Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

After Imoinda is sold, the king starts having second thoughts: maybe his marrying her was not such a good idea and what happened later was a just punishment from his god (whom they call the Captain of the Clouds). Maybe Oroonoko could be excused and maybe it’s not a good idea to alienate him, taking into account that he is his only descendant and the commander of his army. Maybe he should have executed Imoinda, because it was the more honourable option for her and apparently she herself begged for it. The narrator says that in this culture enslavement is the worst dishonour and fate worse than death, but I am not so sure if she does not share the view that death is the most honourable way out for victims of rape – after all, Behn was brought up in the culture where Lucretia was constantly held up as the paragon of virtue. So to make amends, instead of trying to find Imoinda and buy her back, the king has the brilliant idea to send a messenger to Oroonoko, ask his forgiveness on the king’s behalf and lie to Oroonoko that Imoinda is indeed dead. When the messenger arrives to Oroonoko’s camp, he immediately recognizes by his look that he has some very bad news. He lays himself on a carpet in his rich pavillion, very depressed. The messenger tells him that the king begs his forgiveness and says that anyway Oroonoko is going to have his revenge soon when the old king dies. Oroonoko magnanimously says that he bears no grudge and it’s more probable he is going to die sooner. Then, instead of going into the battle, he lies on the carpet all day, while the enemy forces very obligingly wait. Finally his generals come to him, pointing out that they can’t wait anymore and he should lead them into the battle. He declines, saying that he is no more interested in glory of any other things of this world. When they ask him to name his substitute, he refuses to do it either, saying only that they should choose among themselves the bravest, without paying attention to rank or social position. I am not sure if Oroonoko or Behn realize what can of worms it would open in the real world, because as noble as this advice is, bravery is not a very quantifiable quality.

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Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

The king is suspicious and believes Imoinda tripped on purpose. He sends a messenger to check on Oroonoko, and the messenger reports on returning that Oroonoko is despondent. That of course makes the king even more suspicious and he sends his men to spy on Oroonoko. They follow him and Aboan to the gates of the Otan, after which they leave to report it to the king immediately. Meanwhile, Onahal leads Oroonoko to Imoinda’s bedroom, after which she goes with Aboan to her own bedroom, where Aboan will give a proof of his loyalty to Oroonoko by suffering her caresses. Oroonoko wakes up Imoinda and it does not take much convincing from him to consummate their love. It turns out – oh joy! – that Imoinda is still a virgin. I mean, has been a virgin. As they are reposing in bed, they hear the noises of the king’s servants approaching. Oroonoko grabs his small battle-axe and cries out that he is going to kill the first man who enters; this place is sacred to love and belongs to him this night, tomorrow it may be the king’s. “All right then”, say the servants, “we’ll go back to the king and tell him that his fears have been confirmed, and you fetch for yourself.” Oroonoko and Aboan run away, believing that if Imoinda tells the king he broke into her bedroom and raped her, it should be enough to protect her. Imoinda, in turn, is not afraid to put the blame on Oroonoko because she knows the army is going to take his side. But alas, it only saves her from a death sentence. But since in this country having sex with a woman who has had sex with your family member is taboo, the king looks now upon her as polluted and orders to sell both her and Onahal into slavery. It is done in such utmost secrecy that nobody knows what happened to them.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

Onahal has been fond of the handsome Aboan for quite some time, and he encourages her, because he knows you can get on in life far with the help of king’s wives, who really run the court, and she is still quite witty and a good conversationalist. Now when he finds out she can help Oroonoko as well, he is even more motivated. Oroonoko encourages him, saying that once he has sex with her, he can blackmail her into helping Imoinda and him. (Not very nice, and also a bit suicidal, because if Aboan reveals he’s had sex with Onahal, won’t he lose his life as well?) The wars start (it’s interesting how Behn writes about them, like about the inevitable seasonal cycle) and Oroonoko will have to leave for the army, but he won’t do it until he sees Imoinda once again. Here Behn’s timeline gets a bit fuzzy and I really think it’s the fault of some hasty rewriting, so she describes the same episode twice. During this last visit he and Imoinda stare at each other so lovingly that some jealous courtiers point it out to the king and cause Oroonoko to be sent to the army camp pronto. Oroonoko asks Aboan to convince Onahal to help him see Imoinda before he leaves. Then they attend the king to his seraglio, and this is where I think mis-editing happened – because Behn has just written it was Oroonoko’s last visit there. Putting these problems aside: Onahal declares her love to Aboan, Aboan says he loves her too, but unfortunately in their country people do not have much time for loving words and so they have to get down to the business, as it were. Onahal gives him his pearl earrings, and Aboan protests they are not the proof of love he had in mind. Onahal makes an appointment to meet him in the orange grove near the Otan at midnight. This conversation takes place during the traditional ladies’ dance. which is admired by the king stretched on one carpet and Oroonoko on another. (I think Behn is more inspired by what she may have read or heard about the customs at the Ottoman court than any real knowledge of African culture.) Imoinda while dancing pays too much attention to Oroonoko and she trips, falling straight into his arms. Fortunately she has the presence of mind to start back immediately, but it is enough to make the king very angry. He orders Oroonoko to go to the army camp immediately and not to return to the court on pain of death. Onahal is very concerned because of course Aboan is going to follow the prince, so she tells both of them to come to the orange grove.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

