Introduction: Oroonoko, written by Aphra Behn in 1688, is the most famous work in nowadays about the figure of the Noble Savage. This novella is notable for its depiction of the horrors of slavery, and can be considered as the first abolitionist novel. This excerpt that we’ll talk about is the first pages of the book, so it is this extract which introduces the whole story. We can talk of the expository scene that answers to the following questions: who are the characters? When does the story take place? Where is it settled? And what is the story about? What we can notice is that this passage answers these questions. My point will be to understand why the reader cannot really be sure of the veracity of the story. Is it not simply a way for Aphra Behn to denounce colonialism and slavery, through Oroonoko’s story? First of all, I am going to talk about the story and what we learn about it. Then, I will focus on the idea of the Eden Garden, the Adam and Eve paradise. And finally, I will underline the ambiguous status of the story, the reader never knows if the narrator is telling him a true story, or if it is a fiction.
I. Learning more about the story To begin, this excerpt helps the reader to understand better the story. It is the expository scene that presents the historical context and also the narrator. 1. The expository scene The book is about a “royal slave” (l.1), and the “I” narrator will tell us his “history” (l.1). This story appears to be interesting and full of “adventures” (l.2). The narrator described her story as a true story, she promises to tell the hero’s story “such as arrived” (l.5). And she directly talks to the reader that gives him the impression to be concerned and helps him to feel curious about the book. The reader asks himself who is this royal slave? What happened to him? How can this man be a slave, and also be considered as a royal person? The hero appears as an incredible slave, admired by the narrator. But the hero is not the only character; others are presented but not precisely defined. This expository scene also introduces people who live with the narrator and first appears as pronouns: “we” and “us” (l.13, 15, 18…) and we don’t know yet who they are but we may think of the narrator’s family or friends. The others pronouns that appear must be the Natives that lived in Surinam before the arrival of the English: “they” (l.42, 43, 46…).
This excerpt also informs us about the historical context. The narrator directly uses historical references, by talking of the “King’s theatre” (l.46). She refers to James II, and the Great Revolution and by the way Aphra Behn underlines the fact that, through the character of the narrator, she also indicates her own ideas: she considers herself as a great supporter of the monarchy. Talking about theatre, she refers to “the dress of the Indian Queen” (l.46-47), that is to say, to a play written by Sir Robert Howard and John Dryden. The story takes place in Surinam, but only at its end: before, the royal slave was in another place but he had to come in this colony: “the scene of the last part of his adventures lies in a colony in America called Surinam in the West Indies.” (l.21-22). So the narrator precisely describes the place where the story takes place. At that time, Surinam was a “colony” (l.21): it is a reference to the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and America. We can deduce from these details that the slave is first a royal African, sold by Europeans as a slave and then send to Surinam. Thanks to the author notes, the context is clearly defined.
The “I” narrator is not defined at the very beginning of the story, so in this pages we don’t know who she is, and we don’t even know that she is a girl! The reader can identifies himself to this narrator, and may also think that it is Aphra Behn who is telling us her story. Even if in this passage we don’t know how the narrator knows the royal slave, she will “entertain [the] reader” (l.2) thanks to what she saw. She is the main source, the one who is the “eye-witness” (l.10). But she is not the only witness: sometimes she completes the story with what the hero told her: “I received from the mouth of the chief actor on this history” (l.12). She is addressing the reader to explain to which extend she writes this story: she chooses what is really essential and interesting for the reader, and tries not to be boring. The narrator writes as if she was talking to an audience and so we can also think of the ambiguity if the genre of the book: is it a diary?
