Throughout Oronooko, particularly in this passage, Aphra Behn focuses on identity in both specific characters, such as Oroonoko and Imoinda, and collective terms, such as “Whites” and “Negroes.” In this way, she examines the various aspects of identity, particularly the personal and cultural. Additionally, she underscores the distinctions between man and beast in relation to human identity by exploring their respective definitions. Finally, Behn posits identity as a malleable concept, which changes with context and other external influences.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, identity is “who or what a person or thing is…a set of characteristics or a description that distinguishes a person or thing from others.” The latter definition implies that an individual must distinguish himself or herself from the collective in order to possess identity. By this definition, Oroonoko is an individual with identity. In the passage, the narrator associates him with the word “great” four times, placing him above his fellow slaves and recalling an empiric ideal, Alexander the Great (51-53). The narrator further estranges Oroonoko from the slaves by providing additional context. She reminds the readers that Oroonoko does not live in the “Negro Houses,” largely because even the English males view him as exceptional, capable of inciting revolt (52). Similarly, the indentured servants spy on him and no one else. Unlike the others in his position, Oroonoko possesses the resources for a “great Treat,” including “Musick,” (52). Here, he displays some of his former grandeur. When he deigns to eat among the other slaves, he “Feast[s],” reinforcing his grandness. However, as in his introduction, when the narrator endorses his more European features, here his glory comes not from his African heritage as Oroonoko, but from the allowances afforded to Caesar by the British Empire. In fact, Oroonoko is only referred to as Caesar in the passage. Notably, the narrator endorses this Anglicized individual while she neglects the Coramantien collective.
Behn presents an opposing perspective through Oroonoko himself. Particularly in the supposedly quoted parts of his speech, he emphasizes his fellowship with the Coramantien collective and distances himself from the “unknown,” British collective (50). He calls his compatriots “Fellow-sufferers” and repeatedly uses “we” to foster camaraderie (50). Furthermore, he says, “my dear Friends,” wielding the possessive to claim the other slaves as his peers, specifically (52). His later use of the pronoun “you” uniquely engages both the individuals and collective before him (52). In this way, he unifies the group and later gains their unanimous sympathy when they “all” respond with “one accord,” (53).
Still, regardless of whether the elevated, heroic diction employed comes from Oroonoko or the narrator, Behn uses it to distinguish him anew. He purportedly expresses the majority of the slaves’ grievances in extremes, not troubles,...