Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko concludes with the hero’s ghastly execution. The following conversation and events ensue between Oroonoko and his executioners:
And turning on the men that bound him, he said, ‘My friends, am I to die, or to be whipped?’ and they cried, ‘Whipped! No, you shall not escape so well.’ And then he replied, smiling, ‘A blessing on thee’, and assured them, they need not tie him, for he would stand fixed like a rock…and the executioner came, and first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire; after that, with an ill-favoured knife, they cut his ears, his nose, and burned them. ( Behn 72)
In the above passage, Oroonoko becomes a Christ-like figure, and thus, at times, his execution mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion. For example, Oroonoko blesses the men who bind and prepare him for an excruciating death, similar to Jesus’ plea to God in St. Luke’s Gospel, where he asks God to forgive his accusers, “for they know not what they do” (King James Bible, Luke 23:34). Oroonoko also parallels Jesus in his refusal to save himself; he “assured them, they need not tie him, for he would stand fixed like a rock,” echoing the biblical scene where Jesus, although taunted by soldiers who challenge him to save himself, willingly submits to his own crucifixion (King James Bible, Luke 23:37). The word “rock” has Christian implications of its own: after Jesus’ death, when his followers visit his tomb, they discover “the stone rolled away from the sepulcher” (King James Bible, Luke 24:2). Oroonoko is also Christ-like because he dies for the “sins” of his fellow slaves. Through much of the novella, Oroonoko represents the slaves’ leader, and he is often referred to as their “king” (Behn 73), which echoes Jesus’ title, “King of the Jews” (King James Bible, Luke 23:3).
Oroonoko’s dismemberment, first by his own hand in a preceding scene, and again in the scene above, alludes to the Indians’ voluntary self-dismemberment. As explained by the narrator, Indian warriors battled with one another to become the head general in an impending war. Each attempted to outshine the other by disfiguring himself to an extremer degree: “When he who is first asked, making no reply, cuts off his nose and throws it contemptibly on the ground, and the other does something to himself that he thinks surpasses him…” (Behn 56). Although in the passage above, the executioner means to humiliate Oroonoko by removing his genitalia, and then later, his nose, he in fact aggrandizes him through the process of dismemberment. Through his dismemberment, Oroonoko achieves a Christ-like status, first, through the biblical imagery in the passage above, but also because he symbolically becomes the prevailing Indian warrior who wins the honor to fight for his people, or in Oroonoko’s case, the slave population in the British colony.
Yet the novella’s conclusion presents readers with an interesting irony. One must assume that the championed Indian who wins the right of generalship in war must become extremely physically weakened by the dismemberment he endures; thus, he will most likely represent a poor warrior and leader in battle. Similarly, though Oroonoko’s death serves as appeasement for the British colonizers and plantation owners, his followers and fellow slaves remain imprisoned, and thus, their so-called savior seemingly dies for nothing.
Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” Oroonoko and Other Writings. Ed. Frank Ellis. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1994. 3-73. Print.
The Bible: King James Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. NetLibrary. Web. 03