TR: Having described and placed the story in its historical and spatial contexts, the narrator offers the reader a fabulous description of the place she now lives, letting think of a lost paradise. II. The Adam and Eve Paradise Referring to the Adam and Eve Paradise, the narrator depicts a fabulous place with all its colours and animals, and where the figure of the Noble Savage lives. 1. A fabulous place: animals and colours By explaining the reader how the narrator and the others live together, the narrator explains and describes the place they are. Before listing all the animals she has already met, she prevents the reader for what he is going to learn: it is “for every minute new and strange” (l.18). The animals are all “little rarities” (l.29), that shows it is the first time she sees something like this and that she is very surprised. Everything appears as new and strange and that is why she needs to compare these animals with ones that everybody knows, to something which familiar to her and to her reader. For example, she can see “marmosets” (l.29), “cousheries” (l.32), “parakeetoes” (l.34), “great parrots, macaws” (l.35). But even if she talks about these animals, she doesn’t know all of them, so uses many comparisons to help her reason to understand, and it also may be a way for her to feel better in this mysterious and fabulous place: “a sort of monkey, as big as a rat or weasel ( =belette )” (l.30), or “in the form and fashion of a lion, as big as a kitten” (l.32-33). These exotic animals let the reader imagine a marvellous place, full of colours: and so the narrator describes all colours, shapes and textures that she finds in Surinam. The fact that she needs to precisely explains how Surinam, emphasizes the idea of a paradise. The narrator directly refers to the word “colour” six times (l. 36, 40, 51, 56, 68, 70). Even if she knows the shapes and the colours, in this context, nothing appears as the same as in her country: every simple thing is fabulous “tin, brass or silver” (l.53-54).
2. The Noble Savage: purity and beauty Then, the narrator describes the Natives, who live with her. She first explains the way they are dressed, and then directly uses a Bible reference: “as Adam and Eve” (l.58). This comparison helps the reader to link Surinam and the Garden of Eden. By referring to Adam and Eve, the narrator refers to different notions: the purity, the innocence, the beauty. They are not civilized in the same way than the English are, so they use nature to dress up, to eat, and more generally they live in harmony with nature: “glorious wreaths ( =guirlande ) for their heads, necks, arms and legs” (l.44), “knives, axes, pins and needles, which they use (…) to drill holes in their ears, noses and lips” (l.51-52). The narrator compares the Natives’ clothes with Adam and Eve’s ones: “as Adam and Eve did the fig leaves” (l.58). This way to dress up fascinates the narrator who describes with a lot of detail there habits: she seems impressed by the Natives. Moreover, the narrator stresses her admiration for Natives in describing their bodies. She insists on different part of their body, showing their physical beauty, their strength and their unique nature: Natives are more than simple human beings; they occupy a fabulous place thanks to their own fabulous nature: “heads, necks, arms and legs” (l.44), “ears, noses and lips” (l.52), and one more time “necks, arms and legs” (l.63). These parts of a body must represent physical strength and may underline the fact that they are savages, but Noble Savage thanks to their purity and beauty. TR: Stimulating the imagination of the reader with such images, the author creates an ambiguity on the status of her book. The reader cannot really believe in such a place: is it really a true story?
III. True story or fiction? Finally, we can think of the veracity of Oroonoko’s story. The narrator precisely describes what she saw in Surinam, as if she really was there, but stimulates the reader’s imagination creating a kind of painting, and finally she indirectly denounces colonialism. 1. Anthropological description The anthropological description helps the reader to believe in this story. By giving so many details, the narrator shows evidence of the veracity of Oroonoko’s history. Listing all the animals she can see, the narrator takes the point of view of an observer, someone that does not belong to the story, but who just explain facts to the reader. Comparisons to some other animals can also be interpreted as a kind of scientific classification, the narrator trying to fit each animal in a specific category. For example, when she writes about “cousheries” (l.32), she first compares their “form and fashion” (l.32), with those of a lion, but also contrasts her comparison by mentioning a “kitten”. This anthropological description let the reader think of a true story, some details given by the narrator cannot be totally invented. Aphra Behn seems to use her own experience to write this book, and by the intermediary of a female narrator, she tells us Oroonoko’s history. Moreover, she precisely describes how the Natives use tools and how they are dressed. All these details emphasize the veracity of the narrative.
2. A painting On the other side, this extract let the reader think of the lost paradise. The narrator refers to Adam and Eve: the reference to religion links this story to something that civilized people will never have. All the colours and the details can refer to a painting. By describing so precisely the scene, the place she lives, the narrator gives her text a mythological dimension and the imagination of the reader may create a painting. It would be full of colours because that is a very important element in the excerpt, and also with many details to represent all the tools that the Natives used: “beads of all colours, knives, axes, pins and needles” (l.50-51). If the text helps the reader’s imagination to develop itself, it means that it is partly a fiction. Aphra Behn invents a narrator writing or telling to someone else her story and, thanks to this, she depicts a fabulous place where colonization is going to destroy everything.
