Oroonoko by Aphra Behn: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:03 Background & Plot Summary
  • 2:10 The Narrative Digresses
  • 2:49 Slave Rebellion
  • 3:17 Characters
  • 4:06 Themes
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

'Oroonoko' is an early example of the novel genre, written by Aphra Behn and published in 1688. The story concerns the grandson of an African king, his life and death as a slave, and his ill-fated love for the young woman, Imoinda.

Background & Plot Summary

When you read Oroonoko, you might find some aspects of the text different from contemporary novels. This is because the novel genre did not become popular until the 18th century. Oroonoko was published in 1688, well before the form of novels had been established.

One of the things about this text that is surprising is the format. The author Aphra Behn casts herself as a participant narrator, which is a narrator that is part of the story, yet sometimes she writes from the third person point of view. In other words, she tells part of the story in long passages as if she's relating something she's heard or read. At other points, she speaks as if she met the main characters and is part of the story.

The book actually begins with a general description of how slaves were brought from Africa to work on the sugar plantations of the colonized West Indies. Oroonoko is set first in what is present-day Ghana, called Coramantia at that time, and then in Surinam in the West Indies. Many people from Africa were captured and brought to the Americas. In the West Indies, most slaves worked the sugar plantations owned by Europeans.

In the novel, Behn tells the tale of the African Prince Oroonoko, who falls in love with a young girl named Imoinda. This prince has been educated in Europe and holds a great reputation with his people. The beautiful Imoinda is stolen from Oroonoko by his aging grandfather, the present king. Later, when the Prince is out leading his soldiers in war, the King sends him a message of regret for what he did and hopes that his grandson will not seek revenge.

In a surprising twist for the modern reader, the King decides that Imoinda must be sold as a slave because she has betrayed him by being with Oroonoko. Imoinda is absent from the story for a bit while we are told about an elaborate plan to trick Oroonoko into slavery. He finds himself on a slave ship bound for the West Indies but is treated well because of his clothing, education, and royal demeanor. He is bought by a man named Trefry and Oroonoko is now called Caesar. At the slave quarters, the other slaves hail him as their leader, and he rediscovers Imoinda, renamed Clemene.

The Narrative Digresses

The next section reinserts the author as a participant narrator, who says she tries to give support to the two displaced Africans, who become more and more anxious for freedom once Clemene becomes pregnant. Caesar is urged to wait until the arrival of the Lord-Governor, who can grant the couple and their child freedom.

Inserted at this point in the narrative is a lengthy passage about the narrator's history in Surinam, the general value of the island, and many of Caesar's exploits and talents, then it returns to the action as slaves all over the island look to Caesar to lead them, and in spite of his ability to negotiate and his reputation among the English, a rebellion breaks out.

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