What’s fascinating about Oroonoko and “The Interesting Narrative” is that they both follow slave narratives, but the authors are polar opposites. Aphra Behn was a white woman with no expertise whatsoever (as far as we know), and Equiano is supposedly telling his own story, though historians debate the validity of that claim. Both claim that their narratives are absolutely true and, most importantly, both are reaching hard to appeal to their white audience members.
Oroonoko has one of the most severe cases of the “Noble Savage” trope I’ve ever seen. Behn writes, “He had an extreme good and graceful Mien, and all the Civility of a well-bred great Man. He had nothing of Barbarity in his Nature, but in all Points address’d himself as if his Education had been in some European court,” (7). The words “well-bred” are so telling, as they have this heavy tint of genetic Eurocentricity that’s more than a little disturbing to be written out as a good thing. The words civility and barbarity show up in the same sentence and it feels like it’s to highlight his cultural duality. Not only is Oroonoko himself described as utterly European in every aspect but his skin color, but his romance with Imoinda almost follows the plot of a Brothers-Grimm old-fashioned fairy take. Prince swears his heart and devotion to only one exceptionally beautiful girl (though his culture, according to the narrator, would encourage him to do otherwise), tragedy ensues, they’re reunited, and so on. It begins to divulge with some of the themes of slavery, but Behn is walking a thin line between encouraging her readers to be sympathetic and coming across as an abolitionist.
I notice with Equiano, he talks about his experience with “white people” but almost others those on the ship from the English, claiming that his captors were speaking in a harsh, terrible language and describing them as monstrous creatures. However, his English Captain is “merciful” by allowing him to buy his freedom and treating him well. He even quotes scripture- the 126th Psalm- and it’s clear he wants to appear as a good Christian.
These patterns between both an African and an English author are evidence of both significant social pressure to make any and all non-white characters palatable and a cultural desire for diversity latent within the demands of the general public. Why not just read about a white dude if you’re so intent on smushing African characters rather clumsily into a European mold. It’s telling, in my opinion; it shows that there was some form of curiosity or craving for stories of this kind.
The biggest difference between the two is commodity vs. necessity; Behn has an energy of wanting to make her story exotic and titillating. It feels like she was commodifying the tragedy, playing up the romance, and pushing social boundaries of the era for the purpose of being just scandalous enough. Equiano had to tell his story, whether it was his or not. It said in the introduction that he gave a voice to thousands of slaves, many of whom likely didn’t have access to education. Therefore, the appeal to the white audience was the toll to be paid in order to call attention to dire need.
Additionally, I find that “The Interesting Narrative” is so much more candid. The voice of the narrator is more emotional and involved, whereas when I read Oroonoko, a lot of the time I find myself defaulting to a robotic voice. It seeks to be poetic, it seems, and the prose is long and rambling. The syntax is less than easy to follow. This might be a time period difference, I just thought it was strange.