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Module 1: Great Literary Works and Great Historical Moments

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Oroonoko: The African Prince

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And her active literary career was for just about 20 years, in fact, less than 20 years. So in this period, it is, if you take inventory of her work, it is about 17 dramas. She launched her career with dramas because dramas were financially more rewarding during the period and she also earns this title being a professional. She wrote several lyric poems. There are 14 titles in prose fiction and a handful of translations as well. She was a very well-read woman who could write prolifically and also bring together a range f artistic skills and effectively present them. (Refer Slide Time:12:26) Oroonoko, this fiction Oroonoko is set in Surinam and Surinam was a British colony, it was soon to fall to the Dutch. Unlike many other colonies that Britain had then Surinam was far away from London and hence it was disordered and mismanaged this is information which is handy to keep in mind that should be useful when we take a closer look at the text later. (Refer Slide Time:12:50) And the narrator of this novel is usually identified with the author Aphra Behn. The narrator writes as a colonist and at the same time, the narrator has admiration and compassion for the Royals slave Oroonoko. So that’s a premise and that is what defines the overall framework of this work as well. (Refer Slide Time:13:13) And talking about slavery and colonialism in the 17th century. The English did not always consider Africans as natural slaves and it is something again to be kept in the back of our mind when we start reading and analyzing the text Oroonoko. (Refer Slide Time:13:26) Oroonoko was first published in 1688. It is a story of a heroic African prince and he dies in an attempt to free himself and others from slavery. So more than the framework more than the outline of this novel what is more interesting are the details that go into this. And the prospect is that comes across as being very very fresh and before we take a detailed look at this, let’s take a look at some of the significant aspects of this work which make it significant in the context of literary tradition and literary history. (Refer Slide Time:14:03) Oroonoko may not come across as a well-formed round work of fiction when we look at it today but this work was very significant in the development of the novel, for its narrative persona and also for its use of concrete details to enhance realism. It’s important to keep in mind that Aphra Behn is writing Oroonoko at a time when realism had not begun to be talked about as a prominent trend. Or realism had not begun to be identified as one of the most useful narrative forms and it is during this time that this novel presents the narration in a very realist form and at the outset of the novel as we will see in one of the later sessions when we take a look at the novel. There is an effort being made from the author to present the narrator and also to show that this is an authentic kind of narration. And this effort that Aphra Behn as an author and as the narrator of the story takes is very very important because the aspect of realism brings the satire hard-hitting back home and there is also an assurance that we get from the narrator at the beginning of the story that all the account is true. There is no reason to suspect that whether some of the accounts are falsified or not and there is an attempt, very strong attempt made at the beginning to convince a reader that this is true. I’m thinking about the veracity of the accounts given that Aphra Behn had spent some time in Surinam working as a spy we also begin to wonder whether some of the details are from her own life, whether she had witnessed some of the details that she talks about in this work. And this makes it significantly for many reasons because men were seen as the ones experiencing adventure. Men were seen as the ones who travel to different places and bring back their experience and articulate in artistic forms, publish and circulate in book forms. Here we find a woman who is not writing about the inside but on the other hand, she is talking about the outside to which very few women have access to. She is talking about that world outside which is predominantly male-centric which is otherwise not accessible for a lot of women like her but for whatsoever reason the access that she finds, the experiences that she has in that big bad world out there, she successfully translates it into fiction. And what is interesting about this narration is also that when we look at the narrator, when we look at the tone, the details and the register that the narrator uses, one does not feel that gender plays a significant role. We find that she can narrate this experience with as much authenticity as many other male travellers and male travelogue writers and male adventurers of those times had possessed. (Refer Slide Time:17:34) And looking at some of the thematic elements also makes this text stand out. in Oroonoko we find Aphra Behn’s politics at work in the most visible way. And in this, she underscores the right of women to select their spouses and this goes very much against the value system, the Societal constraints of the 17th century England where women were still considered as a property of men. Decisions were always made for them and women were not allowed to act as agents. Agency was denied to them in various ways in terms of