Aristocratism and Authoritative Politics in Behn's Oroonoko: The Existential and Socio-Political Semiotics of Death and Torture
Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko offers a complex representation of the semiotic and socio-political meaning of seventeenth-century torture and death and the intersectional manner in which physical agony coincides with authoritative colonial politics. The novella’s protagonist, Oroonoko, is hyperbolically described in terms of his Eurocentric physicality and aristocratic traits; this descriptive treatment reinforces his singularity from his slave peers and objectifies him as the subject of their mass spectatorship. His sharp physical, cultural, and ideological divergence from the collective slave culture of Surinam places him on near egalitarian terms with the Europeans of the text; his placement as a cultural paragon further validates his aristocratic idealization. His eventual torture, employed with typical European punishments reserved for high treason and notable political traitors, functions as vastly more than the mere punishment of a rebel slave who challenges the socio-political ordering of racially stratified Surinam society.
Critics addressing the ontological and semiotic elements of Ornooko’s torture generally frame his death as an act of eulogized martyrdom. Such a formalistic, New Critical treatment of death in Oroonoko, while offering notable insight into the torturous action itself and Behn’s narrative treatment of the event, is ultimately limited in lucidly addressing the socio-political semiotics of the text. The conventional reading eclipses the ethical dilemmas deriving from authoritative European imperialism and the racialized social systems of Oroonoko’s society. Oroonoko’s agony, ethically objectionable, is sublimated by many critics and subsequently exchanged for viewing him as the martyred object of Eurocentric apotheosis.Such critics fail to recognize, or else ignorantly ignore the inconsequentiality of Oroonoko’s death. Despite his theatrical torture, no social movement of liberation for his fellow slaves is catalyzed after he perishes. Life in Surinam continues on as ever after his tragic end and British colonialism and imperial ideologies prevail. Furthermore, criticism fixating on Oroonoko’s death as an act of martyrdom restricts the text from functioning as a moral critique of European imperialism and British colonialist politics; a narrowed focus on Oroonoko’s torture even goes so far as to complicity venerate his death as extolled martyrdom if taken to a New Critical extreme.
Conventional readings of the text fail to acknowledge the existential and political ramifications of Oroonoko’s demise, or, rather, the telling lack of such ramifications. Oroonoko’s death is nothing glorious or venerable; it is a meaningless, morally unjust end to a character oppressed by European masters who elevated him to near egalitarian terms as themselves only to dispose of him when his utilitarian purpose exhausted itself. Behn exaggerates Oroonoko’s human agency and aristocratic, Europeanized qualities, facilitating a romanticized aesthetical treatment where torture and death exist as quasi-martyrdom. When critically addressing the socio-political aspects of the text, falling prey to Behn’s narrative style circumvents, and, if not diligent to the author’s chicanerous narrativity, can even dismiss the social, political, and ideological implications of the protagonist’s death. This paper intends to explicate the socio-political and existential meaning of Oroonoko’s death, if such a meaning can even be gleaned from such an imperialistically imbued text.
Oroonoko is not a tale of lionized self-immolation and death; it is a tale of an existentially meaningless mortal end to a man who achieves no higher transcendent purpose nor the social reform he seeks in his homeland. His death, while certainly sentimentally tragic, is devoid of sublime heroic quality. Despite Behn’s romanticized narrative description of the act, Oroonoko’s assimilated Eurocentricity is unable to save him from his doom, and, illuminating the insignificance of his human agency, fails to elicit socio-political reform. The text, when stripped of its sophistical stylistic elements, depicts the limits of man’s existential will, reinforcing the socially deterministic notion of Oroonoko as an object of mass spectacle, assimilated product of European colonialist hegemony, and manifestation of superlative sentimental heroism reduced to a dismembered decease.
