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Harems and Master Narratives:
Imoinda's Story in Oroonoko

Candy B. K. Schille, Georgia Southern University


Aphra Behn's protonovel and memoir Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave has been pretty well worked over by modern critics, as titles such as "Reconstructing Aphra," "Appropriating Aphra," and "The New Hystericism" might suggest. Relatively late in the wave of recent readings have come considerations of Behn's relationship--in her dual roles as author and actor--to Oroonoko's African wife, Imoinda. Some readers have located Imoinda as the narrator's psychological co-protagonist, others as the site of absolute alterity. What I wish to focus on is how this "relation," in the dual senses of psychological kinship and of discourse, is particularly vexed by the muddiness surrounding the origins and source(s) of Imoinda's story. While Behn specifies that what she "could not be Witness of, [she] received from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself. . . ., " she never specifies that Imoinda's story originates from Imoinda's own lips, or indeed whether Imoinda speaks English at all

At issue, then, are matters of authority in the conveyance of Imoinda's experience, particularly in the scenes that take place in the harem, none of which the narrator has herself witnessed and several of which Oroonoko himself--Imoinda's presumed interpolator--cannot have been privy to. This causes an extraordinary effect in which some of the parts of the tale appear dilated by the narrator's (and/or Oroonoko's) sensibilities, whereas others disappear in remarkable textual lacunas. In the case of the latter, for instance, the issue of whether, when, and how Imoinda and Oroonoko are actually married is oddly passed over and remains a matter of actual and textual contention in the section involving Imoinda's position as contest property in the king's seraglio:

After a thousand Assurances of [Oroonoko's] lasting Flame, and her eternal Empire over him, she condescended to receive him for her husband; or rather, receive him, as the greatest Honour the gods could do her.
    There is a certain Ceremony in these Cases to be observ'd, which I forgot to ask how 'twas perform'd; but 'twas concluded on both sides, that in Obedience to him, the Grandfather was to be first made acquainted with the design; For they pay a most absolute Resignation to the Monarch, especially when he is a Parent also.

Other critics have noted the narrative's complex pitting of spoken versus written language. I will trace here how the question of who speaks for Imoinda is relevant particularly to feminist approaches to Behn's narrative.

Read more about Aphra Behn and Oroonoko.