Subtle Criticism In Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

1424 words - 6 pages

Subtle Criticism in Oroonoko  

In reading Oroonoko it might be easy to miss the criticism offered against the European culture. Upon studying the novel however, this criticism which had been presented subtly becomes quite clear. An important note is that the author and the narrator are not in fact the same. Although the author is out to provide a criticism of European culture and values, she is reluctant to let it come through the narrator. This critique comes through mainly in less direct forms, through her non-European characters, most often Oroonoko, and through comparisons between cultures and the characters encountered in each.

As a female writer trying to earn a living, and as the narrator of the story represented herself, Behn couldn't have the narrator offer too strong a criticism for fear of losing her audience. The narrator is presented as very European. She is very ethnocentric and seems to have no problem with the slave trade, only with the treatment of one specific individual (namely, Oroonoko). Occasionally, however, there will be a slip, a slight inconsistency in the narrators character, which offers a glimpse of Behn's true sentiments. For example, throughout the novel, the narrator is a strong believer in religion. She tells Imoinda ". . . Stories of Nuns and endeavour[s] to bring her to the knowledge of the true God."(41). She also tries to defend Christianity to an unbelieving Caesar. When discussing the natives of Surinam, however, she mentions that ". . . all the Inventions of Man . . . wou'd here but destroy that Tranquillity . . . and . . . wou'd teach ‘em [the natives] to know Offence . . . "(10). The first thing she includes as an "Invention of Man" is religion, implying that it is not essentially real. This seems to support the idea that the author and narrator are not in fact one and that Behn truly does intend to provide the criticisms found within the novel.

The most blatant criticism comes from Oroonoko, who offers an outsider's opinion of the slave trade and more frequently those who are responsible for it. These criticisms become more and more frequent and pointed as Oroonoko is continually subjected to European dominance. The first instance we see of this is when Oroonoko is taken prisoner on the English ship. When the captain says he is keeping Oroonoko in chains because he can't be trusted if he doesn't swear by the same God, Oroonoko replies that "He [is] very sorry to hear that the Captain pretend[s] to the Knowledge and Worship of any Gods, who ha[ve] taught him no better Principles . . . "(32) Further on when rallying the other Slaves for the revolt he asks them:

Have they [the Europeans] Vanquish'd us Nobly in Fight? Have they Won us in Honorable Battle? And are we, by the chance of War, become their Slaves? This would not anger a Noble Heart, this would not animate a Souldiers Soul; no, but we are Bought and Sold like Apes or Monkeys . . . (52)

He calls into question just what right...

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