Analyzing Behn’s histrionic characterization of Oroonoko’s natural nobility is first required in understanding the semiotic meaning of his death. Oroonoko, as Pigg argues in his article, “Trying to Frame the Unframable: Oroonoko as Discourse in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko,” represents a dissimilar discursive model, one unlike the typical European discourse and its primary mode of verbal communication (106). When considering the manifold intersectionality of the text, embodying various historicist and semiotic discursive models, it is crucial to note how Oroonoko’s universal language, evinced through pantomimic, gestural communication, socially signifies his nobility.
Behn wrote Oroonoko during a historical milieu of inquiry into the etymological nature and interconnectedness of language; the mercantilist ethos, driving by colonialist enterprise, was infatuated with uncovering a universal language, a primeval Adamic language which would allow them to expedite globalizing trade efforts. The French philosopher, Rene Descartes, in a letter to fellow philosopher Marin Mersenne, believed there to be a relationship between “natural language (as speech) and the natural language of emotions caused by sensations” (Reiss 280). Behn, whether consciously or subconsciously aware of such philosophical and linguistical contemplation in her time, offers the character of Oroonoko as an amalgam of both spoken and unspoken language. His mode of communication, divergent from his native mode and the European mode, socially elevates him above the other characters of the novella. Furthermore, his mingled communicationary mode acts as a “bridge between European and African discourse” (Pigg 107). Emblematical of these two discursive models, Oroonoko seemingly becomes a supreme character who transcends the limitations of language, transcending even the need for verbal expression to convey his meaning, thus becoming the ultimate aristocrat.
The scene of Oroonoko and Imoinda upon their first meeting offers insight into the jointed discourse his character embodies:
This pantomimic scene relies on visual language to convey semiotic meaning; spoken language is anecdotal to what Oroonoko expresses “with his eyes.” Marta Figlerowicz, analyzing the theatrics of Oroonoko, believes the novella offers “highly visual, theatrical displays of emotion” (327). The emphasis on the external and exoterically dramaturgical reduces the introspective nature of sentiment, placing the primacy of meaning on the peripheral rather than the privacy of the psyche. Moreover, Figlerowicz argues that Behn’s use of “mass sensory experience and spectatorship allows her to dramatize the historicity and high tragic nature of Oroonoko’s life” (322). Figlerowicz, while evincing how the exoteric narrative medium dramatizes the events of the novella, ultimately neglects the socio-political consequences Behn’s descriptive mode fosters in her observation.
The externalization and augmented physicality of the novella serves, in paradoxical fashion, to sentimentalize; the pantomimic, romanticized descriptive style draws attention to itself and thus to implied internality rather than to the thematics of the text. Behn’s narrative style, placing primacy on the theatrical and exoteric, weakens the socio-political meaning of her work in favor of a mode of melodramatic ostentation. Behn entices the reader to become lost in the sensationalized aesthetics of the spectacularity of spectacle; the result becomes paradoxical to the exoteric medium it empoys. By externalizing the semiotic meaning of the novella in pantomimic portrayal and preferring the primacy of the physical over the internal world, Behn’s aesthetic functions to reduce the existential anguish of Oroonoko’s condition. By imposing melodramatic medium instead of accentuating the realities of his ruin, Oroonoko himself becomes the spectacle, the objectified subject of mass spectatorship for his fellow Surinamese.
The external world, a world Behn so hyperbolically emphasizes, illogically becomes subsidiary to the introspective situation of the protagonist, a situation, due to a lack of narrative insight into its condition, leaves the reader to speculate about. Behn’s novella, rich with socio, political, and existential semiotical meaning, destabilizes these abstract conceptions by preferring to place narrative primacy on the dramaturgical depiction of events, most notably the death of its protagonist. The narrative emphasis, so constricted on physical immediacy, diffuses the text of its ability to cogently function as an agent of social or moral critique. Rather than serve to refute colonialist authoritative enterprises, as the work is capable of doing when relativizing its hyperbolic theatricality, complicity substantiates the status quo of imperialistic British politics and institutional colonial racial stratification of Surinam society.