education, in terms of career choices, in terms of choosing a partner, in terms of even having their rights over on body. So she underscores in this novel Oroonoko we find Aphra Behn underscoring the right of women to select their spouse. She also makes her opposition to slavery known very very evident and during a time when it is seen as a most natural thing to employ slaves to get their work done and this we find as a trend being very prominent across the various nations who are in the rat race for colonies in Europe. And Behn takes a very prominent, a very controversial kind of a political stance when she is articulating her opposition to slavery. She also condemns the slave trade which was seen as one of the most profitable ways in which colonialism could grow. It’s also seen as one of the ways through which the colonies get to prosper, the colonies get to benefit from the colonial advancements. So what Aphra Behn is doing is calling a spade a spade by saying that regardless of the kind of revenue that is getting generated through these colonial practices. It is very very important and ethical also to articulate and to put on record the opposition to slavery and also a condemnation of slave drive. And as we know one of the earliest impetus as far as the colonial ambitions were concerned it was a white man’s burden. The white man whether the Englishman or the European man it was considered that it was their responsibility to go out into the wild into the uncivilized and to make hem more civilized and more respectable and to give them the religion, the education, the civilization, the advancements and the foundations that the Western world had benefited from. So the underlining assumption was that the primitive had to be rescued and to be brought into a civilization which by extension meant the Western civilization. We find Aphra Behn very strongly critiquing that and we know that it is pretty much a commonsensical kind of a thing in the post-Orientalist in the postcolonial world but for someone to think like this in the 17th-century that was remarkable, it was very incredible and take a look at the story in detail you will also realize that there is a celebration of the primitive and there is no hierarchical way in which she privileges the Western civilization. She privileges the Western system of education or the Western value system over the primitive. On the other hand, she finds in the primitive something to be celebrated, something to be appreciated and acknowledged. So in Oroonoko, we have an account of a hero who upholds the ideals of civilization among Europeans who are the most part evil and this is an important point to pay attention to as we wrap up today’s discussion. Oroonoko as a novel stands out today as a 17th-century text for various reasons. One it is written by the first professional female writer and secondly, this is about a protagonist whose love to uphold the ideals of civilization. I repeat this to uphold the ideals of civilization among Europeans who are for the most part evil and this is certainly a very controversial thing and of course a very bold thing to say in the 17th-century. And by the 19th century, late 19th and early 20th century we know that some of the articulation start there in the public space. There are a lot of political thinkers and philosophers talking about it. Statesmen are debating these in different ways but in the 17th-century when England is still proud of its status as the Empire on which the sun never sets. We find Oroonoko making a statement by arguing that, by putting for the idea that the ideals upheld by the Europeans may not always be the right ones. Maybe there is another way to look at the Colonial practice, maybe there is another way to look at the hierarchy which is in place which colonials also brings in and this is something which predates the many discourses on colonialism. And to my mind, the significance of Oroonoko also rests mostly in this that it had the potential to talk about many things before time and also place it within a context even before the time had arrived for it. So in the following section, we shall try to take a look at some of the excerpts from Oroonoko and we also will try to show how this text stands out as a classic in world literature and how it helped redefine the paradigms within which colonialism and civilization and the clash between the primitive and Western, The primitive and a sophisticated were understood in the 17th-century. I thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you in the next session. Hello and welcome to today’s session where we continue to look at the short fiction written by Aphra Behn in the 17th century Oroonoko. (Refer Slide Time:0:23) A quick recap, we took a look at how this novel an early novel which talks about the horrifying effect of slavery. It depicts the horrifying emotions of slavery and colonization. It is also significantly a work written y the first professional female writer Aphra Behn and we also spoke about how she led an interesting life. She was a political spy of Charles II’s court and she also had written prolifically and despite that she died in poverty and this work initially when it was published, it was not a bestseller. In fact, it gained immense popularity only after its stage adaptation by Thomas Southern. And ever since this work has received the attention of scholars and critics for various reasons, one it talks about the anticolonial rhetoric even before colonization became discourse in the Western discursive spheres. And there is no solid proof that seconds