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Study Questions: Aphra Behn and Oroonoko

Vocabulary: Travel narrative, Slave narrative, Noble Savage, Senex Amans (connect with Imoinda and the old king), Middle Passage

Introduction to Aphra Behn: After her years as a playwright, what experimental (and scandalous) epistolary novel first brought Aphra Behn fame as a novel-writer?
Why did Aphra Behn probably travel to the Low Countries for King Charles II?
Who was John Hoyle and why was he significant in Aphra Behn's life?
What did Virginia Woolf claim all women should do in connection with Aphra Behn? Why did Woolf think this was appropriate?
How is the term "history" used differently in Aphra Behn's day than in modern times?

Character and Location Identification: Oroonoko/Caesar, Imoinda/Clemene, the king of Cormantian, the Otan, Onahal, Aboan, Trefry, Tuscan, Colonel Martin

  • Aphra Behn precedes her discussion of Oroonoko's history by describing trade with the native of Surinam. She also describes the aprons worn by the natives. Behn compares this garb to the clothing worn by what biblical figures? What does this suggest spiritually about the natives?
    Explain how Behn's description of the Surinam natives connects with Rousseau's idea of "The Noble Savage."
  • Why does Behn oppose introducing religion and law to the natives?
    What is funny (or sad?) about the way the natives mistakenly mourned for the Governor's so-called death?
  • Describe the process of acquiring and selling "lots" of slaves.
  • Oroonoko does not start out the narrative in Surinam. Our account picks up with his homeland in Coramantian. What modern-day country corresponds to Coramantien, according to the footnotes?
  • How old is the King of Coramantian when he dies? How old is Oroonoko when he takes the King's place as general for his people?
  • What are some of the favorable aspects of Oroonoko's learning and character, according to Behn's discussion on page 2174?
  • What are some of the physical aspects that characterize Oroonoko's appearance, according to Behn's discussion on page 2175? What does she find particularly pleasing about his nose? [Food for thought: does this passage show Behn rising above commonp rejudices against foreigners? Or does her description reinforce common prejudices in an odd way?]
  • Note Oroonoko's lovestruck behavior around Imoinda--the way he sends her gifts of slaves and flatters her with clever talk as well as the way he whispers her name over and over again. Compare and contrast this with the description of love in Castiglione's The Courtier or Andreas Capellanus.
    Aphra Behn contrasts the sexual mores of Christian Europe with those of the Ghanan natives. Typically, a man having premarital sex with a woman is considered sinful in Christian European thought in the 1600s. According to Behn, what behavior among men do the African tribesmen consider sinful?
  • Explain the custom of the royal veil. What does it mean if the king sends this veil to a person?
  • When Imoindais brought before the king after receiving the veil, what does Imoinda reveal to the king that angers him?
  • What is the Otan?
  • Who is Onahal? What is her job in the palace?
  • What subtle action does Onahal witness taking place between Oroonoko and Imoinda?
  • What does Oroonoko do with Imoinda before the king and the entire court that clearly demonstrates their forbidden affection? What orders does the king give to Oroonoko to separate him from Imoinda immediately after this?
  • When Oroonoko sneaks back into the Otan and visits Imoinda at night, Aphra Behn changes her writing style and tone--inserting the phrase "I believe" several times int he paragraph. Why does Behn change her tone here and suddenly assert her limited knowledge of what transpired?
  • Careful readers will note the parallels with Oroonoko and Uriah the Hittite in the Old Testament. Careful readers will also note on page 2184 that Oroonoko's entrapment in the bedroom echoes Lancelot's entrapment in Gwenevere's bedroom in Arthurian legend. Likewise, the battle scene where Oroonoko seeks his own death is strikingly reminiscent of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Why is Behn establishing these two connections? What does it suggest about Oroonoko? What does it suggest about Behn's rhetorical strategy or her goals for characterizing Oroonoko and shaping the reader's response to him?
  • What punishment does the king order for Imoinda after discovering them together in the palace?
  • Who or what is the Captain of the Clouds in the indigenous religion?
  • How does the European captain manage to enslave Oroonoko? What is Aphra Behn's statement about his "act of bravery" when she hears others praise the captain for his deeds?
  • When Oroonoko realizes he has been trapped, chained, and enslaved, what does he resolve to do (or perhaps, not do)?
  • When Oroonoko offers his oath not to kill himself but instead to obey the captain, how does the captain respond to this oath initially, as it comes from a heathen? What is Oroonoko's cutting retort when he hears the captain's claim about heathens and their ignorance of God?
  • When the Captain argues that a real Christian would expect to go to hell if he violated an oath to God, what is Oroonoko's response?
  • What is the name of the "young Cornish gentleman" that buys Oroonoko to put him to work on the plantation?
  • What new name from classical history does Trefry assign to Oroonoko?
  • When other black slaves first see Oroonoko brought to Parham house, what do they do in his presence? (I.e, what do they say and what do they do with their bodies?) What does this reveal about Oroonoko's status?
  • What name from classical literature does Trefry assign to Imoinda?
    Trefry states to Aphra Behn, "I confess, when I have, against her will, entertained her with love so long as to be transported withmy passion, even above decency, I have been ready to make use of those advantages of strength and force nature has given me. But oh! She disarms me with that modesty and weeping, so tender and so moving that I retire, and thank my stars she overcame me." What is Trefry admitting? Why is it incongruous or creepy that he casually admits this to Aphra Behn? What does this suggest about the commonly accepted practices of male slave-owners who own female slaves?
  • When Trefry introduces Caesar to Clemene, what is he pleased and surprised to discover?
    When Oroonoko realizes that Trefry is delaying his freedom--in spite of Oroonoko's offer of gold or vast quantity of slaves, he begins to suspect Trefry wants to hold onto Imoinda until she does what?
  • Aphra Behn is particularly impressed with the timber and wildlife of the New World on pages 2198-99 of our textbook. What animal does she compare to a little rhinoceros the size of a pig?
  • What is Oroonoko's reaction to Aphra Behn's discussion of the trinity?
  • When Behn and her companions seek out tigers in their dens, who saves them from an attacking tiger?"
  • In the footnotes, how does the Abrams anthology explain the use of masculine pronouns in reference to a female tiger? Do you buy this argument? Why or why not?
  • Later, Oroonoko offers to hunt and kill a different tiger that has been preying upon livestock in the area. When he kills this tiger, what do the men find in its heart?
  • What trait or quality does Behn find amazing about the "numb eel"?
  • After hostilities break out between thenatives and the European colonists, several atrocities occur. In spite of this, Behn and her companions seek out one of the Indian towns. Describe some of the reactions the Indians have to viewing Aphra Behn and her clothing.
  • What does "Tepeeme" mean in aboriginal dialect, according to Aphra Behn's interpretation?
    When one of Behn's relatives sits down and displays the use of a magnifying glass to start a fire, how do the natives react?
  • What does "Peeie" mean in the aboriginal dialect, according to Aphra Behn's interpretation?
  • When the natives decide that one member of the party is a peeie, what request do they makeof him?
  • Behn reveals that many warriors in the tribe are missing lips and noses or they have missing chunks from their cheeks. She discovers that these injuries occur from an unusual type of ritual mutilation. Explain how or why the Indians make these cuts upon their faces.
  • What medical condition becomes apparant in Imoinda as the months pass?
  • What is Tuscan's response to Oroonoko's diatribe when Oroonoko insults the warriors for not rising up and rebelling against the slave-holders? What is Oroonoko's response to this protest?
  • What weapon does Imoinda use against the English when the fight breaks out?
  • Which slave shoots the governor in the shoulder during the ruckus?
  • After Tuscan and Caesar/Oroonoko surrender to the Governor in exchange for a pardon , they enter the area where slaves are punished. What does the Governor order at this point--in violation of their agreement?
  • What do the slavemasters rub into the open whip-marks on the slaves?
  • Why do the slavers take Imoinda to Parham and shut her away while Caesar and Tuscan are whipped? (i.e., what are they afraid will happen if Imoinda watches the punishment?)
  • It turns out that the arrow used to shoot the governor was poisoned. Who or what saves the governor's life?
  • On page 2211, what does the governor initially consider as a means of punishment/revenge against the offending archer who shot him?
  • On page 2212, what desperate plan do Oroonoko and Imoinda devise to avoid having the governor carry through with his proposed punishment/vengeance?
  • The scene when Oroonoko speaks to Imoinda has several comparable traits to Shakespeare's Othello, Act V. Why do you suppose Behn creates this similarity?
  • When the searchers find Oroonoko with Imoinda's body, what do they shout out at him?
  • What does Oroonoko throw at the men who accuse him of murdering Imoinda?
  • The onlookers initially keep their distance from Oroonoko as he mutilates himself. When one sees him greatly weakened and rushing forward to strike Oroonoko, what does Oroonoko do?
  • According to our footnotes, the Abrams text interprets "gashly" as meaning "ghastly." Do you agree with this annotation? Why or why not? What other possibilities might explain this word in terms of printsetting or in terms of rhetorical schemes and tropes?