The narrative style of Oroonoko, exaggerating the extrinsic world through pantomimic representation and an unyielding primacy on physicality, invites the reader to ruminate on the sentimental rather than speculate on the socio-political elements of the text. Behn, dramatizing Oroonoko’s suffering with vivid verbosity, perpetuates royalist, European colonialist ideology and, wherever her authorial intentions may lie, offers an unsuccessful critique of Surinam society.
The mimetic of Oroonoko lures the reader into becoming a spectator of the text’s theatrics, unconsciously, if not consciously, diverting moral outrage at unjust colonialist politics by amplifying the human woes of Oroonoko. The lack of introspective access to Oroonoko’s character idealizes him as a stoic, romanticized hero instead of the subject of morally unjust colonialist systems. Aristotle’s theorizing on the nature of mimesis proves pertinent to such a reading of Oroonoko: in his Poetics he writes, “tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude.”
In the case of Behn’s novella, the tragedy of the text imitates the social and political injustices of Surinam’s racialzied society; the theatricality of the tragedy (Oroonoko’s death) depreciates the efficacy of the text as an instrument of social critique. Pity is viscerally felt by the reader for the physical pain of Oroonoko but revulsion of the society executing him is sublimated and vicariously redirected to a sense of solace for the anguished state of the story’s suffering hero. The act of death, an action so infused with the ability to exemplify a socio-political critique, serves to bring the reader to tears for the blight of the character rather than think critically on the circumstances of his death.
Figlerowizcz argues that Behn’s use of “mass sensory experience and spectatorship” allows her to efficaciously explore the socio-cultural and socio-political tensions of Oroonoko. This interpretation of Behn’s theatrical medium and its utility as an instrument of social and political criticism, while conceptually congruent with my argument, is misguided on multiple accounts. Conventional thinking would surmise that Behn’s emphasis on the exoteric and physical world would allow for a more fluid examination of the sociological elements of the novella. Sociologically speaking, dramaturgy, or, the considering of human behavior through a theatrical, metaphorical medium, should theoretically explicate the socio-political meaning of the work.
The literary function of this dramaturgical representation, despite stressing the sociologically exotericism, disengages the novella from engaging in moral or social critique. Behn’s protracted descriptions of physicality, which leave the internal state of her characters unknown, produces an introspective inquiry of the exterior world. Figlerowizcz, noting that Oroonoko, “venerated for his very physical existence” and his life appearing “predestined to be the constant object of mass observation,” draws the fallacious conclusion that such an exalted, exoteric depiction grants Behn’s novella “broader relevance as an exploration of the tensions latent in a culturally and socially diverse society” (322-324). On the contrary, the obsession with the physical world hinders the audience and reader from engaging in any truly cogitating reflection on the ruinous ramifications the external world imposes on Oroonoko’s idiosyncratic internality world. The novella, like its protagonist, becomes a spectacle in itself. And, like the dramaturgical theatricality of the theatre, spectacles can often become so lost in sensationalism that the semiotic meaning is surpressed.
In regards to the physicality of Oroonoko himself, Behn’s most ubiquitous signifier of the protagonist’s Eurocentric ennoblement, the author appeals to the partiality and sympathy of her white, Eurocentric audience:
Oroonoko’s physicality, while elevating to him to quasi-egalitarianism with the Europeans, most notably distinguishes him from the rest of his “gloomy Race,” as the narrator so categorizes the Negroes (41). Behn’s novella, if accomplishing any practical political function, implicitly justifies the institutionalization of slavery through the elevation of ethnocentrically Eurocentric physical aesthetics. Beyond physicality, Oroonoko is learned in “Morals, Language and Science,” educated in various European languages, and “in all Points address’d himself, as if his Education had been in some European Court” (43). Behn, regardless of authorial intention, which most critics agree remains ideologically dubious, depicts Oroonoko as an assimilated product of European civility and sophistication. Her descriptive language seems to even go so far as to vindicate his assimilation, reinforcing the widespread European cultural belief that slavery saves the slaves from their innate savagery, refines them, and, as their duty dictated by their innate superior, their moral obligation to enslave them for their own good.
