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Romanticism and Realism: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko

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Romanticism and Realism are two of the most prominent movements of the nineteenth-century in European literature. Both are closely related but differ vastly in various ways such as plot and characterization. Romanticism spawned by the time of the Industrial Revolution as a protest of the Enlightenment era. It is based on the interests of history or a legend and is often made up to make the story both exotic and strange. On the other hand, Realism, is inspired from aspects of real life by using actual settings and does not make things more appealing. In Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, it can be argued that Behn incorporated elements of both Romance and Realism to make her story.

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Oroonoko serves as one of the earliest novels that was written and published in the late 17th century. The story is based on the life and death of an African prince Oroonoko who was tricked and sold into slavery in the colony of Surinam, present-day Suriname. Furthermore, it follows the ill-fated romance between this prince and his wife Imoinda. Before moving to Suriname, Oroonoko had struggled with his romance between him and Imoinda. His grandfather, the king had competed with Oroonoko for Imoinda’s hand. 

Eventually, he had lost to his grandfather and had tried to make his moves by sneaking into the royal living quarters. Oroonoko was caught and his lover was supposedly put to death by his grandfather. Later on, he would fight a battle where his army turned out to be the victors of the struggle against invading forces. He was then tricked by a British captain and eventually landed in the colony of Surinam. Only to be sold to a colonial settler, Trefry who turned out to treat Oroonoko as if he was a friend. In addition, he would reunite with his former lover and would eventually be concerned with his status as a slave. Imoinda had become pregnant and he did not want his child to inherit the same status. He would then lead a failed slave revolt and would later be captured.

Aphra Behn utilizes several different themes to describe Oroonoko’s discovery and capture. When the search party arrives, they find an odd smell of a rotting corpse. Initially, they had thought to find Oroonoko but instead they find what remained of his wife. Oroonoko pleads with them to stay away and not to approach him further. They were shocked at their findings and inquired him for the murder. 

But Oroonoko ignores them and instead tells them to go back and tell Byam, the deputy governor in Suriname, that he will not be able to exact his revenge and that he is lucky. Here, we can see a common theme in Romanticism, Honor. Behn tries to point out that although Oroonoko has transformed into a monster of some sort to the colonists, she tries to remind readers that the true monster is still out there. Byam, is treacherous and cruel in many ways and that the Imionda’s death had affected Oroonoko’s desire to have his revenge.

When the search party arrives, the council decided it was a good time to seize Oroonoko and carry out their plan to capture and kill him. When they returned to the forest, they did not want to approach him. Oroonoko warns them to not approach him or he will kill anyone that comes near him. To exemplify his exact words and instill fear in them, he cuts off a piece of his own throat and throws it at the men. He also ripped up his belly and pulled out some of his bowels. One of the men grew courage and tries to capture him, only to get killed with his own knife. 

Here, Behn uses themes of Honor, Betrayal and Freedom to illustrate these moments. We see that Oroonoko is not willing to give up his stance which exemplifies Honor and we further see that the Council wanted to capture him and carry out their scheme which portrays Betrayal. Honor and Betrayal are common themes in Romanticism but Freedom is a theme of realism. She emphasizes moral decay by showing their reluctance to approach him and that they are afraid of Oroonoko, even in his weakened state. She also utilizes realistic depictions of the war practices of Africa where Oroonoko came from to prove to the colonists of his lack of fear.

One of the colonists in the search party, Tuscan was moved by Oroonoko’s resolution and proclaims his love for the man. He runs towards him and tries to take Oroonoko in his arms only to get stabbed in the arm. Tuscan’s relations with Oroonoko is complicated but we see another theme of Romanticism, Love. His supposed apology for double-crossing Oroonoko is clearly too late as he gets stabbed and we can see that Oroonoko considers treachery as the greatest offense. 

But, we do see that Tuscan had manifested some form of remorse towards the situation and redeemed himself through this selfless act of courage. After Oroonoko is brought back and his friends tended to his wounds, one of the Council men, Banister kidnaps him and brings him back to the same whipping post. Banister then openly tells Oroonoko that he will perish to which Oroonoko openly tells him that he appreciates his efforts of being honest and truthful of his way 

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