Reading the Greek Romance: Reading Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

Jean Alvares

Montclair State University

In studying and teaching works of a particular genre from the Classical world it is useful to compare them with works from different cultural and historical circumstances. For comparison to the Greek novels, some critics employ Harlequin-style novels, others medieval romances such as Aucassin and Nicolette. Here I propose another text which fits within the Classical tradition, possesses many images and motifs familiar from the Greek romance, and is the product of a cultural milieu similarly problematic. I suggest the short novel Oroonoko, composed in 1688 by Aphra Behn, one of the first English professional women writers, who, like the authors of the Greek novels, wrote from the margins of society. It is often read in English classes. While it has a tragic ending, there are many useful points of comparison. Some examples; similar to the Greek romances, Oroonoko describes the ideal beauty, nobility, courage and erotic fidelity of the African prince Oronooko and his equally ideal Imoinda; likewise the couple suffer various assaults on their erotic faithfulness and life, including being sold into slavery. Although Oroonoko is a near-epic warrior, he is incapacitated by love like the usual Greek romantic lover. Greek romantic protagonists are hailed as natural leaders (Chaireas) or even mistaken for gods; likewise Africans and Europeans of quality admire Oroonoko. Recalling Anthia and Tarsia, the enslaved Imoinda by her purity disarms the aggressive attentions of admirers, and she and Oronooko are fortuitously reunited on a slave-plantation. The Greek romances often subvert Hellenocentrism; Heliodorus presents his Ethiopians as a utopian people, although with some flaws; Behn's description of Oronooko's noble savages is likewise utopian. Details in Greek romances relate to conflicts within Greco-Roman societies and tensions between Rome and its subjects; Heliodorus' and Chariton's descriptions of the Persian imperial depredations implicitly criticize Rome; Behn's work reflects late seventeenth century English politics as well as European colonial imperialism and its complex relationship with non-European cultures; her Oroonoko is the victim of blatant European injustice. As the Greek novels question Greek paideia, so in Oroonoko Europe's greater level of civilization is undermined by its degraded morality. Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius in particular present ethnicity in quite ideologically complex ways; Leucippe and Clitophon are problematically Hellenized Phoenicians, while Charicleia confusingly combines the lineages of Ethiopia, Greece and Egypt. Oronooko is Africa by birth, but had a French tutor, can speak various European languages and has substantial curiosity about European culture, which proves his undoing. It is notable that Oroonoko's slave name is Caesar, and, contemplating natural obstacles to his escape, he thinks of Hannibal attempting the Alps. Oronooko delights in natural paradoxa as do some Greek novels. Behn's hero also shows a jarring otherness which recalls Heliodorus' Thyamis; when his revolt fails, Oronooko kills his pregnant wife, who welcomes death. The Greek novels present politically oppositional and accommodationist mindsets; while Oronooko gives a rousing speech calling his fellow slaves to fight for freedom, he is ultimately betrayed by their slavish nature—as he himself claims. Thus European power is cast as both regrettable and inevitable. The Greco-Roman novels feature complex narrative fictions and unreliable narrators; Oronooko's story is narrated by Behn herself who is a character in this fiction (which she represents as true), whose own fictional role is quite ambiguous.


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