APHRA portrayal; they are ‘gods of the rivers’
APHRA BEHN’S OROONOKO The rise of the novel occurred at the time Oroonoko was written in the late 17th century. Its form literally means ‘new’ which parallels to the description of the natives that are strange to Behn’s readers. Here the discourse of romance is employed which occupied most early forms of novels. She idealizes their lifestyle through her exotic portrayal; they are ‘gods of the rivers’ and their skills depicted as ‘so rare an art’ and ‘admirable’.The amount of intricate detail builds up a clear image and engages sympathies for the readers, who were unlikely to have encountered them before. This Edenic picture of life within nature reflects their innocence before they are corrupted by colonialism; Behn even compares them to Adam and Eve before the fall earlier in the novel.
However it could be said this description puts them on show because they are so different, distancing them from the reader. Behn further separates the natives by changing discourses to an economic description of commerce with the African slaves.Matters of how to ‘bargain with a master’ and ‘contract to pay him so much apiece’ are far from literary and appear to be aimed directly at colonists who want to trade themselves, with second person pronouns ‘you are obliged to be contented with your lot’. This juxtaposition of discourses further emphasizes the simplistic lifestyle of the natives contrasted against the forward, industrial actions of the European colonizers.
These contrasting discourses are therefore one way of representing the underlying tensions between the natives and settlers.There are further issues concerning whether the narrator is Behn herself as she did have experience in travelling to Surinam. The use of first person achieves an intimate and conversational tone with interjections ‘as I said’ and ‘as he did into me’.
These personal insertions and colloquial terms like ‘em’ for ‘them’, draw interest to the storytelling which increases authenticity, important for a novelist who wanted to assert her credibility against male writers.The extensive detail when describing the natives reads like a journalistic diary entry, and so this style implying she witnessed these events firsthand confuses what is fact and fiction for the reader, alongside the contradictory discourses. Whilst at first the innocent description from the narrator merely depicts a lifestyle and relationship of ‘perfect tranquility’, it becomes apparent that the colonizers need the natives for their own trading purposes. The natives hunting skills provide the settlers with a food supply ‘tis impossible for us to get’ in exchange for ‘unvaluable trifles’. The natives have no desire for commodities.
Therefore what seems like praise and admiration only masks the fact that their skills are ‘useful’ and for that reason it is ‘necessary to caress ‘em as friends’. The word ‘caress’ conveys an affectionate action but with sinister undertones. It is suggested that the only reason they aren’t treated like slaves is because ‘their numbers so far surpassing ours in that continent’; without their hunting skills the dynamics of their relationship are questionable. As a white British citizen, the narrator has no strong protestation to this relationship, especially for the trading of slaves.
Her use of language subtly alienates the groups further.When referring to the Indians and Africans she uses pronouns ‘they’ ‘them’ and ‘their’, contrasted against ‘us’, ‘we’ and ‘our’ for the colonizers, including herself in this group. The terms ‘that world’ and ‘our world’ emphasize the scale of difference between life in Coramantien and Surinam, to express the level of ‘surprise and wonder’ Oroonoko brings with him, reinforcing the notion of the ‘other’. A further argument suggests that the Indians’ position in commerce is determined by their innate natures instead of colonialist need; they are naturalized through Behn’s rhetoric comparing them to animals.
In particular the metaphor they ‘supply the parts of hounds’, cleverly connects them to animals familiar to Europeans. This dehumanization places the natives below and thus inferior to the colonizers and narrator. With the African ‘negroes’, they are portrayed as natural slaves, mostly won in battle including ‘those common men who could not ransom themselves’ and the narrator has no objection to this. However the Africans are also presented as aesthetically inferior. She states that ‘there are Beauties that can charm of this colour’ as if the general opinion believes otherwise.Oroonoko has a ‘native beauty’ and is placed above his ‘gloomy race’; the word ‘gloomy’ has double negative connotations relating to mood and colour.
Later in the novel Oroonoko’s beauty is depicted as being weakened by his colour; it is his European features and qualities that make him attractive and therefore endear him to Behn’s readers who might find an African protagonist too barbaric. She utilizes the Roman classical reference to the God of War that he is ‘the bravest of soldiers, as ever saw the field of Mars’, this metaphor further emphasizes that these Eurocentric perceptions and qualities make him heroic.In addition, returning to the discourse of heroic romance is a convention most suited to introducing Oroonoko as charming to the aristocratic readers. The events are filtered through a female perspective, and we could argue that Behn’s writing makes colonialism appear attractive this way. Oroonoko is a romantic hero and expression of female sensibility.
The narrator describes him as beautiful, a ‘darling’ and so the events and language are highly feminized, possibly gendered for a female audience with an underlying sexual desire from the narrator.Furthermore he is a noble ‘gallant’ soldier, and the grandson of courtly figure The King of Coramentien. Behn was a royalist herself and had high praise for the late monarch Charles 1. The narrator describes Oroonoko as royal throughout the novel; therefore Behn could be enforcing her own views on society. He is a ‘wonder’ viewed with ‘awe and reverence’.
In this period ‘wonder was closely related to truth’ and so this discourse not only heightens authenticity but enables the reader to ‘overcome contemporary social views and failings’.It is evident that this extract contains many contradictions. The varying discourses, position of the narrator and the language used serves to represent the conflicting relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, demonstrating a putative superiority of Europeans and the notion of the inferior ‘other’. ——————————————– 1 . Vernon Guy Dickson, ‘Truth, Wonder, and Examplarity in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 47.
3 (2007) 573-594 (p. 577).