Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
When Prince Oroonoko's passion for the virtuous Imoinda arouses the jealousy of his grandfather, the lovers are cast into slavery and transported from Africa to the colony of Surinam. Oroonoko's noble bearing soon wins the respect of his English captors, but his struggle for freedom brings about his destruction. Inspired by Aphra Behn's visit to Surinam, Oroonoko reflects the author's romantic view of native peoples as in 'the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin'. The novel also reveals Behn's ambiguous attitude to African slavery - while she favoured it as a means to strengthen England's rule, her powerful and moving work conveys its injustice and brutality.
Behn writes of Oroonoko, an African prince who is deceived, captured and sold into slavery along with many others. She meets him on a plantation some time later, and reports of his dazzling personality, and the nobility which emanates from him.
This nobility affects the whites so greatly that they treat Oroonoko as a novelty pet, rather than a slave. The normal toils of slavery are kept from him, and he’s permitted to live a life far more comfortable than his fellow Africans. This, at times, didn’t feel too realistic to me, and yet at other times the idea of the whites using the prince as a mode of entertainment and curiosity seemed to fit.
Of course, racism is abound throughout the pages, yet Behn seems to be confused in her conditioning. She mentions Oroonoko’s beauty in a surprised tone, as though beauty is something only the white can achieve. She describes him like a pin-up model - gorgeous flowing hair, and an uncanny Roman nose in contrast with the shapes of the other slave noses. But in other sections of the novella, she comments on scarification - something I imagine would be very alien and unsettling in Behn’s time - and describes this as artistically pleasing, curiously pretty, and accentuating the charm of the slaves.
Her finale is hard-hitting and utterly harrowing, coming out of a fairly tame account like a lingering demon. As the novella didn’t strike me as an anti-slavery piece, I can’t decide whether this ending was a commentary on slavery itself, or simply a point being made on the fall of nobility. Either way, it resonates, disgusts, and makes the story uncomfortably unforgettable.