This is a novel and an author I had never heard of before and not something I would typically have picked up to read out of my own desire. A friend of mine, Mary Sue, who is a graduate student in Literature at New York University, sent me an email asking me about the Eucharist because she thought it played a role in this novel. Mary Sue is not Catholic, and apparently Aphra Behn may have been, or at least had Catholic sympathies during the English Restoration period. The hero of the novel, Oroonoko, an enslaved African Prince, at his downfall starts cutting off his flesh to hand out, and this perhaps could be a literal allusion to the Christ’s exhortation to consume His body.
Well, I pointed Mary Sue to John Chapter 6 and a few books on the theology and history of the Eucharist, but the penetrating image of a man cutting off his flesh for others was so captivating that I had to read the novel for myself. The novel is only around a hundred pages, so it wasn’t going to be a burden to find the time. So I first read up on Aphra Behn and this novel and the time period.
Let me summarize it before getting to the novel.
AphraBehn—born Aphra Johnson—lived from 1640 to 1689, which was at the beginning of the English Civil War and then lived through the reign of the restored Stuart monarchy in the persons of Kings Charles II and James II. Behn died just after the deposition of James II and the installation of William and Mary of Orange in what has come to be known as the Glorious Revolution.
It is surmised that Behn was Catholic, but I could not find anything definitive. She certainly had royalist sympathies when it came to the monarchy versus parliamentary conflicts. At this time, England had a solid Protestant majority, so Behn, if she were Catholic, she would have been in a minority. It’s also in the realm of possibility (probably likely) that Behn was Protestant, and that in the political polarity of her day she sided with the monarchy.
Pertinent also to understanding the novel I think is the fact that Behn is a woman. Indeed, some of the fascination with her writing today seems to be that she is viewed as a proto-feminist. Behn is attributed to be the first professional woman writer in England, and Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned the right to speak their minds.” There are some strong female characters in Oroonoko, but it is still a male dominated story.
It’s an interesting novel. It’s only a hundred pages or so, and so the epic scale of the central character belies the brief narrative length. It’s bi-furcated in that the African section seems somewhat dislocated from the Surinam section. Still the central character holds the sections together credibly.
Historically she’s a generation before Daniel Defoe. I can’t place her literary models. The early sections seem like a woman’s amatory novel, the African battle recalls The Iliad, and the Surinam section recalls a slave narrative. The strength of the novel comes from Behn’s narrative voice, which makes the scenes credible and vivid, and on the character of Oronooko, who is grand, noble, and epic.
Note. All quotes are taken from Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, the Rover and Other Works (Penguin Classics). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Description of Surinam and its people, and a description of Oronooko when the narrator first meets him.
Oronooko falls in love with Imoinda, but the old king takes Imoinda for his concubine.
The old king tells Imoinda that Oroonoko no longer has interest in her; she resolves to settle as a concubine. But when Oronooko visits the court and the two meet, their passion is resumed. When the king finds the two in an embrace he explodes in anger and determines to send Oronnoko away to battle. But Oronooko with the help of his aid Aboan and another of the king’s concubines, Onahal, is able to meet with Imoinda for an hour of love.
-This becomes a woman’s amatory novel and one of court romance.
Oronooko barely escapes Imoinda’s bedroom, and when the king discovers what has occurred sells Imoinda and Onahal into slavery. With Oroonoko off to battle, the king sends a messenger to Oronooko to tell him Imoinda has been killed, though in reality she has been sold. Oronooko refuses to fight but when his comrades are losing the battle, being pushed back to the camp, Oronoonko suits up and turns the tide to his side. –Very much like Achilles in the Iliad.
With Oronooko victorius, he is held in high esteem again at court, and in selling the captured enemy over to some English ship Captain, he and his noble men are tricked onto the ship and captured as slaves themselves. When the Captain gives his word as a “Christian” to let Oronooko free at first opportunity so that Oroonoko would not kill himself, Oronooko acknowledges and returns his sincerity on his honor. The Captain’s “Christian” word turns out to be false, and on landing in Surinam Oronooko and his men are sold into slavery.
The narrator from Part I resumes first person narration. The owner who bought Oronooko was a man named Trefry, who acted in the region in lieu of the Governor. Trefry, noticing the nobility, intelligence, and learning in Oronooko raised him to a level above a common slave, and named him Caesar. Trefry told Oronooko of an equally noble female slave called Clemene, and when Oronooko met her he fell into her arms and it turned out to be Imoinda. –Here we are told of Oronooko’s divine kingship.
We are told of several exploits Oronooko performs in Surinam, such as the killing of wild tigers and touching of electric eels.
The narrator takes a trip into the Indian towns where despite the threat of violence from the Indians against the English, they interact and learn of their customs. Caesar (Oronooko) served as a protector, and he was able to build a relationship with the Indian, even establishing trade. Shortly after Oronooko, with Imoinda pregnant and the English diverted, gathered up the black slaves and made a passionate appeal to seek freedom. They all agreed. –This is where the plot turns toward the climax.
Caesar (Oronooko) takes his band of slaves toward the coast but the owners pull together an army and confront them. They tell the bulk of the slaves to abandon Caesar and no harm will come to them, and all do except his deputy, Tuscan, and Imoinda. The three put up a gallant fight, but Byam, the Surinam Governor, pledges amnesty if they will cease, and Caesar concedes. But this is just another lie, and so Oronooko is taken, shackled, and whipped. –Here we see what can only be described as a parallel to Christ’s Passion: betrayal, imprisonment, and scourging.
Trefry takes authority over Byam, citing the plantation as a sanctuary from the governor. He gives aid to Caesar (Oronooko), allowing him to recover. Once recovered, Caesar decides to take revenge against those who shamefully whipped him. Realizing he will die from this exploit, and further realizing that it would leave Imoinda open to rape and disgrace, he comes to the conclusion he must kill her to save her from this ignominy. He takes her into a wooded area, and tells her of his plan and she agrees that she too must die from his hand. In tears he kills her with a knife and decapitates her. He is taken ill from the grief but when he finally recovers escapes the plantation. A search party confronts him and to show his lack of fear he cut a piece of his flesh off and threw it at them. When he feels his body weaken, he realizes he could not win in a fight and so disembowels himself in a suicide attempt. Tuscan rescues the dying Caesar, and taken back is sewed up by a surgeon. While Caesar is recovering, Byam lured Trefry away so that a Major Bannister could forcibly take Caesar to the whipping post. There, given a pipe to smoke, Caesar is hacked to pieces, cutting off his “members,” ears, nose, arms until he finally dies. Afterward Caesar’s body is quartered and posted for spectacle. –This dismembering and severing of Caesar is a sort of (1) crucifixion and (2) equating to the hung, drawn, and quartering of English practice.
Frances Lord Willoughby – Granted propriety rights of the English colony in Surinam by King Charles II.
William Byam – Appointed Governor Surinam by Willoughby.
Major James Bannister – Underling to Governor Byam.
John Treffry – Willoughby’s appointed agent for managing his plantation on Surinam.
The above ae all in a chain of command linked to King Charles II, and therefore all Royalists.
George Marten – Plantation owner and brother to the Oliverian George Marten, presumably a Parlimentarian.
I'll start providing my thoughts on the various themes in my next post on Oronooko.