So we’ve met the characters and the author, and I’ve kind of alluded to how this fits into my research. I now attempt to back up my rampant explanation, in this second installment.
As I mentioned in my synopsis last entry Oroonoko takes place in two lands: the monarchy of Coramentium and the colony of Surinam. It is in the monarchy we first meet our hero and are introduced to the spectacle he is. Behn takes pains to describe every aspect of his appearance which, frankly, is blatantly a European aristocrat in blackface (a sentence in fact describes his nose as protruding). Oroonoko and Imoinda are described as “Mars and Venus” — classical terms for figures meant to evoke a classical hero and heroine. The old country of Coramentium, a land of heroes and obeisance to benevolent patriarchs, is echoed in the slave name bestowed upon Oroonoko; Caesar.
Almost every way Oroonoko comports himself is akin to that of a classical masterpiece. He is clearly meant to be seen and put on display. As a prince this is exactly as it should be; monarchs are meant to be a “presence.” Oroonoko is as much the center of attention as the Queen in Dryden’s Secret Love. Oroonoko’s status, in my opinion, is what the field of literary criticism would call “queered” (I use “queer” in the academic sense of not conforming to strict gender roles, not with regard to sexual orientation). He’s the object of the populace’s gaze; the powerful predecessor to what John Berger would term the “male gaze.” The frontespiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan demonstrates the monarch’s power as center of attention (note that the sovereign’s trunk is made up of teeny tiny people with their attention all turned to his face).
This queering becomes more evident when contrasted with the rise of invisible capital during the age of colonization. Suddenly, anybody could become wealthy and powerful, not merely those ordained by god who spent their loves as objects of adoration. The performative nature of royalty and nobility would increasingly become associated with superficiality, weakness and — auspiciously — femininity.
Oroonoko occupies a strange perch between these two worlds. His grandfather, the Coramentee king who all must adore and obey, is aged and impotent. He never consummates a relationship with Imoinda; she loses her virginity to Oroonoko. Their relationship is a monogamous one which smacks of bourgeois companionship and affection (by the standards of the time in which it was written). Oroonoko participates in commerce, capturing and selling slaves.
Indeed, the narrator notes that many of Oroonoko’s fellow-slaves had originally been sold into slavery by their prince. Upon arriving in the booming mercantile colony Oroonoko becomes a (figuratively) emasculated object of spectacle. He is admired by almost every single person, particularly the Suriname natives who scrutinize him as he passively allows. Furthermore, in accord with the treatment of Africans enslaved by Europeans during that time, he is treated as a pet by the female narrator. He becomes an adornment for a woman, a member of a sex increasingly associated with adornments and superficiality with the rise of invisible capital. Slaves were often represented as pet-like figures offering up exotic fruits and gems supposedly from the colonies, which served to represent of the reach of European mercantile powers.
So it is with the Oroonoko, object of the narrator’s (fe)male gaze. He kills a wild animal cub and lays it at his “Great Mistress'” feet. His admonishment to his fellow slaves during the failed rebellion that they are “worse than dogs” is both literal and figurative. Furthermore blackness, as lampshaded by the monarchical nature of Coramentee politics, becomes associated with femininity. Ironically, due to the narrator’s whiteness, she becomes associated with masculinity.
Finally, two things probably most represent the queering of the narrator and Oroonoko. The first is Oroonoko’s seemingly pederastic relationship with a younger soldier in Coramentium (I use “pederastic” in the original context of an erotically tinged mentor/protege relationship between a somewhat older, more powerful man and a junior man, not the contemporary usage which seems to be a synonym for “ephebophile”). The younger soldier enters into a relationship with one of the kings older wives in order to facilitate the prince’s access to Imoinda, thereby “taking one for the team” in order to help the object of his devotion. As for the narrator, she notes that her “female pen” will enable Oroonoko to live on, rather than his murdered wife/womb and aborted child.
A few notes about Imoinda; as a black woman, she is doubly oppressed in the world of the novella (and as in real life). Both of the men who covet her see that she must be possessed utterly, or is utterly worthless. When Imoinda reveals she has lost her virginity to Oroonoko the king banishes her. When Oroonoko fears she will be prey to the white men’s “nasty lusts,” he murders her. Not even the sole source of her worth, her sexuality, can save her life. When the child she bears will not carry on Oroonoko’s lineage (or even be subject to Oroonoko’s control) her womb becomes a liability rather than an asset. It is up to the more powerful white woman to tell of Oroonoko’s legacy over the dead body of a black woman.
In our next installment: finally tying this in to my project! Also, coming soon — the good doctor’s excursion to Ten Hills Farm! An actual MA slave plantation.