the claims that Aphra Behn had visited Surinam where much of action also takes place in terms of the novel. Nevertheless, there is the text gives us ample evidence to show that she’s really familiar with what she's talking about, the setting, the action that she seeks to recreate in the emotions that she successfully conveys through the novel as a form was still in its infant form when she was writing. So, all of this also tells us about the kind of immense experience that she had, the vastness of the wealth of experience that she had thought she was not trained to be a literary writer, she was not trained to be a professional writer. We find her becoming one in the process of leading in a way interesting a multifaceted life. (Refer Slide Time:2:10) There are a lot of works which are credited to Aphra Behn as we already noted, some of the important works are, The Forc’d Marriage, so The Rover which was considered as an important comedy of the restoration times it was an instant hit, it was a huge hit to such an extent that it’s considered as one of the most successful plays which generated a lot of revenues during that time. The other significant works include, Patient Fancy, The Luckey Chance, The Emperor of the Moon and Oroonoko published in 1688, this was published just a year before her death and this also ensured her a lasting literary reputation and this is one work that continues to be talked about whenever restoration times, whenever female writers, whenever Aphra Behn, in particular, is mentioned in the literary-critical tradition. And interestingly enough it is also important to know that when we when one talks about Oroonoko it’s also in a way that the work disrupts the tradition, the literary tradition a what Oroonoko perhaps had done to the writings of those times, to the writers of those times and to the critical tradition of those times, the prevalent norms of those times were so entirely disrupted. So, Oroonoko continues to be significant mostly in that regard and the text itself may read a bit dated there is a lot of current interest that one can find in the text even today. I do encourage you to take a look at the text which is currently in circulation to get a hang of the kind of writing that she did and also to get a hang of how these very profound themes were built into this narrative. (Refer Slide Time:3:52) This is the opening section of Oroonoko, this is how this prose fiction begins. “ I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure; nor in relating the truth, designed to adorn it with any accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him: And it shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits, and natural intrigues; there is enough of reality to support it and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention. I was myself an eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down; and what I could not be a witness of, I received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, who gave us the whole transactions of his youth and though I shall not omit, for brevity’s sake, a thousand little accidents of his life, which however pleasant to ask, where history was scarce, and adventures very rare, yet might prove tedious and heavy to my reader, in a world where he finds diversions for every minute, new and strange. But we who are perfectly charmed with the character of this great man were curious to gather every circumstance of his life. The scene of the last part of his adventures lies in a colony in America called Surinam, in the West-Indies.” So, what is this opening session tell us, the opening section tells us that the narrator, the author wants to present this as an eyewitness account and that the narrator who is being presented over here ha the event which is being described or had received firsthand account. The other significant thing is that it addresses the reader and that’s again an interesting thing to notice. at least twice in this excerpt, we find the narrator addressing the reader as my reader. So, this is something which is written as a first-person account, as an eyewitness account itis more or less a truth and it also has a specific reader in mind. It is also being targeted to a reader in the 17th century and this is something how the novelist, the writer address the reader that something we notice in many of the writers later on and one of the best examples being June Austen’s oft-quoted line reader I married him. (Refer Slide Time:6:19) Coming back to discussing this text Oroonoko, these are the important characters, Oroonoko himself who is an African prince and how Oroonoko is described in the text the way he looks, the personality, the characteristics it’s very interesting. He is presented as a well-built man with all qualities of a prince, he is good-looking and he is very very importantly educated by a French tutor. So, look at how Oroonoko gets positioned over here. He also has European features somewhere in the text it’s mentioned “ his nose was rising and Roman” and his education, his ability to see life through a western lens his access to the educational system and ways of looking at the world through the civilization and education system. So, theWest, that has given him an ability to see through the colonial system and we find him being very very wise in that sense. But there is also change that comes about his perspective, this is when he begins to, this is when he is first presented as someone who admires the western values because his education, his background had prepared him to do that and he also had all