Oroonoko, Not An Anti-Slavery Text Essay, Research Paper
Upon first reading Aphra Behn’s work Oroonoko, one might get the impression that this is an early example of antislavery literature that became so popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the short biography of Behn from the Norton Anthology of British Literature, we learn that Behn’s story had a great impact on those who fought against the slave- trade. Although the horrors of the slave trade are clearly brought forth, I do not feel Behn was using these images towards the antislavery cause. I think it is more likely that the images were merely devices used in her travel narrative of Oroonoko.
To see any negative view of the slave-trade, the reader must turn to the perspective of Oroonoko. Through him the reader sees how horrible the treatment of slaves is and how inhuman the slave-trade is. It might escape me, but I do not recall any moment in the story where the narrator takes its upon herself to discuss the slave trade. It seems that in that way that she is disconnecting herself from any responsibility.
One could immediately say that this is because of her position at the time. Behn, being a woman, faced many prejudices from male writers and critics, although she was praised by some. Yet the anthology introduction states that she openly signed her name and talked back to critics. If this is true why would she be afraid to take a more open stance towards the question of slavery. Why does the antislavery perspective have to come from a slave, someone who is obviously going to be antislavery and not that of someone with a higher rank in society whose feelings toward the issue would be more considered.
It is funny that even though the narrator is considered to be a member of the middle class in the colony, she separates herself from it when it comes to slavery. Because of her rank class in the plantation setting, it seems likely she would have had slaves but this is never mentioned. It seems weird that someone who would revere Oroonoko so highly, even higher than some of her fellow colonists, would feel right owning slaves. Of course this is only a guess based upon the brief description of the narrator given. Whenever the narrator mentions the relationship between the colonists and the slaves she does not include herself with the other colonists, she calls them “they”. “They” of course referring to the colonists. It seems by doing this she does not necessarily condemn the colonists’ actions, instead she says that she was simply not involved.
I also question Behn feelings toward slavery because of her descriptions of the relationships between slaves and masters. The dark side of slavery is obviously shown but does Behn also show a more friendly tone. If this was truly an antislavery piece as some would believe, why would she show what a good relationship Oroonoko has had with some of his masters and how enamored Trefry is with Clemene.
Another example of why Behn’s feelings towards slavery should be considered is another way the narrator uses her social status. The reader is told by the narrator that she has the power to save Oroonoko and yet she does not. Of course she could be intimidated by the other colonists but if she was truly strong in her convictions, this would not matter.
All these examples do is simply add to the confusion of Behn’s work. Her work can be construed as both antislavery and although not necessarily pro-slavery, not against it. What is important is that although it might not have been her initial goal she set forth a particular discourse in literature that had great impact on later anti-slavery writers.