Behn’s Limited Critique on Slavery in Oroonoko
Since it was published in 1688, Oroonoko has been the subject of much interpretation and study. It has been considered to have an anti-slavery message by many critics. Still others have had different interpretations; for example biographer Janet Todd recognizes that “Behn did not oppose slavery per se. She accepted the idea that powerful groups would enslave the powerless,” (Wikipedia. Oroonoko, Ch.2.3).This I believe is a more realistic interpretation. It would be a grave overstatement to call Oroonoko an anti-slavery novel. Behn criticizes certain aspects of slavery but she does in no way condemn it as a whole. The story’s hero Oroonoko is a man of great qualities, far superior from those of most African men, and the whole story is written as a tribute to his greatness. Being who he is Behn believes him to deserve a better fate than that of a slave. The same does not seem to apply to his fellow slaves, the lower standing mass; their tragedy is never portrayed or commented on. It becomes apparent that Behn criticizes how African civilized people of superior quality can become bound to slavery, but not how African lower standing people are forced into the same fate.
We will first have a look at these superior qualities possessed by Oronooko that distinguishes him from the other slaves. He is commended for having European qualities in physical appearance and knowledge, and also for owning universally praised qualities like honour and bravery. Behn goes to great lengths in order to establish these qualities in Oroonoko and praise him for them. She describes his appearance as “a native beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race” and his features as “His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes “(Behn 921-922).
Furthermore Oroonoko is admired for his civility...