The old king has some compunction about stealing Imoinda from his grandson, especially since Imoinda can’t stop herself from talking about him. If she talked so about any other man, she would end up being executed, but the old king still loves Oronooko and is very proud of him, so he can’t help being flattered hearing him being praised even by his youngest wife. The courtiers sent to see how Oroonoko is doing, trying to do him a solid, return with the reports that Oroonoko totally got over Imoinda and now amuses himself with “his mathematicians, his fortifications, his officers, and his hunting”. The king, who must be very gullible to believe that any straight young male prefers the company of mathematicians to the most beautiful woman in the country, believes them, especially since Oroonoko manages to hide his emotions when he is invited to the court. The king also tells Imoinda about how Oroonoko is over her, at which she is heartbroken, but doesn’t stop loving him.

The king, being perfectly certain that there is no risk from Oroonoko, invites him and some other friends to a party in the Otan, and when Oroonoko sees Imoinda, he can’t hide his feelings anymore – he blushes and grows pale (yes, it can happen to black people, too, adds the narrator), but fortunately Imoinda manages to divert the king so he doesn’t notice anything amiss. Through looking at each other they express a whole range of emotions like being profoundly in love with the other, being a bit angry that the other apparently has forgotten them etc. When Onahal, one of the king’s older wives, opens the door to the bedroom, Oroonoko almost faints at imagining what is going to take place there, but his friend Aboan supports him. The king goes inside with Imoinda and the door is shut. (It’s a kind of weird party when between appetizers and the main course you leave your guests for a while to have sex, but what do I know.) Oroonoko rolls on a carpet moaning in agony (literally) and Onahal can’t help noticing that. She and Aboan try to comfort him. She tells him that if he knew the king as well as she does, he would not be tormented by jealousy. Is she trying to tell him that the king can’t get it up or only that he is not awfully good in bed? Nevertheless, Oroonoko is a bit cheered up and is so nice to Onahal that she starts to take his side a bit. The king invites everybody now to his bedchamber and orders his younger wives, including Imoinda, to dance for them. While they perform, Onahal has a conference with Aboan in a window recess. Onahal, like all older wives retired from their wifely duties, as the narrator explains, was the minder of the younger wives, and being naturally jealous, was very severe with them. (They are a bit like the Aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale).

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

Meanwhile, the old king, having heard so much about Imoinda’s charms, takes a rather lively interest in her, despite already having a lot of wives and concubines. In this country maidens do not come to the court unless they are to marry the king,. So he comes up with a rather elaborate plan when he sends one of his courtiers with a gift, pretending it to be a gift from Oroonoko, and he pretends to be one of the slaves in his retinue. Imoinda proves to be everything she was rumoured to be and he immediately lusts after her. A certain obstacle is that when receiving the gift, she expressed her love for Oroonoko, but he is confident that since his subjects owe him unquestionable allegiance, her sense of duty is going to be stronger than her love. So he immediately sends her a wedding veil which is in his culture the sign that he wants to marry her. In a rather fanciful ceremony she is led to the bath where the king is sitting under a canopy. But when the door closes, she throws herself on the marble floor of the bath and says she is betrothed to another. The king is enraged and swears he is going to kill the man who married her without his consent, were it Oroonoko himself (which of course he perfectly knows it is). He orders her to deny this marriage and swear she is still a virgin, which she can do, because in fact they did not consummate their marriage yet. (This kind of murky in-between state between betrothal and marriage reminds me of Measure for Measure.) Oroonoko, who was away hunting all that time, is in despair when the news of Imoinda’s marriage reach him and wants to commit suicide. His only solace is that he believes the king is too old to consummate his marriage. But still, Imoinda is now more inaccessible to him than if she were imprisoned in a fortress or kidnapped by monsters, because he would still fight for her, but the duty of obedience to his king and grandfather is unbreakable. And even if he waits for the King’s death, the custom of this country forbids a son to marry his father’s wives. His friends argue that it was actually his grandfather who was in the wrong, taking away Oroonoko’s betrothed from him, so by marrying Imoinda after his grandfather’s death Oroonoko would just rectify this wrong. Oroonoko accepts it, but he really wants to find out whether his grandfather had sex with Imoinda or not (because then of course she is of no use to him). But no man can go inside Otan (the king’s seraglio) except for the king. So what to do? All these complications seem like an uneasy pairing of English canon law with what Behn imagines is the marriage customs of distant countries. And the implicit criticism of the unquestioning obedience towards the king seems to put in question Behn’s allegiance towards the Stuarts.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