The ardent admiration of its protagonist as a stoic spectacle and the embodiment of the exteriorization of experience renders Oroonoko a failure in its ability to provide a forceful moral or social critique of Surinam society. However, the semiotics of Oroonoko’s torture and death are more complicated ideologically and metaphysically and cannot be simply dismissed on account of its sophistical stressing of the sensory over the psychological. Oroonoko’s torture and execution, despite simply appearing an act of retributive justice, an affirmation of European dominance, and a political warning to discourage future slave revolts, possesses a more subtle meaning. His death, as many critics have suggested, can be neatly placed in categories such as a Foucauldian “spectacle of the scaffold” or an act of tragic martyrdom. Such conventional interpretations, despite the lucid insight they may offer on a formalistic level, fall victim to Behn’s romanticizing narrative style and dramaturgical mode of representation. They, failing to see past the sensationalized smokescreen of theatricality of the text, fail to understand the complex existential and socio-political implications of Oroonoko’s death.
The critic Robert Erikson, for example, misconstrues Oroonoko’s “smiling, A Blessing on thee” (99), as emblematic of his status as a “quasi-biblical figure”; he, as Erikson goes on to claim, in Christ-like fashion suffers a death bereft of physical anguish while benevolently forgiving his tormentors (Richards 653). Erkison, like so many other critics, wish to elevate the anguish of Oroonoko’s ruin and to eulogize suffering, which, at least implicitly, ignores the reality of suffering present in the story. Construing Oroonoko’s death as an act of glorified martyrdom constricts the thematic emphasis of the climactic scene onto the character’s resolute enduring of death “like a rock,” mistakenly connoting his stoicism as evidence of exculpation (99). Such a reading stifles the focus strictly onto the physicality of Oroonoko’s situation and diminishes the socio-political fault of the society administering his execution. As Richards explains in her ideological analysis into the meaning of torture in Oroonoko, and seventeenth-century society more broadly, the suffering protagonist receives no heavenly intervention or comfort in his agony; Oroonoko dies in the face of cosmic indifference. Even his pipe, offering the marginal bliss of tobacco, falls from his mouth before he dies, eclipsing the elusive delight of a simple pleasure.
Critics often prematurely end their analysis of this scene, concluding that Oroonoko dies in martyrdom-like fashion, the “Royal Slave” reduced of his royalty. However, ending the examination here ignores the existential and political realities that follow Oroonoko’s death. The novella, unlike its protagonist, does not end with the climactic execution. Oroonoko’s body, packaged into “Quarters,” is sent to the various corners of Surinam, where his remains are intended to serve as a symbolic reminder of the fate which awaits rebellious slaves who act revolutionarily. No great social insurgency follows Oroonoko’s death; the social and political structure of Surinam society remains utterly unchanged. Oroonoko dies for no royal cause. His death fails to accomplish anything besides ensure his existential torment. In such a utilitarianistic regard, Oroonoko’s death is meaningless. Critics positing the “martyrdom” understanding of his death misconceive the latent epistemological meaning residing in this scene.
There is no social significance, no noticeable self-fulfillment, no political significance to his demise; he, despite his exalted and aristocratic prominence, dies a miserable mortal death. His hollow death exposes the limits of human agency and paradoxically exposes Behn’s overstated emphasis on the power of the human will (and his iconic individuality) to be, if real forces earlier in the story, to be ultimately illusory. Oroonoko, whose very identity and being is constructed through mass spectacle and the public perception of others, finds his human individuality stifled by the social structuring of society, a structure intent upon his submissive position in a racialized social hierarchy.
However Europeanized he may be, Oroonoko dies a slave’s death. Despite his nobility and regality, the reality of his race as an Afro-Caribbean man, asserts itself as preeminent to his nature. He is not even referred to by the narrator of the story by his birth name at his death; the narrator insists upon calling him Caesar, a name ironically reminiscent of the dehumanizing, disidentificating, destabilizing process language here serves. In the end, Oroonoko is stripped of more than just his flesh. He is stripped of his very ethnic identity and a precarious psyche which, due to Behn’s dogmatic physical exoteric description, can only be imagined to be in peril.
