Oroonoko By Aphra Behn In Aphra Behns Oroonoko, the author expresses her views on a African American slave openly and passionately, which in the Seventeenth century was unsuited for a person , let alone a woman, to do. By establishing the story from a first person account there becomes a juxtaposition of both author and character. By doing so the reader is able to feel more passion and anguish towards Oroonoko rather than through some fictional fable. Throughout the story Behn is also taking a stand for womens freedom of writing. Not only is she presenting facts based on an African American, she is taking the utmost liberty and honor in doing so, and in turn she is able to convince the readers of her time that Oroonoko is more than just a slave; he is a tragic hero. Aphra Behn gives herself the authority to write about the life of a slave, Oroonoko, due to her encounters with him and hearing from Oroonoko himself the story of his life.
Behn establishes her authority within the opening lines and reminds her audience of her position as narrator by mentioning her personal role in the story. In the first few lines, Behn establishes her authority, “I was myself an eyewitness to a great part of what you will find here set down, and what I could not be witness of, I received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, who gave us the whole transactions of his youth…” (Demaria Jr. 421) In this passage, Behn’s portrays the authority of her subject matter. She uses first person perspective and declares that she was indeed a personal acquaintance of Oroonoko himself and received from him his life story. For the rest of Oroonoko’s story, Behn was herself, “an eyewitness”.
This passage also clarifies that the author and narrator are one entity. Behn acknowledges that it is she who writes this story, through her own narration. In other words, the narrator is not only a character of the story, but the authoritative author. Behn proves herself to be a reliable source for the writing of Oroonoko due to the utmost respect she has for him as well as the trust he had for her. She praises his goodness while revealing turbulent times for the Prince that she had witnessed.
Throughout the first half of the story, Behn maintains an air of authority through various devices. She speaks to her readers almost as if in an informal conversation, using contractions such as “’em”. Behn also frequently uses asides such as in the following, “There is a certain ceremony in these cases to be observed, which I forgot to ask him how performed; but ’twas concluded on both sides that, in obedience to him..” There is a certain authority to be felt when one relays a personal story, even though they themselves may not be the principle character. This is exactly what Behn does. She draws her readers into an intimate account of a personal story. To strengthen her position, Behn’s account is wrought with detail.
One would assume that the readers of her time would be quite unfamiliar with her subject matter, so she seeks to enlighten with descriptions of detail. In other words, the narrator is not a character of the story, but the authoritative author. The reader is able to trust Behn’s story as reliable since she was present for a majority of his life and talks of how she perceived him as well as how others treated him. The reader is guaranteed Behn’s sincerity and honesty in writing the story when she declares ” . . . and do assure my reader the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind, a judgement more solid, a wit more quick, and a conversation more sweet and diverting.” (Demaria Jr.
424) Behn is not only captivated by the genuine and rare characteristics of his inner beauty, but his outer beauty as well and goes into detail of his handsome figure and beautiful facial features and the fine color of his skin. Around the time she wrote the story, it might not have been accepted by some people for a Caucasian women to admire the beauty of an African man and tell people about it. Behn takes a risk and therefore earns more of her readers’ confidence that she is revealing as accurate an account for his life as she can. One would assume that the readers of her time would be quite unfamiliar with her subject matter, so she seeks to enlighten with descriptions of detail. For example, Behn describes Oroonoko, “He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied. The most famous statuary could not form the figure… His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony or polished jet.
His eyes were the most awful that could be seen, and very piercing, the white of ’em being like snow, as were his teeth. His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen..” (Demaria Jr. 425) Without the minute detail provided by Behn, her readers could not have such a clear picture, but because she was there, she has taken it upon herself to provide her audience with a clear image. The passage resonates with an air of oral tradition when the storyteller held authority over the story being told and action was enhanced by detail. Behn also takes (what in 1688 would be considered liberty) to make a statement about Christianity by comparing Oroonoko’s morality with that of Christian men.
“For the captain had protested to him upon the word of a Christian, and sworn in the name of a great God, which he should violate, he would expect eternal torment in the world to come.” Behn then includes Oroonoko’s retort, “Let him know I swear by my honor; which to violate, would not only render me contemptible and despised by all brave and honest men..” Through Behn’s depiction of the two men, the captain and Oroonoko, she expresses the contrasting moral values, thus making a strong point about her own culture. As the author and narrator, she exercises her authority to do so, making simultaneously, a point about her position of authority. Had she not been able to represent, in herself, a position of authority, she would (possibly) not have taken such a stance. The Prince was the kind of man who is not only worthy of writing about, but also defending. When Oroonoko was seventeen years old, fighting in a battle, the General stepped in front of him when he saw an arrow racing towards Oroonoko.
Wishing Oroonoko to live over himself shows how much honor and loyalty the general had to risk his life for Oroonoko. Time and again Oroonoko proves victorious in battles and displays his character on the field. In one particular battle, he has hurt the enemy’s leader badly and captures him, then becomes good friends with him. Some leaders might have killed the enemy’s leader and that would not have been questioned; yet, Oroonoko cares for his enemy by letting him live and giving him a gift of close friendship. If Oroonoko’s enemies can trust him, the reader can be assured that the accounts he told to Behn of his life are true.
Throughout Behn’s story we are told of incidences that assure the reader that Oroonoko is a leader worth knowing about because there are few like him in the world. Behn also shows what type of a person Oroonoko is when she shows what happens when everything in Oroonokos life takes a turn for the worst. After Oroonoko was betrayed into slavery and was chosen by an owner, he tells his betrayer that he has learned a lot from him. Instead of feeling hatred toward him, Oroonoko tells him how he is better off knowing what kind of a person he really is. Only great person such as Oroonoko could speak that way to such an evil man, so in turn Behn admires Oroonoko even more. One of the greatest displays of the quality traits that Behn admires in Oroonoko comes through with his lasting loyalty to his only love Imoinda. Even after his grandfather raped her, he still thought of her as pure, and took her back, not wanting any other lady.
Even after he was told that she died, he grieved for her and could not move on to another lady. Oroonoko had not loved a lady before Imoinda and could not after her-showing his true love and faithfulness to her and her memory. Being rewarded, the two unite again and Oroonoko does not mind being a slave with Imoinda. Through Behns account and graphic detail of Oroonokos life, she earns the right as a woman to write about and praise Oroonoko for his greatness. In the closing lines of her story, Behn concedes that she, “by the reputation of her pen” has the authority to convey such a story.
Behn not only acknowledges her authority of Oroonoko’s story, but her own greatness as author as well. And by being overwhelmed by Oroonoko’s life, Behn takes the privilege to inform us about who she and the others around her viewed as a Hero.