Oroonko is not only a perfect gentleman but he is also very handsome. Here the narrative gets a bit complicated, as the narrator jumps to the moment when she first saw him, but without telling readers exactly when it was and under what circumstances. I guess it’s just the teething problems of the novel as a genre. She is also a bit guilty of implicit racism, even though she tries very hard not to, because the greatest compliment she can pay Oroonoko is to say that he is exactly like the best of white men, only coloured black. Even physically, he is very much like a white man, with a Roman nose and lips which are not thick, so it’s a little bit like his a negative image of a white man. (The young’uns won’t know what I’m talking about.) Oroonoko decides to go to pay his respects to the only daughter of the dead general Imoinda, what with his dying for him and so on. Imoinda is of course also divinely beautiful and virtuous (the narrator claims she saw white men throwing themselves at her feet), and they immediately fall in love with each other. Oroonoko, having left one hundred and fifty slaves he captured during the war with her, returns to his grandfather’s court, but all his warriors cannot stop themselves from singing Imoinda’s praises, so she is talked about in the whole court. I have a feeling nothing good can come out of this. But for the time being, Oroonoko returns to Imoinda. His love is the honourable one, stresses the narrator, but what’s honourable love in the country that practises polygamy? Here we see Behn navigating a difficult course between the conventions of the romance and her acknowledgement that she is writing about a different culture (even though she makes it suspiciously similar to any European court.) The dishonourable thing in this country is to abandon a woman and leave her without support, a thing too common in Christian countries which “prefer the bare name of religion, and, without virtue or morality, think that’s sufficient.” Nevertheless, Oroonoko vows to Imoinda that she is always going to be his only wife, even when she gets old, because “he should have an eternal idea in his mind of the charms she now bore, and should look into his heart for that idea when he could find it no longer in her face.” She accepts him and they decide Oroonoko’s grandfather should be the first to be told.

Aphra Behn – “Oroonoko” (ctd.)

The narrator explains that “we” (nice of her to take the responsibility, I think) do not harm natives simply because it’s not in the interest of the British – they depend on the natives for their food, and they are very skilled in foraging and hunting, “supplying the part of hounds” as she says, using a rather unfortunate phrase, because they can run so quickly and scour through the thickets. Secondly, they vastly outnumber the British. So the British live in perfect peace and harmony with Native Americans, and they get the workforce they need for their sugar plantations by importing slaves from Africa. She explains the trade system in great detail: plantation owners make a deal with the captain of a slave ship, agreeing to pay him a set amount of money for a given number of slaves, and when the slave ship arrives, they draw lots to establish which slaves they get, so they have no choice over how many men or women or children they get. So it’s not the auction system the readers are more familiar with from the US. The slaves are from a country (in reality a British fort in what is now Ghana) called Coramantien, and they are the by-product of constant wars in this country, when the vanquished army is enslaved and sold by the victor.

Now, the king of this country was over a hundred years old and all his sons were killed in the wars. His only male heir was his grandson, who at the age of five was apprenticed to a general to make him a perfect warrior. Oroonoko grows up to be not only an officer but also a gentleman: apart from his local tutor he also had a French tutor and he also hanged around with the English and Spanish traders and learnt their language. So he is up-to-date with all the latest news from Europe like the execution of Charles I and he holds the right opinion (i.e. the same as Behn’s) about it, that is it was an abhorrent thing. When Oroonoko is seventeen, his old general tutor is killed in a battle, when he gallantly throws himself in front of his pupil to take the arrow aimed at him, and Oroonoko is nominated to be the general in his place and goes to the court of his grandfather, which he hardly ever visited during his formative years.