Books and Movies Reviews

The Noble Savage in Oroonoko

Oroonoko cannot be classified as fact or fiction, realism or romance. In the still unshaped field of prose narrative – where a "history" could mean any story, true or false – Behn combines the attractions of three older forms. First, she presents the work as a memoir. According to a friend, Behn has told this tale over and over; perhaps that explains the conversational ease with which she turns back and forth, interpreting faraway scenes for her readers at home. Second, Oroonoko is a travel narrative in three parts. It turns west to a new world often exalted as a paradise, then east to Africa and the erotic conspiracies of a corrupt old-world court (popular reading fare), then finally west again with its hero across the infamous "Middle Passage" where over millions of slaves will be transported during the next century – to the conflicts of a raw colonial world. Exotic scenes fascinate Behn, but she wants even more to talk to people and learn about their ways of life. As in imaginary voyages, from Sir Thomas More's Utopia to Gulliver's Travels and Rasselas, encounters with foreign cultures sharply challenge Europeans to reexamine themselves. Behn's primitive Indians and noble Africans live by a code of virtue of loyalty and honor, which "civilized" Christians often ignore. Oroonoko embodies this code. Above all, the book is his biography. Courageous, high-mined, and great-hearted, he rivals the heroes of classical epics and Plutarch's Lives and its equally worthy of fame. Nor does he lack gentler virtues. Like the heroes of the seventeenth-century heroic dramas and romances, he shines in the company of women and proves his nobility by his passionate and constant love for Imoinda, his ideal counterpart.
Humanity has fallen from bad to worse since Adam and Eve had the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Humans, in classical mythology, have fallen from a Golden Age, t…

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