Oroonoko dies resolutely “without a Groan, or a Reproach” (99). This stoicism, specifically a royalist, aristocratic trait, decidedly establishes Oroonoko’s “European” nature and the nature of his ethnic disidentification and psychosocial dissonance. The text acmes Oroonoko’s natural quality as a supreme being; the slaves of Surinam, despite knowing that he is the prince who sold many of them into slavery, worship him regardless and pay him “Divine Homage.” The slaves, through their willing subservience to Oroonoko, reinforce the novella’s theme of deference to aristocratic royal power. Such deferential diffidence substantiates the implicit royalist discourse and legitimizing of colonialist power in the text.
Contextualizing Oroonoko within the socio-political tumultuousness of late seventeenth-century European societty, Behn seems to be ratifying European elitist and aristocratic values. Pachecho, in her examination of royalism and honor in Oroonoko, establishes how, within aristocratic ideology, “honor is presented as the property of the class whose public function differentiates it from other social groups and entitles it to respect and authority” (496-497). Oroonoko’s “Honor,” a mark of his individual pride, is constantly under attack in the novella, and, aristocratically aggrandizing him, he robustly defends this assailed honor. Upon his enslavement, Oroonoko wishes to kill himself; death, for the honorable, is preferable to the humiliation of his royalistic nature.
During his rousing speech to the slaves, Oroonoko marshals militaristic rhetoric, appealing to their sense of “Honor” and urging them to rebel from the Europeans, who, as he states, are a “degenerate Race, who have no one Human Vertue left, to distinguish ‘em from the vilest Creatures” (86). Oroonoko, the embodiment of jointed multiracial modes of discourses, is speaking a language somewhat foreign to his slave peers. Educationally and culturally conditioned to Eurocentric aristocratic mores, he invokes an entirely different ideological ethos in his appeal to them. The psychology of “Honor,” being culturally relative itself, does not guarantee the slave’s fervent support of him. Yet, when Oroonoko displays his aristocratic nature and mentality and implores the slaves to ascend to his social level rather than engaging the slaves on their own, they do rise to his appeal. He charges them to adopt his aristocratism, further socially distancing himself from them and establishing his Eurocentric elitism.
The slaves’ reaction to Oroonoko’s speech is not indicative of their emotional or intellectual agreement with his words, however: “They all reply’d, with one accord, No, no, no; Caesar has spoke like a Great Captain; like a Great King” (86). The slaves are responding to Oroonoko’s natural superiority and atypical aristocratic essence. This unified response, one of clear consensus, cements the culturally popular European notion of blacks as intellectually substandard and submissive and in need of aristocratic leadership to guide them. Oroonoko metaphorically acts as the European master in this scene himself. The slaves appear too willing to follow Oroonoko in his quest for honor, an honor that is distinctly individual and failing to concern the collective honor of the Surinam slaves. Despite the irrationality of their choice for their own rational self-interest, the slaves bow and consent to his perceived deific preeminence. Behn, by differentiating Oroonoko his fellow blacks in this scene and depicting a collective subservience to his person, invokes a culturally ethnocentric approval of aristocratism over the presupposed weaker values of slave culture.
The modes of romance and realism intersectionally manifest the moral, political, and ideological intricacies of seventeenth-century European society in Oroonoko. This culture, existing at a turning point of socio-political and philosophical oscillation, was experiencing a transition from aristocratic ideology to more rationalist, progressive thought. The narrator of Behn’s novella exemplifies this dialectical cultural relationship, simultaneously admiring Oroonoko as a heroic figure of slave-culture while professing her personal adherence to European civilization.
