Oroonoko Themes

Aphra Behn

Oroonoko

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Oroonoko Themes

Truth and Honor 

The issue of truth is raised on the first page when the narrator assures us that what follows is a true story, rather than invention or fabrication. There are a number of possible reasons for this emphasis on truth, one being that the author is attempting to deflect any sexist criticism of her work. The numerous references to the Dutch conquest of Surinam might also suggest that Behn was making a case for the English to regain control of the colony, a case that would be bolstered by claiming that the novella and its descriptions of Surinam’s natural resources were true.

Within the narrative itself, truth and honor are significant at a number of key moments. For example, Oroonoko’s attempt to save face in front of his grandfather by pretending not to care about Imoinda backfires; it is only when the king realizes that Oroonoko loved her all along that he begins to feel remorse. More significant, however, are those moments in which truth and honor are conflated in the form of an oath. Two particular instances are Oroonoko’s exchanges with the English captain and Deputy Governor Byam.

In both of these instances a man’s word is questioned. For Oroonoko, his word is his honor and so he would never break an oath. The English captain, however, who has the audacity to question Oroonoko’s word on the basis that he is not a Christian, breaks the vow he makes in the name of the Christian god and sells Oroonoko as a slave.

Having learned from his experience with the captain, Oroonoko is less trusting of Byam’s promise that, if he surrenders, he will be granted his freedom. He demands that the terms of his surrender are set out in writing, “because he had perceived that was the common Way of Contract between Man and Man amongst the Whites” (87). Here, the novella suggests that one of the reasons Oroonoko places so much value on his word is that he lives in a society that doesn’t use writing; in his oral culture, a man’s word is the only way he has…

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