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ELH 68.1 (2001) 57-79
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Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Cultural Dialectics and the Novel
Since the publication of Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave in 1688, critics have been intrigued by its contradictoriness. Any attempt to classify the work as a romance, novel, or travel narrative, respectively, becomes reductive. Behn's narrative appears as an amalgam of these genres. 1 To what extent its romance features subjugate its realism, or vice versa, is a complex issue. A related question is how the respective modes interact so as to convey moral, political, or ideological attitudes on the part of the narrator or author.
This essay makes a case for seeing Oroonoko as reflecting the uneasy transition, in the late seventeenth century, from an aristocratic, romance-prone ideology towards a more rationalist, progressive age. The narrator reveals her contradictory position: she is a conservative, but with leanings towards the new world of mercantile expansionism. Though she apparently encourages liberty and enlightenment, she seems to rely on virtues valued by the traditional hierarchy for order and stability. Her dual position seeks its dialectical reconciliation in Oroonoko. The focus of this essay is the paradoxical implications of Behn's mediative effort. Thus in Oroonoko, she uses the black prince to figure a nobility that encompasses features of progressive individualism. From the same mediative perspective, she can be seen to superimpose romance and allegorical patterns on a realist form suggestive of novel, travel narrative, or both. There are, moreover, signs of a widening quest to reconcile a spiritual order with the corporeal world. With its religious allusions, her narrative conveys an ethical message to the new world. This response can be seen to anticipate a mode of cultural criticism also evident in later ages of transition, such as the nineteenth century. Though Behn's message is closely associated with romance chivalry and a feudalist ethos, its aim is to bridge ideological schisms. However, Behn's effort frequently reflects the ideological instability of her own position.
This approach to Oroonoko has to contend with much textual intricacy and ambiguity. Also, the fact that critics differ on how the realism relates to the romance features shows the difficulty of ascribing [End Page 57] a stable political and moral attitude to the narrator. A case in point is Behn's attitude towards issues such as slavery and the Other, embodied most prominently by the African protagonist. Maureen Duffy thus finds Oroonoko remarkable for showing "no taint of racism" regarding "people of other races and colours"; the Other is "not lesser but simply different," an attitude that calls for a realist method: "these differences she [Behn] chronicles with a typically seventeenth-century proto scientific curiosity and accuracy." 2 Charlotte Sussman, on the other hand, asserts that Behn's use of romance deflects any ideological or political critique of the hierarchical assumptions underlying colonialism and slavery: the narrator "sides with the status quo of slave culture," because she "consistently rechannels traces of the pain of a captive culture into romantic conventions. The context of slavery is never allowed to have disruptive power in the novel." 3 In short, the romanticization of the Other serves but to cement colonial dominance and deny the subject position of the colonial object. Jane Spencer ascribes a more mediatory role to the narrator: "As a character the narrator seems caught uneasily between admiration for her hero and allegiance to European civilization, but this means that she can present a picture of both sides." 4 However, Spencer does not specify whether the qualities the narrator admires in her hero are non-European ones. This ambiguity weakens Spencer's point, since the hero is much commended for virtues associated with the idealized European. Angeline Goreau more specifically argues that "it is, in fact, his savagery that saves him from what Aphra sees as the moral degeneracy of European society." 5 Yet his noble savage features are oddly consonant with noble qualities naturalized by a European aristocratic order.
Laura Brown employs different premises in reading Oroonoko as a critique of colonial and racial prejudice. Behn's method, she...