The Two Oroonokos

By Suzanne Reffel

It is fascinating how the same story, told differently, can achieve two completely different purposes. One perfect example of this the tale of Oroonoko as told by Aphra Behn in her romantic novel Oroonoko, The Royal Slave or as told by Thomas Southerne in his play of the same name. Both stories recount the tragic tale of an African prince, Oroonoko who, is tricked into slavery in the Americas; Oroonoko resists this enslavement and leads a revolt but sadly fails and takes his own life. In Behn’s telling, the emphasis in this story is Oroonoko himself, as an unusually noble and civilized man; however, his noble qualities are still juxtaposed with the violent elements of his character emphasizing his humanness. However, in Southerne’s dramatic re-telling of Behn’s novel, Oroonoko is stripped of these violent acts and presented as utterly noble. In doing this, Southerne uses Oroonoko to shift the focus of his play and criticize the barbarism of European society.  Both tell the same story, but with a different focus and thus a different implication; Behn’s is an individual focus on an exceptionally unique man while Southerne’s expands to a wider societal critique.

Behn begins Oroonoko by clearly focusing the story on the man himself. She states that her purpose is simply to tell Oroonoko’s tale, declaring, “I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero … nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with accidents” (Behn 144). This ‘true’ account of Oroonoko’s life is Behn’s apparent objective and will prove to be her aim throughout the piece. This focal point on Oroonoko as an exceptional man begins with he through description of his skill in battle and outstanding physical characteristics. Behn asserts, “He became, at the age of seventeen, one of the most expert captains, and bravest soldiers, that ever saw the field of Mars … Besides, he was adorned with a native beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race, that he struck an awe and reverence, even in those who knew not his quality” (146).  Here Behn admits two things. She diminishes the Cormantien race as a lesser people from whom greatness is not expected. Then, she proceeds to elevate Oroonoko from that “gloomy race” to the pedestal of beauty and honor that he deserves. This fact is notable because it isolates Oroonoko in his greatness. Behn is not speaking to the character of the Africa or Cormantia; she is specifically praising and revering this exceptional individual. Behn extols his characteristics as “real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honor, the absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry” (146). This description could not be applied to just any man; Behn, through her narrative, lifts Oroonoko far above the ordinary so that the reader cannot help but focus all their attention on this individual and feel that there is some importance in his story. He is isolated from his society by his characteristics and he is also isolated by Behn’s account of his educational influences. According to Behn, he had a French tutor, sought the company of English gentlemen and traded with the Spaniards – learning both English and Spanish (146). This makes him unique to the point that Oroonoko doesn’t seem to fold into any one group. He is African in his birth and physical characteristics but is European in education, civility and character. This intentional isolation makes his nobleness even more outstanding – because he is a civilized individually rising from a supposed barbaric race. Another point that Behn highlights to this purpose is the fact the Oroonoko took Imoinda to be his only wife – “contrary to the customs of his country, he made her vows she would be the only woman he should possess while he lived” (148). Again this proposes the idea of Oroonoko as of a higher moral stock than barbaric Cormantia. He alone decides to disregard the immoral polygamy of his culture in favor of the cultured idea that one should only take one wife. Thus, by this description, Behn has intentionally groomed the reader’s image of Oroonoko as the civilized man among a savage origin. This idea continues to be enhanced throughout. Oroonoko articulates his honorable nature in a notable exchange with the captain. The dishonest captain tricks Oroonoko onto his ship and into slavery; Oroonoko questions his morals and makes the accusation that his Christian God’s name can’t be so great – since the captain doesn’t abide by it. Conversely, Oroonoko declares “‘I swear by my honor, which to violate, would render me contemptible and despised by all brave and honest men, and so give myself perpetual pain, but it would also be eternally offending and diseasing all mankind, harming, betraying, circumventing and outraging all men’” (159). For Oroonoko, word is bond, making him different than many characters in Behn’s novel (or in the Restoration period, for that matter). All of these narrative descriptions create a bond between Oroonoko and the reader; in the reader’s mind, he is elevated as a civilized character with an honorable nature. This focus on him as an exceptional man tightens the attention on Oroonoko and, thus, achieves Behn’s objective to make his story important to the reader.

