1001 Reads

Regularly updated blog charting the most important novels of the last 2000 and something years

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

21. Aphra Behn - Oroonoko (1688)

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Francisco: Ok I disliked this book, in fact I profoundly disliked it. Not that there aren't any redeeming factors to it, it is the first English novel set in the Americas and the hero is actually a black slave. This would be a good thing if the book was in any way against slavery which it isn't. The book is basically a apology of class division, it is wrong for Oroonoko to be a slave because he is a king, not because he is a human being.

Aphra Behn was a commited royalist and defended an existence of an innefable quality of nobility which was shared by all those of noble blood and therefore Oroonoko. It is in fact an inherently racist book. Behn's description of Oroonoko shows a woman debating between her racism and her sexual attraction more than anything. She reaches the conclusion that Oroonoko is beautiful because all his features are those of a white man, his hair is straight and it is unfortunate but alluring that he is black.

And don't talk to me about plot, the events that lead to the tragic end of the story only start about 10 pages from the end! The rest of the book is spent with platitudes and fawning over Oroonoko and his lover. Really would be better off doing something else.

Vanda: I don't understand how this book is upheld so much as a paragon of anti-racism, or woman's writing, for that matter. It manages to fail spectacularly at both, and be dull and irritating at the same time.

Now, I don't say that Behn was particularly racist - she didn't really go out of her way to write racist prose; I just think that she didn't object at all to the status quo of her time, which, if we stop being post-modern about this, we can accept and move along to examine the book as a whole. She was as racist as most of her comtemporaries, I would say, though there certainly were people at the time who would deserve her status of aforementioned paragon I had mentioned before. Moving along.

I also feel a bit embarassed when this is sold and applauded as an example of female prose. I understand the overcompensating that comes with equal opportunities, but for God's sake, this is a terrible book. I just read Princesse de Cléves! That was a good example! Oh, is it because it's not British? Is that it?

Behn as a narrator is self-centered, dull and annoying. It's all about her, her experiences, and how charming she is. This book might be important, but if you read it, read it only because of that.

Final Grade

Francisco: 4/10
Vanda: 3/10


From Wikipedia:

The colony of Surinam began importing slaves in the 1650s, since there were not enough indentured servants coming from England for the labor-intensive sugar cane production. In 1662, the Duke of York got a commission to supply 3,000 slaves to the Caribbean, and Lord Willoughby was also a slave trader. For the most part, English slavers dealt with slave-takers in Africa and rarely captured slaves themselves. The story of Oroonoko's abduction is plausible, for such raids did take place, but English slave traders avoided them where possible for fear of accidentally capturing a person who would anger the friendly groups on the coast. Most of the slaves came from the Gold Coast, and in particular from modern-day Ghana.

According to biographer Janet Todd, Behn did not oppose slavery per se. She accepted the idea that powerful groups would enslave the powerless, and she would have grown up with Oriental tales of "The Turk" taking European slaves. The most likely candidate for Aphra Behn's husband is Johan Behn, who sailed on The King David from the German imperial free city of Hamburg. This Johan Behn was a slaver whose residence in London later was probably a result of acting as a mercantile cover for Dutch trade with the English colonies under a false flag. Had Aphra Behn been opposed to slavery as an institution, it is not very likely that she would have married a slave trader. At the same time, it is fairly clear that she was not happy in marriage, and Oroonoko, written twenty years after the death of her husband, has, among its cast of characters, no one more evil than the slave ship captain who tricks and captures Oroonoko.

Todd is probably correct in saying that Aphra Behn did not set out to protest slavery, but however tepid her feelings about slavery, there is no doubt about her feelings on the subject of natural kingship. The final words of the novel are a slight expiation of the narrator's guilt, but it is for the individual man she mourns and for the individual that she writes a tribute, and she lodges no protest over slavery itself. A natural king could not be enslaved, and, as in the play Behn wrote while in Surinam, The Young King, no land could prosper without a king. Her fictional Surinam is a headless body. Without a true and natural leader, a king, the feeble and corrupt men of position abuse their power. What was missing was Lord Willoughby, or the narrator's father: a true lord. In the absence of such leadership, a true king, Oroonoko, is misjudged, mistreated, and killed.

One potential motive for the novel, or at least one political inspiration, was Behn's view that Surinam was a fruitful and potentially wealthy settlement that needed only a true noble to lead it. Like others sent to investigate the colony, she felt that Charles was not properly informed of the place's potential. When Charles gave up Surinam in 1667 with the Treaty of Breda, Behn was dismayed. This dismay is enacted in the novel in a graphic fashion: if the English, with their aristocracy, mismanaged the colony and the slaves by having an insufficiently noble ruler there, then the democratic and mercantile Dutch would be far worse. Accordingly, the passionate misrule of Byam is replaced by the efficient and immoral management of the Dutch. Charles had a strategy for a united North American presence, however, and his gaining of New Amsterdam for Surinam was part of that larger vision. Neither Charles II nor Aphra Behn could have known how correct Charles's bargain was, but Oroonoko can be seen as a royalist's demurral.


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