I’ve completed Oroonoko, this month’s 100 Novels read. If you find the reading slow-going, maybe pedantic, my advice is to stick with it. As I mentioned in my previous entry, this novel was written by an English author, based upon her own experiences in the life of a plantation family during 17th century English colonialization.
While Oroonoko was a prince in his native land, his trusting nature landed him aboard a slave ship. He did find favor with his owners, and was treated more humanely than most slaves, but this conveys to the reader a sense of contrast between a relatively good life as a slave versus “normal” living conditions of slavery.
Behn‘s novel is a study of what happens when an altruistic culture crosses paths with European culture. She writes:
And ’tis most evident and plain that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive, and virtuous mistress. ‘Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of man. Religion would here but destroy that tranquillity they possess by ignorance; and laws would but teach them to know offense, of which now they have no notion.
It is his naivete which allows Oroonoko’s fall into entrapment, to slavery, to his distruction.
In the end, his situation forces him to make heart-wrenching and tragic decisions involving his beloved wife and unborn child.
It is impossible to read this book without feeling the the emotional and physical wounds inflicted on Oroonoko.
As one who has embraced Henry David Thoreau‘s philosophies from a young age, Oroonoko reiterates for me a pattern evident through the ages: the destruction of altruistic cultures with high moral standards by those cultures which conquer with brute force and short-sighted greed. Thoreau’s philosophical cornerstone regarded the wisdom we should seek from Nature alone.