The Message of Equality Sent to Society in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave

Many writers use their literary works to convey the message they want society to hear. Often times this is done through strategies such as parallels and metaphors. Aphra Behn was the first known woman of her time to earn a living from writing. Although the majority of her background is a mystery, we do know that Behn had an agenda to teach society a lesson through her literary work Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave.

In the time period that Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave was written (late 16th century), women had to submit to their husbands and were treated as if they were objects rather than human beings. As the first female writer of her time, Aphra Behn uses Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave not only to convey that slavery is cruel, but to also introduce the idea that the women of her time period suffer from inequality to men. Behn conveys a message that slavery is cruel and dehumanizing through her literary work Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave.

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At first Oroonoko did not see slavery to be cruel; it wasn’t until he was sold into slavery and had to walk a mile in the slave’s shoes that he realized slavery was brutal. From Oroonoko’s observations when he is a slave, he characterizes the slaves as basically animals when he says: “They suffered not like men, who might find a glory and fortitude in oppression, but like dogs that loved the whip and bell, and fawned the more they were beaten”(Behn 961).

Behn also conveys the brutality of slavery by giving vivid detail of Oroonoko’s death when she states: “…and first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire, after that, with an ill-favored knife, they cut his ears, and his nose, and burned them…Then they hacked off one of his arms, and still he bore up, and he still held his pipe, but at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk, and his pipe dropped, and he gave up the ghost, without a groan or a reproach” (Behn 970).

Many critics debate on whether or not Behn was against slavery because Behn does not clearly state that slavery is wrong and cruel; however, Behn most certainly implies this message through the characters’ experiences in Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave. According to Adelaide P. Amore in Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave A Critical Addition, “Mrs. Behn, on the other hand, sees the system of slavery as a force that has corrupted both seemingly civilized English society and its apparently naive African neighbors” (Amore 15).

In Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave Behn conveys a message that slavery is cruel as well as brutal; in addition, Behn brought to light a type of oppression that was unheard of in her time period. In the time period that Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave was written (late 1600’s), women’s rights did not exist. Being the first woman to write for a career, Behn conveys that women are ruled by men. There are several instances in Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, where Behn brings attention to the reader that women, in a way, were slaves to the male dominated society.

When the king wanted Imoinda, Oroonoko’s wife to be, to become one of his wives “… trembling, and almost fainting, she was obliged to suffer herself to be covered and led away” (Behn 934). Imoinda had no other choice but to suffer under man’s law and be enslaved with the rest of the king’s wives and mistresses. Another example of women being controlled by men in Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave was when Oroonoko decided that he needed to take Imoinda’s life because he thought that she would not be able to protect herself without him.

Although Imoinda did a swell job at protecting herself before Oroonoko came along, she still had to submit to her husband and die (not to mention her fetus as well) because her husband decided her fate for her. Even if Imoinda decided not to submit to her husband and sacrifice her life, she would have been killed anyway according to the quote before Imoinda’s death: “…for wives have a respect for their husbands equal to what any other people pay a deity, and when a man finds any occasion to quit his wife, if he love her, she dies by his hand; if not, he sells her, or suffers some other to kill her” (Behn 968).

Women in that time period were treated more as objects than actual human beings. Women were controlled by social standards, were not allowed to speak for themselves, and had to submit to their husbands without question. Just like slavery, unfortunately, no one was doing anything to prevent this oppression. Considering that Behn was the first professional female writer, she was very bold her in her time period and broke the barrier of women’s voices not being heard. Susan Z.

Andrade shares in her book, Cultural Critique, that she reads in between the lines of Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave to understand the intent of Behn’s writing. Andrade says that: “By focusing on the contradictory desires of the white female narrator of this novella, member of a group both marginal to and dominant in the colonial order, my reading strategy confronts the ideological contradictions and political struggles between various subjugated groups” (Andrade 190).

Andrade is saying that since Behn wrote the novella in such a constricting time period for women, Andrade reads Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave with the time period in mind, revealing Behn’s sympathy and relative attitude towards other subjected groups. Being a female or a slave during Behn’s time period was very oppressing; perhaps the connection between the two reveals the intent in Behn’s novella. A woman or a slave in Behn’s time felt enslaved in a white man’s world. Many people viewed Behn as an outcast because she would never abide by the social norms of her time.

When someone would criticize Behn, unlike any lady of her time, she would stand up for herself. Behn’s greatest aspiration was to be equal, to break free from men. When Behn saw an opportunity to do this, she did so saying, “I never rested my pen a moment for thought” (Greenblatt 923). By writing a novella about slavery from a “female pen”, Behn sympathizes with the slaves by understanding how it feels to be enslaved from her experience of likewise being enslaved by men.

Being a woman of that time period and slavery parallel each other in that neither is free, but both desire to have freedom. Virginia Wolf stated that Behn had a voice for the oppressed when she wrote, “…for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. ” (Greenblatt 923). With Behn being so passionate about equality among all men and women, it makes perfect sense that she would write a novella that reflects the brutality of slavery in order to convey both a message of slavery and how she relates to slavery from her experience in the oppression.

Susan Z. Andrade states in her book, Cultural Critique, that “Both sections are recounted by an educated British woman, sensitive both to the brutality of African slavery and to the indignities of women’s oppression” (Andrade 191). By writing Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, Behn was making a statement. Behn says: “Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda” (Behn 971). When Oroonoko realized that he could not escape slavery, death was the only option.

Oroonoko’s death was Behn’s passionate message that freedom from any kind of oppression is worth dying for is the very thing for which she will lay down her life, fighting not only for herself, but for all of humanity. Writing Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, Behn knew that her literary work would have an impact on society forever. Because Behn had the audacity to take the chance of going out of the social norm to become the first woman to write for a career, she communicated a message that not only was slavery oppressive to humans, but also that unequal treatment towards women was dehumanizing.

By writing for a profession, Behn set an example for all women and slaves and revealed their voices to the world. Although many people did not understand nor appreciate Behn’s novella, it was merely a seed to spread the awareness of human rights and freedom. Behn’s voice now speaks through the ancestors of those who were once enslaved, but now are free. Behn’s voice now speaks through any independent woman with a career. Like Oroonoko, Behn left this earth heroic, and just as she hoped, her voice will be forever heard.