3. Denouncing colonialism Actually, it is not really important to know if what Aphra Behn writes is a true story or if it is a fiction. The most important is the way she brings the reader to think of colonialism. By describing this splendid place, she suggests to the reader the fact that somewhere there are people who are not living like him and that maybe he is going to meet them someday. And, in this case, British people colonized Natives. In fact, they destroy their culture. A kind of hypocrisy is present in this extract: what links the Natives and British is a “perfect amity” (l.26), more than that, it is “brotherly (…) affection” (l.27-28). In fact, if they don’t act, or try to dominate the Natives it is simply because they are not as powerful as they would like. They pretend to do commerce with Natives, in order to use the Surinam resources to amaze their originally country. Actually they are just possessing, little by little, the Natives’ place. These people who are compared to Adam and Eve because of the way they dressed and the place they live seem also doomed. At the end of the excerpt, the narrator shows a slight difference in these people’s perfection. Everything is perfect, “except the colour” (l.68) of their skin which is “a reddish yellow” (l.69). But this difference seems enough for British to later destroy the Natives, and to use others as slaves. What seems positively “new and strange” (l.18) at the beginning of the text, appears to be now, the condemnation of novelty. Back to the comparison between Adam and Eve, and the Natives: both are doomed, and here, the evil figure is the British people. CONCLUSION As a conclusion, we can say that the narrator perfectly introduces the reader to her story, thanks to her presentation of the historical context and of the characters. She depicts the lost paradise as perfectly real, in another time, where she met Oroonoko. But finally she sows ( to sow-semer ) the doubt in the reader’s mind: he doesn’t know anymore if this story is true. Through Oroonoko , Aphra Behn tries to denounce colonialism. She cannot accept the fact that civilization destroys such paradise and such innocence. She criticizes the society where she lives, by telling the reader a slave’s story. This excerpt prepares the reader to what he is going to read, and learn about foreign societies: Aphra Behn goal must be trying to make readers think of their traditions and answering the following question, who is the savage in such a history?
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 1. Learning more about the story a) The expository scene b) The historical context c) The narrator 2. The Paradise of Adam and Eve a) Animals and colours b) The Noble savage : purity and beauty 3. True story or fiction ? a) Anthropological description b) PaintingRéalisé le 7 décembrec) Denouncing Aurélie Prémel 2012 colonialism N°1
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 1. Learning more about the story a) The expository scene → Who is he ? → People as pronounsRéalisé le 7 décembre 2012 Aurélie Prémel N°2
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 1. Learning more about the story b) The historical context → James II, the Great Revolution → Sir Robert Howard → John DrydenRéalisé le 7 décembre 2012 Aurélie Prémel N°3
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 1. Learning more about the story c) The narrator → I narrator → Witness → Amiguity of the genre of the bookRéalisé le 7 décembre 2012 Aurélie Prémel N°4
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 2. The Paradise of Adam and Eve a) Animals and colours → Strange and surprising → ComparisonsRéalisé le 7 décembre 2012 Aurélie Prémel N°5
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 2. The Paradise of Adam and Eve b) The Noble Savage : purity and beauty → Reference to the Bible → Physical beauty → More than simple human beingsRéalisé le 7 décembre 2012 Aurélie Prémel N°6
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 3. True story of fiction ? a) Anthropological descriptions → Details → Scientific classification → VerisimilitudeRéalisé le 7 décembre 2012 Aurélie Prémel N°7
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 3. True story or fiction ? b) Painting → Lost Paradise → Mythological dimension → ImaginationRéalisé le 7 décembre 2012 Aurélie Prémel N°8
Oroonoko – Aphra Behn 3. True story or fiction ? c) Denouncing colonialism → Natives vs British → Natives : doomed → British : evil figureRéalisé le 7 décembre 2012 Aurélie Prémel N°9