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Book 5: Oroonoko

November 5, 2009

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Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn was written in 1688 and is considered by many to be the first English novel.  It also happens to be written by a woman and so she is considered to be the matriarch of the female English novelist.  Behn was also an accomplished playwright and I was surprised at how much recognition she received in her lifetime.

The story involves an African prince who falls in love with an epic beauty, but his grandfather, the king, follows suit and is granted the woman.  Oroonoko, the prince, tries to get her back but in doing so relinquishes her to the wrath of the king as she is sold into slavery.  Not long after, Oroonoko is tricked by an evil slave ship captain and sold to plantation owners in Suriname.

To go back a little.  Oroonoko, being a prince and having been afforded many opportunities, is the most cultured African you could imagine there to be at that time.  He is just as noble with his own people as he would be in the court of the English king.  He is loved by all and respected by his soldiers in battle.  He is elegant and handsome looking and is as charming as could be.

Anyway, he is sold in Suriname and immediately wins the hearts of the people, happens to find his true love again and has some happy times catching tigers and such, but still is saddened by having lost his freedom.  His beautiful wife catches the eye of the evil English governor and problems arise between the two men.  A slave rebellion ensues where Oroonoko gives in because he is told no harm will come to the slaves if they give up.  He, of course is lied to, and is whipped immensely.  I will not tell the end, but will say that this is a tragedy of epic proportions as a slave novel probably should be.

The female author aspect is interesting to me as men are not surprisingly the more dominant characters, but the women in the novel seem to act as courage for the hearts and minds of the men and witness to all the actions of the novel so as to tell their side of the story.  The novel itself is mostly told from the perspective of an English woman, some believe to be Behn, who happened to be in Suriname and close with Oroonoko.

I was surprised at how easily read the language is and how compelling the story.  It is as compelling as any Shakespeare but set in a totally alien setting.  Behn, apparently did work as a spy for the monarchy and spent much time abroad, so, in the Shakespeare vein, it seems as though the educational and social history of the author is called into question in order to verify why the writing is so damn good.

Behn was not necessarily anti slavery, but she definitely wrote an anti slavery novel.  I would be surprised if there were many who outright opposed slavery at the time.  I think many people were believers of human rights, even for so called mongrels or savages, but I think sovereignty and manifest destiny were strong in those days and the land grab for the new world caused quite a change in policy and thought.

Telling the story from an individual slave perspective is a strong way to arouse sympathy and most of us have read slave narrative.  But I think adding in the perspective of an English female narrator who proceeds with realistic contemporary caution when describing the actions at first, then shows little remorse once the English become the more savage of the two worlds, makes the book a scathing, upswelling, emotional novel of romance, seduction, betrayal and utmost tragedy.

I was very surprised how much I loved this book.  It is pretty much 70 or so pages and a quick read, 1 or 2 sittings at most.

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