The Powerful Theme of Self-Sacrificial Death with Honor
in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko
Art Madsen, M.Ed.
Behn’s novel Oroonoko recounts in extremely realistic terms and strong emotions the story of a West African prince betrayed into slavery in Surinam on the northern Coast of South America in the 17th Century. This novel, written and narrated, in fact, by a strong willed and quite intelligent woman, definitely influenced the development of English literature and is considered significant by modern critics for several reasons. Namely, it presents the character of the “noble savage” for the first time and speaks out vociferously against colonialism. Also, by virtue of its realism and its thematic content, it is often thought to be the first English “philosophical novel.” But these facts are well known. What I elect to focus on deals with the dichotomy of Oroonoko’s origins and the ways in which this led to his self-imposed death and the death of his beloved Imoinda.
I would like to assert that Oroonoko's dual status as both a prince and a slave causes his death, while the narrator's strange ability to identify herself with both the powerful and the powerless sectors of society seems to permit her to avoid personal responsibility for his death. At the same time, she takes credit, ironically, for widely publicizing his story. She implies that the ideologies of European culture are really what are being called into question here, on a deeper level.
In Behn’s story, the Whites' approach to Oroonoko demonstrates that, in spite of being the dominant power in Surinam, they acknowledge his ability to lead his people and to disrupt the conveniently exploitative nature of their world. The reader is dismayed to learn that, even the narrator (presumably Behn herself), who praises Oroonoko and seems to guarantee him his freedom, actually took measures to restrict his freedom and ensured that he was monitored. Indeed, the way that Europeans, in this story, treat slaves is based on two concepts: primarily on fear and, secondarily, on the assumption that Europeans are innately superior and that they have the God-given right to force their authority and culture onto those they view as savages.
Keeping this in mind and in order to lead up to the dramatic death sequence, it is important to analyze the psychodynamics of Oroonoko’s situation. He arrives as a stranger and a foreigner to the colonial system. He is granted some respect because of his former position in his native country where he was a prince and, moreover, a great warrior. Yet, he is now a slave, in Surinam, and, as such, bears the shame and indignity of not being a free man. As an outsider from a very different culture, Oroonoko can see the “truth” of the colonial system to which he does not belong. The reader sees that he sees it, too, through Behn’s spellbinding narrative approach.
We need to realize that, before traveling to Surinam, Oroonoko had learned to respect Western culture from his French tutor; but, at the time of Behn’s contact with him, he is disappointed to have discovered that the high-sounding concepts of justice and honor that he had heard about in his earlier schooling did not, in reality, exist. In fact, in Surinam, the concepts of justice and honor were no more than a thin veil to conceal White men's deceit and dishonesty. All of this led to Oroonoko’s hatred of the slave-based economy of Surinam and of his subservient position within it.
Because his fellow slaves recognized Oronooko’s courage and insight, when he tried to stage a revolt among the slaves, they were willing to follow him and he was able to produce real fear in the colonists. Events unravel at this point and the heroism of which Oroonoko was capable becomes apparent to the reader.
Basically, Oroonoko opts for death for both himself and his beautiful Imoinda, rather than let his child be born as a slave. Only through death, can the problems that this illustrious couple caused by being beautiful and princely be finally and eternally settled. Oroonoko literally defiles his wife's body, and he himself is sliced into pieces and his cadaver is strung up as a lesson to other slaves. But, both the narrator and the reader, are definitely aware that Oroonoko’s death was far more significant than a mere “lesson”, and that its implications ring out over the ages in horror of the injustices imposed upon him and his people. His was clearly a self-sacrificial death with honor.