Imoinda and Ophelia

Something that really interested me about Oroonoko was something that Marc was talking about last class. He mentioned that Imoinda was essentially just bouncing back and forth, falling under the “possession” of various male characters, with hardly any agency of her own. This was a little perplexing – most of the time, we expect woman writers to portray women as stronger characters with at least some individuality and agency of their own, but Imoinda is a very shallow character. Her main character traits are essentially just that she’s beautiful and charming, or basically, that men are drawn to her, so even those character traits are at least as much about men as they are about who she is. They don’t really tell us anything about her except how she looks.

Quinn has already compared some aspects of Oroonoko to Romeo and Juliet, but in some ways, Imoinda is reminiscent of Ophelia to me. Each young woman dies due, essentially, to the ignorance and cruelty of the men around her, and they seek their escapes through death. I wrote an essay in high school about how I believe Shakespeare wrote Ophelia this way intentionally to show that communities that subjugate their women are dysfunctional. I wonder if Behn had a similar intention, except maybe the metaphor doesn’t extend to all women, but to all enslaved people, in this instance.

I’m unsure about that, though, because there’s a difference between how each tragedy ends. At the end of Hamlet, the consequences of the dysfunctional environment created by the misogynistic nobles befall everyone. Almost every character we’ve gotten to know up to that point dies, and Norway invades Denmark, so the entire country feels the wake of the disaster and crumbles from within. In Oroonoko, there’s a revolt, but many slaves, including Oroonoko and Imoinda by the end, are killed, and those who aren’t surrender to slavery again and presumably face harsh punishment for their failed uprising. The only “consequences” that befall the slave-owning whites are that they’ve lost a few of their own men and some of their slaves, which is trivial in comparison to the suffering of the black people who failed to reclaim their freedom.

Shakespeare shows dire consequences for the people at fault, Behn doesn’t. She generally tiptoes around the true horrors of slavery, and she fails to entirely, effectively condemn them. If she’s trying to communicate to a white audience how cruel slavery is, I don’t think she followed through well.

One thought on “Imoinda and Ophelia

  1. Your last paragraph got me thinking. First, I totally agree with you that Behn didn’t do a great job of exposing slavery for what it is. However, when you said Shakespeare showed dire consequences for the people at fault while Behn didn’t, I began to wonder if that was her point. Perhaps the most horrific part about her story is the failure of enslaved people equaling victory for their tormentors. There weren’t really any consequences for slaveowners; maybe Behn felt that an ending where they got what they deserved would’ve misrepresented the narrative of enslaved peoples. Just some thoughts! All in all, great post! I love the connection to Shakespeare.

    Liked by 1 person

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