The text, despite the inefficacy of the narrative mode in fostering a productive ideological critique, is not utterly null in its potency as a moral or socio-political criticism of European political institutions. The novella’s narrator does express outrage at Oroonoko’s maltreatment and frequently expresses sympathy for his character throughout the story. However, the narrator of Oroonoko is unreliable at best, presenting the story as an incongruent portrayal of romantic realism with the seeming intention of arriving at novelistic authenticity. The result is the farthest from authentic atypicality; the result is a sensationalized aesthetic which melodramatizes the work to such an extreme as to be borderline inaccessible to ideological inquiry.
The aristocratic ideology, according to Arnold Kettle, is a naturalized order based on “static property-relationships, exalting an unchanging, God-ordained hierarchy in Church and State” which offers a sense of cultural congruity between Surinam and English aristocratical values (Holmesland 61). The Marxist position, pertinent to examining the ideological implications of Behn’s text, asserts that ideology is a “structure of consciousness that naturalizes the world” (62). As Holmesland elucidates in his article on the narrative mode of the text, Behn’s novelistic style functions as a “dialectical instrument of naturalization” by opposing moral and ethical conflictions of the story’s narrator (62). In this dialectical system, Behn extols classical, European cultural mores, consequently deprecating slave culture. The aristocratic philosophy, while slowly vanishing, dominates the emerging liberalistic principles of the time of the text: social mobility, individuality, and the quest to perfect a more ethically honorable society (Holmesland 65).
Oroonoko seems oddly out of place in the rapidly changing social, political, and philosophical nuances of his world; he is a pillar of ancient aristocratism caught in the shifting tides of transnational politics. His interactions with his fellow slaves, in which he is elevated on a moral, intellectual, and cultural pedestal, evidences his ideological idiosyncratic nature and the effects elicited by his “Europeanization.” He is rendered singular from the black masses of his peers who seem to reflect the emerging populistic politics of the day. He, on the other hand, assumes the vicarious role typically adopted by European oppressors as the master of his own race.
Ultimately, Oroonoko’s death is not meaningless in a strict semiotic sense; the nihilistic emptiness of his demise serves, if one disregards the manner in which the narrative mode of the text eulogizes his death as exalted martyr, as a scathing social critique of European imperialist and colonialist ideologies. However, conventional readings of Oroonoko have not comprehensively engaged with the text in such a subversive way. His death, rather than pitied for its politically pointless consequences, is obstinately viewed as “martyrdom” instead. He is, despite what New Critical critics have claimed, not a martyr in any regard and his death possesses no dignifiable importance. Rather, he is the physical object of state-sanctioned torture, the Foucauldian “spectacle of the scaffold.” In an existential and political sense, his death utterly fails to attain meaning. The royalist agenda prevails, social and racial hierarchical order is restored in Surinam, and a potentially revolutionary slave revolt is suppressed.
Oroonoko’s human agency, so embellished earlier in the text, is defeated and British imperialist society, despite his “martyr-like” death, does not glorify Oroonoko a martyr. As the subject of totalitarian state-sanctioned torture, Oroonoko exists as nothing more than a body in agony, a man tragically suffering for his quest for “Honor.” This “Honor” of which he sought for, most ironically, is one ethnocentrically rooted in the European ethos and dissimilar from any relativistic ethic of his native people. As the object of European assimilation, this “Honor” was culturally conditioned into Oroonoko’s psychological identity by none other than his very executioners. Oroonoko, before he dies, realizes the limits of his aristocratic agency and the insignificance of his individuality. He is to “Dye like a Dog,” an anomic being left with nothing but a “Pipe” to soothe the intensity of his suffering (99). Behn, by not granting the reader explicit introspective access into Oroonoko’s psyche during this scene, portrays, whatever her authorial intention be, his stoici suffering in somber irony. Even at his mortal end Oroonoko clings to his aristocratic identity and his “Honor,” clinging to a destabilized identity devoid of authenticity, but the only identity he knows.
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Robert Erickson, “The Language of the Heart,” 1640-1750 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 180.