Behns Oroonoko and Its Character Symbolization Essay

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Aphra Behn's Oroonoko is a tale of Coramantien prince and victorious general, Oroonoko, who loses his heart to the lovely Imoinda. First published in the year 1688 when African slavery through the barbaric trans-Atlantic slave business became established as an economic, transcontinental system, this tale draws on the popular literary themes of aristocratic romance, social censure and travel narrative. It indicates a few ways in which the British were starting to view cultural and racial disparities and their personal contribution to the slave business and colonialism. Behn's tale, somewhat broadly, is one text that demonstrates the way European literature on the subjects of slavery, colonization and race evolved in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Questioning Slavery

Oroonoko's inspirational speech to fellow slaves clearly makes Behn's work the very first English-language fictional work speaking against slavery. The lead character of the tale addresses his fellow slaves thus:

"And why, my dear friends and fellow-sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people? No, but we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools and cowards: and the support of rogues and renegades that have abandoned their country for rapine, murders, thefts and villainies. And shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have not one human virtue left to distinguish them from the vilest creatures? Will you, I say, suffer the lash from such hands?" (Behn, pp. 128)

Portrayal of an African Protagonist

While Indians qualify as 'unfamiliar' and 'other', they involve inevitably in the author's discussion of 'Noble Savages', a group that, beginning from the 16th century, called to Europeans' minds the need for reverting to a more unsophisticated way of living. People carted off from Africa and coerced into slavery retained the malignity accounting for their enduring ferocity and lack of discipline. Oroonoko, however, appears to cloud the aforementioned divide between Noble Savage representatives -- the Indians -- and Negro persons as personifications of wild men. The novelist breaches the two classes by including Oroonoko, a unique African protagonist, in noble savages' domain, thereby giving rise to a 'Noble Negro' tradition. By doing so, she successfully "lifts" Oroonoko's character from a stereotypical black, transforming him into the tale's honourable and chivalrous protagonist. She develops a novel literary area for portraying Blacks' actual, although scarcely known, characteristics.

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However, such a revolutionary insertion of a Black protagonist into White fiction is a rather risk-taking, and nearly unfeasible, endeavour that gives rise to irreconcilable friction in the author's voice.

European Thought

The previously mentioned speech rendered by Oroonoko further raised a predominant native-African slave-business company, the Royal African Company-related concern regarding independent traders' cessation of the trend of abducting key dignitaries such as princes. The counterproductive tumult produced among slave communities in America due to the capture of African nobles taught the Europeans a lesson: to not touch African aristocrats till their subjects continued supporting them. Oroonoko graphically demonstrates the basis of the Africa slavery business's protests. Furthermore, as that period witnessed constant resistance to the royal trading monopoly, the novel silently stresses monopoly's economic worth and rebukes the instability wrecked by nuisances like the captain responsible for abducting Oroonoko.

One scene in the novel depicts the slaves opposing one another, with the majority's "racial difference" underscored and sneered at: the Europeanized Oroonoko draws a distinction between himself and the others' "fetishization" of innate weakness and indecisiveness, conveniently lumping all into the group of colonial others. Oroonoko reiterates his royal status and authority with the English colonialists, positioning his fellow countrymen as 'others' (and hence, separate from eloquent people such as himself, who is equipped with proficiency in speaking), rather than the degenerate Europeans. He asserts the appropriateness of a royal's view, in line with the author's rigid royalist standpoint.

Ideating South American Native's Personality

That a lovely unprotected woman subject to a transatlantic slave ship and a private European plantation in South America would be afforded privacy and stay unharmed throughout is an overly far-fetched idea. Here, the author expresses a more realistic view of colonies through Oroonoko's character -- an African native who, definitely, would not be as cultured as Trefry, the manager of the plantation. Further, notably, slave populations behave as a single, colossal, un-individuated, corporal body in perpetual adulation.

The narrator accounts for the Englishmen's decision of refraining from enslaving the Indians of South America:

"So that they [the Indians] being on all occasions very useful to us, we find it absolutely necessary to caress them as friends,….....

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Behn, A. (17th Century). Oronooko. Norton Critical.

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