ABSTRACT

Aphra Behn’s novella with its violent account of the execution of an African slave who was once a king was published - significantly - in 1688, the year that saw the bloodless deposi­ tion of King Jam es II in England.1 The social unrest that led to the dismemberment of the slave-king in Behn’s fiction is matched by a similar discord in late-seventeenth-century England that issued in the ousting of the final Stuart king from his throne. Reality and fiction seem to mimic each other yet, as this chapter will show, the symmetries that Oroonoko suggests are ulti­ mately spurious ones. In this reading of the intricacies of O roonoko , I shall argue that Behn utilizes the ambiguity and eccentric vision of the woman writer in order to indicate that a confluence of perspectives between the black slave Oroonoko and his sympathetic white female friend is an impossibility. The partisan and divisive nature of political and ethnic identity, as of sexual desire, ultimately prevents the harmonious and nonexploitative co-existence of different races. This reading of Oroonoko consequently runs counter to many recent inter­ pretations that celebrate it as an unproblematic and pioneering document in the history of anti-slavery literature. In particular, it contests the finding frequently proposed as a key to Behn’s liberalism - namely the belief that slavery functions in Oroonoko as a means of tracing a parallelism between the subjugation of other races and the oppression of women. This view holds that Behn’s narrator identifies with the fate of a black slave because she sees his powerlessness as homologous with her own.