the more rational reasons to it. But the reality hits him hard only when he is taken as a slave and but how he is presented here is in quite a significant away from the prevalent stereotypes of Africans but on the other hand, it also tries to fit Oroonoko into the European framework by his looks, by the way, he thinks and by the kinds of choices that he makes. And we also find that Oroonoko comes across as a very composed, dignified person throughout and even at the end when he gets killed he faces death very very bravely. So, here I want you to pay attention to how Oroonoko is presented. Of course, Aphra Behn is a white writer, a white female writer, though she tries to critique the framework of colonialism. Still, she tries to draw our attention to the debates in the context of colonization and anti-colonization. We find that she also chooses to present, she also chooses to project her protagonist in a predominantly western framework. Imoinda is the main female character, she is also the wife ofOroonokoshetheyhadfell in love rather adventurously and had got married this story tells us all about that. But as a woman and as a slave she comes across as very very timid, she’s also taken in the slavery along with Oroonoko and all the slaves are given a new name this is to take away the idea of their identity and subjecthood and completely changed them into something else. And we find Imoinda not resisting this at all, in fact, with very little resistance we find her getting adapted to different things that life is throwing at her and she is given a new name Clemente which she seems to not perhaps happily but she seems to get adjusted to intimately. She is presented as a very beautiful woman, but this is also an obstacle in the story as we would say initially Oroonoko’s grandfather himself wanted to get married to her because of her beauty and this was always an obstacle and we find that the men in the colony they are also getting immensely attracted to her and this is seen as a threat throughout the story. So, she is also present the woman without an agency. We do not find her making any decision for herself, thinking for herself and we find her as an ever-present shadow alongside Oroonoko. But what is also interesting is that Aphra Behn has given adequate presents for her throughout the story, allowing her to allow us to see her from different perspectives and different angles. And the only time perhaps Imoinda gets chance to decide her fate for herself is when she agrees very gracefully agrees to Oroonoko’s proposal of killing her before he also gets killed at the end. (Refer Slide Time:10:32) And there are certain very beautiful descriptions about the kind of love that they share. the narrator tells us He made her vows she should be the only woman he would possess while he lived; that no age or wrinkles should incline him to change; for her soul would always be fine, always young, and he should have an eternal idea in his mind of the charms she now bore, and she should and should look into his a heart for that idea, So many critics have also spoken about the kind of love story this or that Oroonoko is that underneath the profound powerful, strong satirical discussions about colonization, Aphra Behn has also managed to weave in a beautiful love story. (Refer Slide Time:11:21) But we shall not be going into the details of those. There are other characters such as Aboan who is Oroonoko’s friend, TheKing and the colonists had several columnists, some of them bannister, Byam, Terfry and others. (Refer Slide Time:11:34) The narrator, the narrator herself is a nameless Englishwoman, now we do not get to know any details about her just like Aphra Behn’s own personal history, she also remains rather obscure there is very little that is known with certainty about the narrator. she when we meet her she’s dwelling on Perham plantation and she also gives us a detailed overview of Surinam, the plantation, its residents, the surroundings and those are the details which also makes us believe and rather suspect that perhaps Aphra Behn herself had spent a considerable amount of time, a considerable amount of time in Surinam as a political spy. So, at the outset of this story, we also know that the narrator is waiting for a ship to take her back to England and the narrator is also a white woman. the narrator is also a white woman and she meets Oroonoko and his wife Imoinda and she becomes good friends with them and the rest of the story the major part of the story is about the narrator narrating Oroonoko’s story, Oroonoko’s tale from the time he was a prince and his adventures and his love story and how he became a slave and what happened to him in the colony and finally his death. So, apart from that, there is very little that we know about the narrator but what makes it where it is significant is that the storey that’s being told to us it is through the eyes of this narrator and it also tells us about the perspectives that the narrator has about the various things which are discussed in this story, the main framework being colonisation. (Refer Slide Time:13:17) And for the same reason, one of the most important themes discussed as part of the story is this ongoing debate, the dialogue and even the hostile relation between colonization and anti- colonization. And it may be useful to remember that this is much before the anti-colonial rhetoric, the discourse of colonialism had become powerful in the West and as we know by the 1990 early 20th century it also becomes a movement. The colonists in this story, the colonists Mr