Imoinda's Modernity: Aphra Behn's Enactment of Conjugal Marriage in Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave

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Aphra Behn depicts Imoinda, the object of the prince’s love in Oroonoko, Or The Royal Slave (1688), as exotic in her person, potent in her sexuality, but highly conventional in her domestic aspirations. While she has only limited ownership of her body, she operates within the limits of her status to secure the love of Prince Oroonoko, and then to defend their union, even at great risk to herself, and ultimately at the cost of her life. In so doing, she enacts an evolving ideal of the conjugal household, whose origin in literature Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse associate with Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and whose effects on fiction Ruth Perry chronicles in Novel Relations. The story of Prince Oroonoko and Imoinda is related by the figure of the narrator, who, in her own relationship with Prince Oroonoko, serves to complement the bond between Imoinda and her prince, in the context of an ideal bourgeois household, by compensating for Imoinda’s illiteracy. There is much in Oroonoko that was new, including its narrative form, but no aspect of it was more so than its virtually unique representation of an African woman, in the character of Imoinda. Behn’s physical characterization ensures that we understand her as African, not simply as a black-skinned simulacrum of a white European woman. Whereas Oroonoko is described as having a physiognomy more like that of a Greek statue than that of other African men from Coramantien, Imoinda is described as having “extraordinary prettiness,” but one that is distinctly in the mode of other African women. Indeed, the full measure of her African exoticism is conveyed through her body, which is shown scarified (as if “japanned”) “in fine flowers and birds all over her body (Norton, 2208).” In contrast, Prince Oroonoko is so adorned only on the sides of his temple. The explanation of this discrepancy likely resides, at least in part, in the interplay between gender, sex, and race in the colonial discourse of the era. The colonies were rife with white colonial men’s sexual exploitation of their African and Indian slaves. Indeed, slave owners seem to have regarded their sexual access to their female slaves as a matter of right and privilege; the consent of the slave would have been as irrelevant to them as it was to the King of Coramantien, in Behn’s representation of his manners, when he requires a maiden to join his harem (2189). Thus, Imoinda could be shown as sexually attractive to both black and white men. Indeed, the narrator avers that she has “seen a hundred white men sighing after her, and making a thousand vows at her feet, all in vain, and unsuccessful (2188).” This testimony of white men making numerous (and unsuccessful) vows to a slave not their own is curious, but was likely the narrator’s way of validating Imoinda’s sexual attraction to men. She could describe Imoinda’s “prettiness,” but only an account of men swooning at Imoinda’s feet could validate her sexual potency. A like portrayal of Prince Oroonoko’s sexuality required Behn to erase, or at least blur, his ethnic blackness. While white men enjoyed sexual access to their black slaves, the reverse was heavily stigmatized and white patriarchs maintained a close regime of surveillance over their white women. Thus, an African woman could serve as an object of sexual desire for both black and white men; while only a white man, or a simulacrum of a white man, could be an object of desire for a proper white woman. Thus, if the narrator, who was necessarily a white woman in the travelogue-cum-novel that Behn chose as her form, was to represent her relationship with Prince Oroonoko as sexualized in any respect, he would need to straddle the unstable line between races that the narrator draws. That the narrator is, in fact, attracted sexually to Prince Oroonoko is a matter of inference, but seems likely from...
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