Identification of Passages (Be able to explain who the author is, from what work this piece of literature comes, and be able to provide 2-3 sentences of commentary explaining its significance or importance:

A. For the captain had protested to himupon the word of a Christian, and sworn in the name of a great god, which,if he should violate, he wouldexpect eternal torment in the world to come. "Is that allt he obligation he has to be just to his oath?" replied [xxx]. "Let him know I swear by my honor; which to violate, would not only render me contemptible and despised by all brave and honest men, and so give myself perpetual pain, but it would be eternally offending and diseasing all mankind. . . but punishments hereafter are suffered by one's self, and the world takes no cognizances whether this god have revenged 'em or not, 'tis done so secretly and deferred so long."

B. " I confess, when I have, against her will, entertained her with love so long as to be transported with my passion, even above decency, I have been ready to make use of those advantages of strength and force nature has given me. But oh! She disarms me with that modesty and weeping, so tender and so moving that I retire, and thank my stars she overcame me."

C. For my part, I took 'em for hobgoblins or fiends rather than men; but however their shapes appeared, their souls were very humane and noble; but some wanted their noses, some their lips, some both noses and lips, some their ears, and others cut through each cheek with long slashes.

D: This young Peeie had a very young wife, who seeing my brother kiss her, came running and kissed me; after this they kissed one another, and made it a very great jest, it being so novel.

E: But [xxx] told him there was no faith in the white men or the gods they adored, who instructed 'em in principles so false that honest men could not live among'st em; though no people professed so much, none performed so little; that he knew what he had to do when he dealt with men of honor, but with them a man ought to be eternally on his guard, and never to eat or drink with Christians without his weapon of defense in his hand; and for his own security, never to credit one word they spoke.

F: He told her his design first of killing her, and then his enemies, and next himself, and the impossibility of escaping, and therefore he told her the necessity of dying, he found the heroic wife faster pleading for death than he was to propose it, when she found his fixed resolution.

G: Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise; yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda.




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