Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave (1688) gave me a serious case of the Intentional Fallacy this week, folx. While the fantastical and hideous work of sort-of fiction had no trouble captivating me, I kept noticing descriptions and literary devices that rung bells from English courses past. The story is jam-packed with style benchmarks that seem to mirror those used by other white* female authors writing about race and slavery at the time. Similar to authors such as Mary Rowlandson, Unca Eliza Wakefield, and later, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Behn’s story seems guided by an identifiable narrative structure and style which intends to elevate (Europeanize) protagonists of color as a means of garnering sympathy from their audience. By both reflecting and rejecting societal attitudes towards race and slavery, these texts offer a complex look at the role that white women played in upholding and dismantling racism in the New World. Once noticed, the structure behind these texts makes it impossible not to think about the author’s identity, background, and intent. I started keeping track of all the interesting descriptions and tropes I noticed that seemed familiar, and did a little digging to see what similarities I could find between Oroonoko and texts such as Rowlandson’s “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” (1682), Winkfield’s “The Female American” (1767), and Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852).
*Unca Eliza Winkfield was a pseudonym used by the author of “The Female American.” The main character of the story, Unca Eliza, is a biracial woman of English and Native American decent. So, technically, a non-white woman could have written the story, however; it’s unlikely!
I was reminded of the other white female authors of yesteryear from the very first line of Oroonoko. Similar to Rowlandson and Winkfield, Behn begins her story by assuring the reader that she doesn’t “design to adorn it [the story] with any accidents but such as arrived in earnest to him,” meaning that the story that follows is intended to be read as a true event. While this may simply be a trait that’s common among all writing from this time period, the act of assuring the audience that the story is true nonetheless impacts the way we (and those readers of the time) interpret the story. Considering that all three women were likely writing to an audience of fellow upper-class white women, their descriptions were probably taken to heart by most. This act of assurance, I believe, makes Behn’s descriptions even more dangerous than they would’ve been had she (like Stowe) merely told the story without proclaiming her own role in the story.
The next aspect of Oroonoko that reminded me of these other female authors was the description of Oroonoko himself. From the get-go, Behn describes the Prince’s most admirable qualities as those which mirrored European ones. This is true in all three pieces that I’m comparing this text to, too. In Rowlandson’s recount of her captivity, the generosity of her captors is only praised alongside backhanded racism and condescension, often manifested in descriptions such as “demon-like” and “hellish.” In “The Female American,” it is the European beauty in Unca Eliza’s complexion and her scholarly wit that saves her and allows her to convert the indigenous tribe on the island to Christianity; not her knowledge of nature and survival that she gained from being raised by her Native American family. In “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Tom is praised for his obedience and Christianity, yet marveled for his strength and size. In each case, the character’s qualities are divided into “white” and “savage” categories and valued based on where they land.
Another major similarity between Oroonoko and the other texts is the roles in which the characters take. In nearly all of the texts, the protagonist is placed on a pedestal far removed from his/her fellow “savages.” In addition to this, it is almost always the case that the protagonist is in someway adored by his/her master or mistress. This is something I find interesting, because it is often the master’s wife that takes a particular interest in the character and makes a point to protect them. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom is Mr. and Mrs. Shelley’s favorite slave, and the narrator makes a point to describe how hard it was for Mrs. Shelley when Tom was sold. Furthermore, it’s often the case that the master’s wife is so afflicted because the slave in question is compelled by love. For some reason, though, this affliction never seems to be enough to save the protagonist.
While these similarities may just be a product of the time, it’s interesting to me that all these stories are regarded as having a major impact on race relations in the New World. And while it’s easy for me to notice all of the horribly backwards and in many cases unhelpful descriptions of people of color in these texts, I can also recognize their importance. Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was credited by Abe Lincoln as the catalyst to the American Civil War. And Behn, regardless of her unappealing projections, gave rise to a greater movement of compassion among white women in the 17th and 18th centuries. And that’s got to count for something, right?