The Savior and Dismemberment in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko

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.

Works Cited
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
February 2010.

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3 Responses to “The Savior and Dismemberment in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Hi Kate,

    I agree that Oroonoko is portrayed as Christ-like, especially because the narrator seems to be extremely attached and awed by Oroonoko. He, as you say, “willingly submits to his own crucifixion”. The narrator portrays Oroonoko as extremely heroic, and it seems clear throughout her narration that she wants Oroonoko portrayed in a certain positive way. For example, in addition to becoming a Christ-like figure, the narrator eroticizes Oroonoko in other parts of the text and seems to fancy him. For example, she describes Oroonoko: “He was . . . but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied. . . His eyes were the most aweful that could be seen . . . His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen . . . The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome. There was no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty” (12). Later in the novel she writes: “He had a spirit all rough and fierce, and that could not be tamed to lazy rest. . . actions great enough for his large soul, which was still panting after more renowned action” (46). Thus, she admires Oroonoko greatly, and by European-izing him by way of his Christ-like death, his Roman nose (12), and valuable education she comfortably trusts Oroonoko, perhaps convincing her readers as well.

    Works Cited

    Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” Oroonoko and Other Writings. Ed. Frank Ellis. New York: Oxford
    University Press, 1994. 3-73. Print.

  2. katewallis Says:

    Elizabeth,

    Thank you for adding your thoughts to my blog; you make some excellent points, some of which I previously pondered at length. In fact, I almost wrote a blog on the later quote you mention, which pertains to the narrator’s description of Oroonoko’s facial features. As you state, the narrator remarks upon Oroonoko’s typically non-African physical traits: light-colored skin, a Roman nose, and thinly shaped lips. I found this passage to be extremely offensive, yet undeniably interesting. You write that by “European-izing” Oroonoko, she “convinces her readers.” I hadn’t considered this idea before, but I think you’re absolutely correct. By describing him with European features and by making him handsome, the reader becomes more attracted to him, allowing them to empathize and sympathize with him more easily. Ironically, this actually reminds me of the way Europeans and Americans tend to “European-ize” images of Jesus. Although historically, we know he would have had dark skin and dark hair, we often see him depicted as Caucasian, blond, and blue eyed.

  3. Jennifer Evans Says:

    Kate, I really enjoyed reading your blog. Oroonoko is seen as a Christlike figure. I appreciate all the parallels you drew between the novella and the Gospel and I completely agree. Additionally, I found a few passages describing Surinam that reminded me of the Garden of Eden and man before the fall. When explaining the people of Surinam, the narrator says, “And though they are all thus naked, if one lives forever among ’em, there is not to be seen an indecen action, or glance, and being continually used to see one another unadorned, so like our first parents before the Fall” (Behn 7). Later the narrator describes Surinam.

    “It [the continent] affords all things both for beauty and use; ’tis there etneral spring, always the very months of April, May and June; the shades are perpetual, the trees beating at once all degrees for leaves and fruit, from blooming buds to ripe autumn; groves of oranges, lemons, citrons, figs, nutmegs, and noble aromatics, continually bearing their fragrancies” (Behn 47).

    I think Oroonoko could be seen as somewhat of an abridged retelling of the Bible, although with a much different ending.

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