Book 13: Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

My head has been spinning reading ending of the semester essays, so any additional reading I have done has been for fun rather than for work or intellectual stimulation. So, I have not read a 1001 book this week, and I was due. The next in my list is Book 13: Oroonoko.  Had it not been so short (72 pages!), I’d probably not made it through it this week. But, it was, and I did! I found the book on GoogleBooks.

Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave has three sections. First, it opens with a statement declaring the tale to be true and the author to be an eye-witness to the events, which are not embellished. Surinam and South American Indians are described. Oroonoko and hir grandfather, the King, are introduced. The captivity of Imoinda is explained. The next section has Oroonoko and Imoinda reunited and meeting the narrator. The final section contains Oroonoko’s rebellion.

Specifically, the story is of Prince Oroonoko who is in love with Imoinda, the daughter of the King’s General. The King (his grandfather) is also in love with Imoinda and orders her to become one of his wives, despite her marriage to Oroonoko. Oroonoko and Imoinda sneak to meet and consummate their love. The King finds out and sells her into slavery, but he tells Oroonoko that she has been executed because death has more honor than being a slave. Oroonoko goes to war and is captured and sold into slavery. He ends up in Surinam, where Imoinda is. They are reunited. Imoinda becomes pregnant, and Oroonoko tries to get them released. When that fails, he leads a slave revolt. The slaves are conned into surrendering and then beaten. Oroonoko decides to kill the deputy governor who betrayed the slaves. He decides, though, that first he must kill Imoinda so that she will not suffer from his actions. Imoinda dies happily, but Oroonoko is stopped from committing suicide and instead publicly executed. The narrator then leaves Surinam to return to London.

The compilers of the 1001 Books list have this to say, “Behn’s extended short story gives a uniquely participatory role to the narrator, who is not only an ‘eye-witness’ to many of the events she recounts as ‘true history,’ but refers to herself as an actor in the story. As a female, however, she is unable to save Oroonoko from the ‘obscure world’ he has fallen into.” The description continues, “The result is an oddly skewed general uncertainty that is still profoundly affecting: exotic romance mixes with an accurate account of the slave trade and, in Surinam, the relations between the local Carib Indians, the English plantation owners, the slaves, and the Dutch. Historical, readerly, and authorial consciousness are here joined” (37).

My thoughts: I honestly, truly hate books in which the hero kills him/herself. I have huge problems with readers considering suicide heroic (which will have to be explored later). And though this character does not succeed in his suicide, he does succeed in killing his lover. I just don’t see that as romantic. It is far too reminiscent of a “Smith and Wesson divorce,” and I think there are special places in hell reserved for those perpetrators. Just because she was smiling when he killed her doesn’t mean it should have gone down that way. Clearly, this is a soapbox issue for me to be saved for another day.

It was nice, though, to read a female author with a female narrator from this pre-1700 category. They are, unfortunately, few and far between. Aphra Behn (1640-1649) was one of the first professional women writers in English history. She is more important for that fact and for her body of work (much drama and fiction often categorized as “amatory”–fiction by women for women in the late 1600s and early 1700s, a precursor to the romance genre) than she is for this short novel (or long short story). In fact, Virginia Woolf wrote about her in A Room of One’s Own: “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Her work, though, was important not just because she was female but because she wrote about women’s desire, a taboo topic. Much of history has dismissed her writing as indecent, but more recently critics have paid more attention. Feminists and Gay and Lesbian studies (she was reportedly bisexual and some of her work has at minimum homosocial references) have noted her positive notions of female desire. Evidently, she also has a kind of cult following.

And, evidently, she was a pretty fascinating woman. She made a trip to Venezuela in 1662 to visit an English sugar colony on the Suriname River where she supposedly met an African slaver who inspired Oroonoko. She also spent some years as a spy for King Charles II and spent time in a debtor’s prison because she wasn’t paid well. She sounds much more fascinating than this story suggests.

This portrait was of Aphra Behn was painted by Mary Beale, one of the most important 17th century portrait painters.

This is the last of the pre-1700 books! Yeah. Happy Reading.

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