This extract, from Aphra Behn’s controversial Oroonoko, presents the prince’s reaction to his capture after a slave uprising is foiled and he is apprehended. Since Behn is writing in a third person narrative, something which can be limiting, I will be discussing the way in which in she exposes his mental agony through use of linguistic devices, punctuation and structure. I will also be contemplating how Behn’s use of binary opposites and narrative, which are developed throughout the novel, entwine and unite to reveal a deeper meaning with in the text.
The portrayal of this emotional experience is developed in a number of ways and builds an engrossing portrait of his volatile mental state. It also confirms a number of moral themes which Behn has highlighted throughout the novel. One aspect which is initially striking, is the extracts structure. The whole item is made up of two sections, each of which is constructed from one complex compound sentence. Each sentence is extensive and includes several semicolons. Behn begins each paragraph with an introductory statement.
In the first, this is as follows: “… Caesar told him, there was no Faith in the White Men, or the Gods they Ador’d”. She then uses the punctuation to create a list of why this is so; be it because of their “Principles so false” or that they “profess[ed] so much (and) perform[ed] so little”. In doing this Behn is able to do two things. Firstly, Oroonoko’s anti-Christian thought (he could “… never be reconcil’d with our notions of the trinity”1) come to an explosive release, with the reader experiencing the extent of his views for the first time.
Themes In Oroonoko
This outpour is important as Behn has only allowed glimpses of him from a removed perspective – it creates a new depth of closeness, which makes his capture all the more distressing. Behn is also able to give the reader a sense of Oroonoko’s mental state. The list-like structure of the paragraph and the pauses suggested by the punctuation seem to slow the thought process down. This creates a sense of a calm outrage and disgust which is slightly disconcerting. Interestingly, Behn makes it clear that he is angrier with the slaves. In this second paragraph there are numerous, highly derogatory adjectives and phrases used to describe them.
Behn separates these using commas; this gives the impression that they are being said in quick succession, and suggest the character is feeling more inflamed here: “Dogs, treacherous… cowardly, fit for such masters”. It is clear he feels the blame is with them and he cannot forgive their cowardice. Behn uses a number of important linguistic devices to heighten and reinforce Oroonoko’s emotional state here. She juxtaposes plosives and frictives through out the exerpt, placing soft sibilance and hard consonants in close proximity.
This is particularly present in the second paragraph as he says “Slaves, poor, wretched Rogues, fit to be used as Christians’ Tools”. The repeated ‘s’ and ‘f’ sounds slow the sentence down. This combined with the hard ‘r’, ‘d’, ‘ch’ and ‘t’ sounds, which cut the languid frictives short creates the sense that he is spitting the words out. She also includes alliteration and repitition of plosive ‘p’, ‘r’ and ‘w’ sounds throughout the extract: “People… professed… performed”, “wretched Rogue”, “one… word”. Bhen also uses enjambment to stress the extent of Oroonoko’s distrust of Christians: “… ternally on his guard, and / never to eat or drink with Christians”. The enjambment breaks up the line at ‘and’ which really highlights the word ‘never’. These devices are important and act in furthring the rage and repugnance felt by Oroonoko towards his Christian ‘friends’ and his slave army. Another aspect to which I have paid close attention is Behn’s use of capital letters. She has capitalized a number words throughout the excerpt, many of which stand within sentences. This suggests that she has put certain emphasis on them and wishes the reader to take note.
Many of the words have certain moral or ideological associations which, in the context, cannot be ignored: ‘Faith’, ‘Gods’, ‘Principals’, ‘Honour’, ‘Action’. Above, I have selected words which hold positive connotations, however there are also those which suggest the opposite: ‘Rashness’, ‘Rogues’, ‘Weapons’, ‘White Men’, ‘Masters’ and ‘Christians’. They can, in fact, be grouped into a number of contrasting concepts, such as: moral or immoral, strength and weakness, good and bad, right and wrong. These paradoxes are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, they act in enhancing the moral weight of what is taking place.
They are there to highlight notions of injustice and immorality present in the very nature of the slave trade and are mirrored in the treatment of Oroonoko throughout the novel and within the extract: “They fed him… with promises and delay’d him”. The word ‘fed’ suggests some sort of falsehood or trickery is being performed, that he is a unknowingly being fed lies. They say they respect him yet treat him like a fool. The concepts featured in this extract are also important as they come to mirror Oroonoko himself – a character who is constructed almost entirely through Behn’s use of binary opposition.
He is set up as the “Royal slave” from the very beginning. This is furthered through out the novel as he becomes a friend and foe. He agrees with European value systems (coupled with his “Roman” features) yet is, fundamentally, African. He is civilised yet savage, a noble and a rebel. He is not a symbol of ethnic superiority by any means but is set up as a model of absolute virtue, isolated in a politically and socially corrupt environment2. It is through him that Behn is able to project the moral messages which pervades the narrative, and this extract.
Behn claims in the foreword of the novel that she herself was an “eye witenss to a great part, of what you will find… set down”. The truth in this claim has been the centre of heated debate since its publication, with some even going on to argue that she paved the way for the modern realist genre3.. Regardless of whether her truth claim is genuine or not, it has a particular affect on the reader. We are generally inclined to have a greater level empathy with a character’s plight if we believe it to be true (here I use ‘believe’ in the sense that we are making ‘belief’ possible as a reader, who is reading).
This is certainly true in Oroonoko and plays an important part in the novels structure, which is centred around binary opposition and the unreliable narrator. Through out Oroonoko Behn employs a third person narrative. Whilst this can be liberating for a writer, enabling complex plots and point of view changes, it can also be extremely limiting to other key aspects of a novel. It could be argued that Behn has created and unreliable narrator, who’s gender and status with in the novel render her unable to tell the story objectively.
It is clear that she enjoys Oroonoko’s company and revels in the attention he gives her: “my self… he’d call Great Mistress… indeed my word would go a great way with him”. It is also true that her sympathies lie with him throughout, particularly as Oroonoko is “betrayed to slavery”: “Some have commended this act, as brave, in the Captain; but I will spare my sense of it”. Despite this, she is unable to call him a friend. She creates almost hyperbolic descriptions of the “Royal slave” throughout and often associates him with words that connote the artistic: his skin, a “perfect ebony”, his eyes and teeth “… eing like snow”.
Such admiration cannot be present in a mutual friendship, as she appears to see him as an object of desire. Being white and the daughter of a governor she colludes in his enslavement, threatening him with “confinement” if he should give them reason to “Fear… him”. He is also dangerous. Because of this she is unable to truly understand and accept Oroonoko. This is where Behn’s use of the third tense becomes truly important. Because of this, the reader is at a removed perspective, and is therefore unable to reconcile Oroonoko’s true feelings with the events that take place.
The depth of his character suffers as result and Behn must employ binary opposites to make up for this. Behn was clearly a gifted woman and writer who, as Felix Shelling said, ‘catered habitually to the lowest and most depraved of human inclinations’. Whilst I have never read her other works, this is clearly the case in Oroonoko. She uses numerous devices throughout the novel to suggest a deeper moral message, all of which culminates in the extract I have focused on in this essay. Her masterful grasp on narrative technique and linguistic devices, have enabled Behn to convey a genre bending tale of romance, travel and tradgedy.
She creates an unreliable narrator, who we begin to question and powerfully reveals the paradoxical nature of the slave trade through a simple system of binary opposties. Behn creates a dewy ecosphere in the reader’s mind which dares us to question the British way of life in the seventeenth century; Religion and Imperialism. It is these aspects which enable us to decipher her tale as a profoundly important one, one which questions the moral code concerning slavery and those who perpetuate it.