Behn is careful to maintain the idea the Oroonoko, despite his nobleness, is still an imperfect human. This assertion is made by the fact that Oroonoko must sometimes be a man of barbaric violence. From the early pages of the novel, Oroonoko’s violent side is revealed when his father takes his bride, Imoinda. “This raised him to a storm, and in his madness they had much ado to save him from laying violent hands on himself. Force first prevailed, and then reason” (149). Behn states that, though Oroonoko is more civilized and posses the powers of reason, violence instead of rationality is often his instinctual reaction. Furthermore, he is described as being particularly earnest in these ventures of war. In one instance, Behn says, “he flew into the thickest of those that were pursuing his men, and being animated with despair, he fought as if he came on purpose to die, and did such things as will not be believed that human strength could perform” (157). Oroonoko, though civilized as Behn stated earlier, is capable of violent acts and brutality. Especially toward the end of the novel, Oroonoko is both treated more brutally and his actions become more violent as well. He leads a slave revolt and is whipped at the post until “almost fainting with loss of blood, from a thousand wounds all over his body,” and his tormentors “then rubbed his wounds, to complete their cruelty, with Indian pepper, which … made him so fast to the ground that he could not stir” (173).  Oroonoko suffers like a man and this provokes his humanly violent acts in response his offenders. His violent acts in the final moments of the novel spare nothing in their details of blood and gore. As the governor and his men prepare to hunt Oroonoko, he vows to kill all of them that he can; and then commits himself to killing his wife to preserve and protect her honor. After a declaration of their love, Imoinda “lays herself down, before the sacrificer, while he, with a hand resolved, and a heart breaking within, gave the final stroke, first cutting her throat, and then severing her, still smiling, face from that delicate body” (175). Then, as if this violent notion of killing one’s own wife isn’t terrible enough, eight days later, the hunting party finds Oroonoko, still by the body of his murdered wife. As they approach him, the violence continues; first, he cuts out a piece of his own throat and then horribly proceeds disembowels himself in front of them (176-7). In this situation, Oroonoko is blatantly violent in his actions against his wife and himself. This does not distract from his noble character but does stress the idea of Oroonoko as great while still fallibly human. This comes out even more harshly in his violence toward others at the end of the novel. John Wendell Dodds goes as far as to say that, “In the romance, [Behn’s] Oroonoko thirsts for English blood. ‘We were possess’d with extreme Fears … that he … would come down and cut all out Throats,’ said Mrs. Behn” (Dodds 135). This violent nature is fully exposed by the end of the novel; Oroonoko’s civil nature, that was so completely described at the beginning, is now juxtaposed with equal barbarity in his violence. This revelation of Oroonoko’s violent disposition does not lessen his greatness, however. Oroonoko’s civilized qualities combined with the violence to which he is forced both work together to elevate him even further. This makes the story of the life and violent death of this royal slave the focal point of Behn’s work. She concludes on this note saying, “Thus died a great man, worth of a better fate, and more sublime wit than mine to write his praise. Yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name survive to all ages” ( Behn 178).

Southerne, taking inspiration from Behn’s novel, accounts the same life of the same man, yet here Oroonoko takes on a different representation of character. Southerne’s Oroonoko, like Behn’s, is characterized by noble qualities of truth and honor. He is “a Prince every Inch of him,” declares the Captain (Southerne I, ii, p.14). Southerne’s Oroonoko too values truth in himself and others; he condemns the Captain here too for his falseness saying, “If you have any God that teaches you/ To break your Word, I need not curse you more: Let him cheat you, as you are false to me” (I, ii, p.15). On this point both Behn’s and Southerne’s Oroonokos are similar; they are both honorable men of truth. However, Southerne takes this honorable character and takes his honor to the extreme. This Oroonoko is much more romantically idealized. His honor in devotion to Imoinda is revealed in his spoken lines. Even when tempted by the idea of the beautiful slave Clemene (really Imoinda), Oroonoko declares his complete devotion to his wife saying,” I have a Heart: But if it could be false/ To my first Vows ever to love again,/ Those honest Hands shall tear it from my breast” (II, ii, p.28). To further this image, Southerne invents romantic speeches between Oroonoko and Imoinda during plot parts that were told completely by narration in Behn’s novel. Southerne goes on to highlight the nobleness of Oroonoko even more by his romantic devotion. There are two outstandingly romantic scenes in the play: when Oroonoko and Imoinda meet in Surinam and their final scene together before Oroonoko kills Imoinda. The two speak to each other in passionate exchanges of complete adoration. One clear example of this if Oroonoko’s reaction to seeing Imoinda again when he exclaims, “Imoinda! O! this Separation/ Has mad you dearer, if it can be so,/ Than you were ever to me. You appear/ Like a kind Star to my benighted Steps,/ To guide me on my way to Happiness” (II, iii, p. 33). Oroonoko’s goodness is elevated in Southerne’s play by this highly romanticized dialogue and Oroonoko’s talk of his honor.