Tefrey, Byam and bannister they are all seen as greedy, dishonest brutal rulers. This goes very much against the grain of the predominant thought that it was a white man’s burden which had sent him all the way to these different distant part of the world. And there is a very touching instance in the story whereTrefry, the British captain, he, in fact, befriends Oroonoko only to betray him. And his death is also a result of these many many betrayers and many complications that happen in the story. The narrator interestingly behaves in the same manner as the colonists. She calls herself as a friend of Oroonoko but she’s not there when they need her in that sense. In fact, she also runs away when Oroonoko runs into trouble and we get a very terrifying picture of slavery and Oroonoko is beaten up cruelly in one instance, pepper is put on his wounds so that’s kind of graphic details that the story gives us and it also tells us about how brutal the colonists were when it came to getting the work done through the slaves. The slaves were also forced to change their names. So, there is a loss of identity which is a significant theme and it hits Oroonoko all the more because he was a prince before and the slaves are also compelled to leave their family and friends behind. In this theme while it may look very compelling and real today it is useful to remember that in the 17th-century slaves were seen as a common thing, it was no big deal to use slaves to get to work done in the colonies, they were seen as one of how a venue could be added to the English nation. And it also talks about in terms of slavery, how the native social system was influenced, how the change had come about. Oroonoko during his reign as a prince we find that he also used to sell war captives as slaves because there was a time in his life when he was raining as a prince, he also believed that this fate befits men who lose wars but only when he becomes a slave himself he begins to realize what that is and the reality really begins to sink in. (Refer Slide Time:16:06) And some of the other important themes are of superiority and when the novel talks about superiority it is about racial superiority how the West feels superior in terms of its civilisation, the culture, the standards and values and the premise in this story from the beginning and this is what we see through the lens of the narrator that she maintains that there are unity sh colonists and the natives, that is the perspective of the narrator. But Aphra Behn is also using that efficiently very powerfully as a tool to critique the system for what itis because it really helps to have a narrator who has an opposite point of view and that also allows Aphra Behn to put the narrator’s perspective under the critical lens and also to showcase at more critically as far as the readers are concerned. So, there is an instance in the story where the narrator is reading out to Oroonoko and Imoinda the story is of the lives of Romans and nuns and that was something which laid the bedrock, the foundation of the Western civilisation, the Western value system. So, we find the narrator trying to impart the same, the same kind of standard for the same kind of value system and also invite Oroonoko into this more civilised, sophisticated systems and values. She also tries to explain to him the riddles of Trinity and we find Christianity also becoming a framework through which this kind of superiority gets exerted and exercised. So, throughout the story, it's very hard to miss the different ways in which the racially or terms of civilization or cultural standards, values or systems, the West, the Europeans, the English particularly in this case we find that superiority being presented in multiple ways throughout. As we begin to wrap up, I would also invite you to take away quick look at the way this story is presented, it is currently accessible in many digital forms so I do encourage you to take a look at the story and to read through it at least in parts to get a hang of the kind of language used then and also to see how novel as a form narrative prose as the form has come a long way from them and it’s also it also will be useful exercise to go through the words used and how the form itself is still getting into shape this is a 17th-century end of the this is the end of the 17th century when novel as a form, novel as a literary form had not yet taken a definite shape. (Refer Slide Time:19:16) So, with this, we come to the ending of the story and I read to you this excerpt and leave you with that. “ Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate, and are more sublime wit than mine to write his praise; yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda. This sums up the objective and intention of this prose fiction and it also tells us that the narrator’s intention more than anything is to document the story of Oroonoko, the African prince who is forced to live as a slave and then gets killed as a slave and if this had not been documented the story would have been lost forever, Oroonoko’s history would never have got written and as for me I think this is the greatest message that a tale such as an Oroonoko is sending out a person like Aphra Behn is trying to send out that it is very important to document everything, it is very important to tell the tales which are otherwise excluded, which are otherwise in the margins, which are otherwise not seen as tales fit enough to be told. And with this, I leave you to read this story and thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you in the next session.