko.)
CHRISTIANITY: In the words of Oronooko, Christianity receives a blistering critique. Keep track of the references, particularly the one on page 39 to the Golden Rule, Oronooko’s statements on 41 and 49. There are many other references to Christians. See what kind of portrait emerges. Are you troubled on 47 when the narrator implies that it is all right for Christians to enslave non-Christians?