Another aspect that Southerne adds to the play to enhance Oroonoko’s honorable nature is the contrast of the ignoble lovers in the subplot. In this plot, characters are seeking marriage partners but, here, money instead of love, is the anchor of marriage. These lovers match up for convenience, practicality, sex and societal reasons (everything by for love). According to Robert Gayle Noyes, “The comic subplot is a dull, typical Restoration love-intrigue, depending on disguise and substitution” (Noyes 81). The comic plot needs no outstanding elements because it is simply there to provide that contrast and elevate Oroonoko as more noble and good.

Finally, Southerne makes Oroonoko wholly honorable and noble by removing the brutality of violence that is so present in Behn’s novel. “Southerne’s hero is cut on grand proportions, but he rants less than Mrs. Behn’s Oroonoko, is less proud and violent, and much more pathetic” (Dodds 135). Oroonoko is calmer and more rational and much less involved in violent acts. One case in point is that, Oroonoko must be heavily persuaded before he agrees led the slave revolt. The character of Aboan spends pages arguing to justify the violent revolt and must finally resort to the threat that his unborn child will be born into slavery to provoke a semi-violent rise in Oroonoko (III, i, 40). Southerne also completely removes the gory violence in the deaths of Imoinda and Oroonoko. No one is decapitated, disemboweled, de-limbed or burned alive as in the novel. “Such violence was no part of Southerne’s plan, which called for pathos as well as the horror of death” (Dodds 137). Instead, every death is simplified and Imoinda, Oroonoko and the Governor meet with the short stab of a dagger. By making this choice, Southerne hopes to keep the focus completely on Oroonoko as flawlessly honorable. “It was necessary to purge the piece of the physical horror which might have titillates the senses, but which would have destroyed altogether the intended dramatic effect – that of tender, frustrated love, driven to the last extremity, descending nobly and pathetically to an inevitable tragic end” (Dodds 138). There is no overly violent action to distract from the completely noble nature of Oroonoko.

Southerne did all this because he aimed for a different purpose in his representation of Oroonoko. He hoped that by representing complete honor and nobility in Oroonoko, he could expose the corruption in English society and criticize that corruption. First, by giving up some of the fantastic circumstances and spectacular violence, Southerne makes the play seem closer to real life.  According to Dodds, “The play is a distinct advance over the novel in its hold on reality” (Dodds 138). This relatability allows Southerne’s version of Oroonoko to be more pointed mirror to society. Then, the extreme nature of Oroonoko’s goodness provides a clear example of that towards which Southerne wanted his society to aspire. No where is this message clearer than in the last lines of the final scene. Oroonoko’s civil master, Blandford speaks of Oroonoko saying,

“I hope there is a Place of Happiness

In the next World for such exalted Virtue.

Pagan or Unbeliever, yet he liv’d

To all he knew: And if he weny astray,

There’s Mercy still above to set him right.

But Christians guided by te Heav’nly Ray

Have no Excuse if we mistake our Way” (V, the last, 80).

There is no doubt in Southerne’s intended message. Having presented the character of Oroonoko, who was so noble and good despite having been born a savage with no religious upbringing, Southerne turns on his audience and their faults of character. He argues that they should be held to a higher standard because of their religion should govern their morals – yet they still clearly fall short of the noble character of Oroonoko. Southerne makes his point well and uses the story of Oroonoko to serve his purpose, but to do this, he must eliminate much of the violence that could taint Oroonoko and thus would weaken his condemnation of character of English society.

Behn and Southerne both operate the story of Oroonoko to his/her advantage in his/her purpose. Behn’s Oroonoko has a primary focus of telling this story of an imperfect man who became extraordinary by his noble and honorable character. Southerne’s Oroonoko uses the tragedy of the royal slave to show how noble a man may even without the advantages of a civilized, religious upbringing, and then to use this story to criticize the slipping moral standards he sees in his society. Both are successful uses of the story though each depicts a slightly different Oroonoko. Both account the story of the noble, royal slave, Oroonoko; in both methods of telling, Oroonoko’s essence is preserved and his honorable character is something to which the readers of his story will want to aspire.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave. A True History.” Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Don Le Pan. Broadview Press, 2006. (144-178). Print.

Dodds, John Wendell. Thomas Southerne Dramatist. Archon Books, 1933. Print.

Noyes, Robert Gale. The Neglected Muse: Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Tragedy in the Novel. XXIV. Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1958. Print.

Southerne, Thomas. Oroonoko: A Tragedy. 4th ed, corrected. 1793. Print.

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