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The African as Text: Narrative Ownership
and Authority in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

Andrew P. Williams, North Carolina Central University

Abstract

Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave has assumed a position of critical importance in the study of Early Modern literature that few texts can match. Despite the author's modest contention that she wrote the short novel in the space of a few hours, Oroonoko freely lends itself to a vast array of criticial readings and definitions which analyze the categories of race, class, and gender within a matrix of economic and cultural concerns. Contemporary critical thought routinely recognizes Oroonoko as a work that belies narrow categorization and, instead, remains embroiled within a web of complicated and oftentimes contesting theoretical positions.

Behn's short novel is of special interest in that its subject matter, the forced enslavement of a royal African prince, and its female narrator bring to the forefront two voices that have historically suffered social and economic disenfrancisement. Though unique in the history of Early Modern narrative, the fusion of these two voices cannot escape the historical and economic implications of slavery and ownership, nor can it ignore the complications and gendered biases directed toward female authorship in the Early Modern Period.

While much of the recent criticism of Oroonoko has identified a unique political and gendered kinship between Behn and the royal African couple, Oroonoko and Imoinda, based on the systematic disempowerment females suffered under Western patriarchal practices, the novel and its author can be seen to replicate and reinforce certain cultural attitudes which relegated the identity of the African "other" as primarily a capital product of the Western slave economy. Through a series of narrative strategies which both eroticize and commodify the bodies of the two African protagonists, Behn appropriates the story of Oroonoko while calling into question the validity and authority of the African voice. Through the narrative structure of Oroonoko, Behn identifies the royal slaves with Western economic practices and erotic fantasy where her treatment of the African voice remains, like the African body, an economic property to be owned and traded.

Behn's appropriation of the story of Oroonoko can be seen on several narrative levels. The first involves the cultural and literary environment in which Behn's writes, and the author's self-positioning as the sole authority of Oroonoko's story. As a female writer, Behn is forced to take deliberate steps in her narrative, including a series of self-effacing asides to the reader, which will firmly establish her "eye-witness" account as both authoritative and possesssing literary merit despite the fact that it is a product of "a Female pen." This results in Behn's rendering a distinctly subjective imprint on her objective "History" of the Royal Slave which reinforces her ownership and control of Oroonoko's story.

Behn's authorial ownership of Oroonoko's story can also be seen in two other aspects of narrative. The first is evidenced in Behn's description of the physical bodies of Oroonoko and Imoinda. Oroonoko is described as a visual and cultural oddity, a de-Africanized slave indelibly linked between the contradictory poles of the colonial "self" and the foreign "other," while Behn's description of Imoinda clearly posits the African female as an erotic entity of European sexual fantasy. In both cases, Behn's description capitalizes on the exotic nature of the African body in demonstrating the couple's commodification as capital products. In addition, Behn's narrative privileges the authority of Western written discourse over African oral discourse. While the novel fuses these two discursive methods, Behn subtly compromises the authority of the African voice by confining it to exposition provided by Oroonoko after his African name has been replaced by the colonial slave-name, Caesar. Thus, Oroonoko's voice can only emerge in relationship to the female pen of Behn; Caesar's voice is that of a slave whose orality is yet another product to be commodified through Western economic practices.

In conclusion, the narrative structure and complexity of Behn's Oroonoko lends itself to the commodification and appropriation of the Royal Slave's story. As a female author in the Early Modern period, Behn was forced to contend with a patriarchal cultural dynamic which viewed female authorship as suspect, at best. As a result, Behn's narrative authority is contingent upon the apt demonstration of her complete "command" of the novel's subject matter--namely, Oroonoko and Imoinda. Though sympathetic to the plight of the African couple, Behn's first-person narrative systematically reinforces their commercial worth as economic properties whose bodies and stories are equally susceptible to Western commodification.


Read more about Aphra Behn and Oroonoko.