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Summary and Analysis of 'Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave'

Rucha Phatak Aug 14, 2020
The writer of the novel, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, Aphra Behn, was believed to have worked as a political spy for Charles II. This novel is famous for many reasons. It depicts the horrifying emotions of slavery and colonization. A truly heart-rending love story, this story helps you take a deeper look at it with a summary and analysis of the novel.

Believe it or not!

Very little is known about the personal life of Aphra Behn (1640-1689). A female literary writer by profession, there are no records of her initial 27 years of life. There is absolutely no information about her parents, her hometown, her childhood, etc. She was referred to as Ann Behn, Mrs Bean, agent 160, and Astrea during her lifetime.
The untimely death of her husband and the large amounts of debt she had incurred led Aphra Behn to take up a job at the King's Company, and later at the Duke's Company as a copyist.

She has 19 plays, 4 novels, 3 short stories to her credit, and produced 2 poetry collections. Despite a successful writing career, she died in utter poverty.
Aphra Behn's short prose-fiction Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave was published in 1688. It is counted as one of the earliest English novels. Though it was not a best-seller, it gained immense popularity immediately after it was published and more so after its stage adaptation by Thomas Southerne.
The story in the novel is said to be true as the narrator, Behn herself, had visited Suriname in her lifetime where the story is set. However, there is no solid proof that seconds the notion. Nonetheless, the text makes for a very interesting read. Let us study deeper...

Plot Summary

The narrator of the story is a nameless English woman dwelling on Parham Plantation, and hopelessly waiting for a ship to take her back to England. In the meantime, she meets Oroonoko and his wife Imoinda and becomes friends. In the beginning, the narrator gives a detailed overview of Suriname, namely, the plantation, its residents, and the surrounding.
◆The narrator changes the setting to Coromantee (present-day Ghana). This is where Oroonoko, the grandson of the king, happens to fall madly in love with Imoinda, the general's daughter. However, her beauty attracts the king's attention as well. The 100-year-old king sends a royal veil to Imoinda forcing her to become his wife.
As she cannot refuse the gift from the king, she unwillingly spends some time in the royal harem. Oroonoko tries to break into the harem with his friend Aboan. When caught red-handed by the king, Oroonoko escapes from there.
The king decides to sell Imoinda as a slave when he knows the relation she shares with his grandson. However, the king informs Oroonoko that Imoinda has been put to death.

◆Meanwhile, Oroonoko gets involved in trading war captives as slaves to the newly-arrived British army. They invite him and his friends on the ship.
However, Oroonoko gets caught in the trap that has been set for him. He is sold as a slave to Mr. Trefry who oversees Parham Plantation in Suriname. Oroonoko and the narrator meet again. She and Mr. Trefry assure him that he will be freed as soon as the governor, Lord Willoughby, arrives.
◆ As he was a prince, he was never sent to work on the plantation. He also resides separately, away from the other slaves. However, one day, while walking through the plantation with Mr. Trefry, he sees Imoinda. The lovers unite again and without wasting much time, they get married. Over the course of their time together, Imoinda gets pregnant.
◆ Oroonoko's does not want to let his child be born in slavery, so he comes up with an idea. He decides to run away with the other slaves. One night, they escape, but unfortunately, leave a trail that leads deputy-governor Byam to them. He negotiates with Oroonoko to surrender and promises him pardon.
Again, Oroonoko is assured about his and his family's freedom. However, Oroonoko realizes that the governor's promises are shallow and conspires to take revenge on Byam. However, he knows that he may not be successful in his plans and decides to kill his wife first, so as to preserve her dignity.
When he informs Imoinda about his plan, she agrees to get killed by him. Oroonoko slits her throat with his knife. He's heartbroken as he watches her breathe her last in his arms. He sinks into deep depression as he has lost his wife and unborn child.
Overwhelmed by grief, he is unable to get away. A few days later, Byam's men find him near his wife's corpse. They capture him and decide to kill him by cutting his body in pieces. As the time to die draws near, Oroonoko sits smoking his pipe, as Byam's men begin chopping off his body parts.


Colonization vs. Anti-colonization

The main theme of the novel is colonization vs. anti-colonization. The writer is against colonists, and her novels depict the same. Behn sheds light on the treacherous ways adopted by the colonizers, and the horrors of slavery. The colonists, Mr. Trefry, Byam, etc., are shown to be greedy, dishonest, and brutal rulers.
Trefry, the British captain, befriends Oroonoko only to betray him in the end. Likewise, Byam feigns friendship with the African prince only to brutally kill him. Even the narrator behaves in the same manner as the colonists. She calls herself a friend of Oroonoko; however, runs away when a fight breaks out between the colonists and the slaves.


The novel depicts a terrifying picture of slavery that existed in the British colonies. Behn describes the treatment meted out by the colonists towards their slaves. For example, Oroonoko was beaten up cruelly, and pepper was put on his wounds. The slaves were forced to change their names, thus losing their identity, and then compelled to leave their family and friends behind.
The theme influences the native social system as well. Though Oroonoko craves to be free from slavery during his captivity, but during his reign as a prince, he does not mind selling the war captives as slaves. He believes it is the fate that befalls men who lose the war.


The hand of superiority is another theme running all through the story. The picture Behn portrays is one of unity and peace between the British colonists and the natives. However, the superiority of the British colonists over the natives is clearly seen.
The notion that Western culture is far superior in standards and values, is enforced by the colonizers on the slaves. For example, the story has the narrator reading out to Oroonoko and Imoinda, the stories of the lives of Romans and nuns, as also the riddles of the trinity.



Oroonoko, an African prince, is the protagonist of the story. He possesses all the qualities of a prince as he is well-built with dashing good looks and an education from a French tutor. Behn describes him as having European features and mentions that "his nose was rising and Roman".
Oroonoko's princely upbringing enables him to see through the colonial system. He admires the Western values as he is influenced by a French tutor; however, the truth of what it means to be a slave hits him hard when he himself is taken as one.
Oroonoko's status, hunting skills, and the way in which he carries himself makes him an obvious candidate to lead the slaves in revolt.

Oroonoko maintains his composure and dignity in the entire story. Even in the end, he faces death bravely, showing no signs of agitation.


Imoinda is the main female character of the story. As a woman and a slave, she is very timid. She accepts her new name "Clemene" willingly when thrown into slavery. She is described as beautiful with a dignified presence, which draws the attention of men to her instantly.
Her beauty poses to be a great obstacle as Oroonoko's grandfather, the king, decides to marry her. However, she longs to be with Oroonoko whom she deeply loves. The only time she decides her fate is when she gracefully agrees to Oroonoko's proposal of killing her.
◆The other characters in the story are: Aboan, Oroonoko's friend, the king, the colonists: Bannister, Byam, Trefry , and so on.
The story bring outs the underlying dormant trait in men to overpower almost every living thing. However, here it is one man's authority over the other who is weak enough to give in to the tyrant. Slavery is a condition that the men in authority unleash, thus restricting the freedom of the one who submits to them.
The saga of a true love between Oroonoko and Imoinda is also beautifully presented by the writer. Behn writes: "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 be always fine, and always young; and he should have an eternal idea in his mind of the charms she now bore; and should look into his heart for that idea, when he could find it no longer in her face." . Thus, depicting the way a man beholds his woman, when he is truly and deeply in love with her.
Hope this story touches your heart, and you too will take a stand against slavery which is still actively practiced around the globe.