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Byline: H. M. Zahid Iqbal and Munawar Iqbal Ahmad


Aphra Behn's Oroonoko or The Royal Slave: A True History is late seventeenth century fictional work considered to be one of the earliest English novels. It is centered around t he love if its hero an enslaved African prince in Surinam and the author's own experiences in the new South American colony which was under the rule of England at that time. The author's claim that it is a true history of the royal slave written impartially is fallacious as Behn adheres to the colonial ideology and maintains her cultural racial and biological superiority. In this paper we argue that Aphra Behn's Oroonoko is a colonial text that has frequent instances of othering and misrepresentation conducted owing to the writer's Eurocentrism and her use of colonial discourse and narrative strategy.

This study mainly draws upon the concepts of othering and representation from postcolonial critical theory and shows with the help of textual examples that Oroonoko projects colonial agenda more than any other thing and just as a coloinial text its discourse and narrative strategy provide the writer with absolute opportunity to further colonial agenda.

Keywords: Othering representation postcolonial theory colonial literature


In Introduction" of Culture and Imperialism [1] Said has emphasized that authors are not free from the history of their societies and hence their ideas are largely shaped by the social factors they experience in that historical setting. A number of works [for instance see 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 etc.] investigate authorial treatment of Negro across various genres of literature.

Aphra Behn comes from an English background of sixteenth century. Her works received a wide ranging critical acclaim [see for instance 9 10 11 12 13 14 etc.). It is argued that despite her claim of being an individual and nonpartisan in telling the tragic story of Oroonoko the former African Prince she fails to maintain her impartiality or individuality. Anne Fogarty [14] has rightly pointed out that Oroonoko is a surface on to which Aphra Behn projects and propagates her colonial ideology. Moreover Oroonoko [15] is a product of colonial period significantly published in 1688 and it is set in the erstwhile English Plantation Colony Surinam which indicates a close connection of this novel to the colonial context. Behn draws polarities to represent the natives as

others" morally intellectually physically and socially inferior to the Europeans set-traditions and standard of civilization. It is apparent from the frequent use of the pronouns in her narrative such as "they" for the natives" or African slaves" and we" us" or our" to represent her White superior race. Consequently the European or more specifically the English self" emerges as superior to that of the natives".

Said has traced the origin of the genre of novel to a historical narrative that is shaped by the actual history and by the real nations. In his view the novel is basically a product of bourgeois society and it is in fact an integral part of the conquests of the Western world. He goes on to say that

without empire there would have been no European novel as we know it [1]. In the same way Oroonoko which belongs to the category of the genre of novel does carry the imprints of colonial ideology and imperialism.

2. Eurocentrism and the self" in Oroonoko

Bill Ashcroft et al. [16] are of the opinion that Eurocentrism is a process either conscious or unconscious by which European cultural norms are viewed or assumed to

be the normal or the universal. So Eurocentric perspective does not only influence or change rather it actually constructs and produces other cultures. By eighteenth century this concept of a collective Europe" constructed the European cultural and social norms as superior to the others" or the third world cultural norms.

Oroonoko is a problematic critique of the English colonialism of late seventeenth century with peculiar emphasis on the slave trade. The story of Oroonoko is divided chronologically as well as geographically into two parts. In the first part we see that the hero whose name was Oroonoko is a respected warrior-prince in his African country called Coramentien. He fell in love with Imoinda but soon his good fortune was disrupted because his Grandfather the king of Coramentien started taking interest

in his beloved Imoinda. When the Kings efforts to have Imoindas love failed he decided to sell her into slavery. However Oroonoko was told that she is dead. In the second

part the hero himself is treacherously made slave and is brought to the South American English Colony Surinam where he joyfully rediscovers his beloved Imoinda and meets the narrator tells her his own story stages an unsuccessful rebellion and is brutally killed by the English colonists.

It is a problematic critique of colonialism because Behn in Oroonoko conforms to the idea of Eurocentrism. In her dedicatory epistle in which she also provides a background and introduction to her tale she considers the native or local things as a source of amusement:

If there be anything that seems Romantick I beseech your Lordship to consider these Countries do in all things so far differ from ours that they produce unconceivable wonders; at least they appear so to us because New and Strange" [15].

This extract clearly shows that whatever is not according to the European standards of beauty is a wonder" or strange" at the same time the phrase differ from ours does express her desire to divide the world into two different

compartments that is into the colonizer and the colonized. This division of the world into two distinct categories of us" and them" is what Said has also explained in his Orientalism:

This universal practice of designating in ones mind a familiar space which is ours" and an unfamiliar space beyond ours" which is theirs" is a way of making geographical distinctions that can be entirely arbitrary" [17]. Said is attentive enough to point out that this distinction is

totally arbitrary. Because this imaginative geographical distribution of the different regions our land-barbarian land" variety does not guarantee that the barbarians also affirm this division.

The narrator of the novel under study that is the author herself depicts the South American Islands inhabitants Eurocentrically; though they are a wonderful figure to

behold" yet their color is not fit for the perfect beauty:

Some of the Beauties which indeed are finally shapd as almost all are and who have pretty Features are very charming and novel; for they have all that is called Beauty expect the colour which is a radish Yellow" [15].

It is clear from this extract that the narrator is deliberately involved in the process of creating her others" on the ethnic and racial grounds. In the meanwhile her own self" emerges as superior and carrying all the necessary elements of the beauty. Therefore the self" of the colonized people seems to be carrying an inherent flaw that cannot be diminished.

Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of The Earth has argued that in the colonial context we see the imposition of a dichotomy being exercised upon the whole surface of the globe [18] which ultimately results in the solid division of the world in

the form of us" and them". He further elaborates on the same point that under the settlers or the colonists the native feels a presumed guilt" nevertheless he does not seem to

accept this guilt and thus in his/her innermost spirit he never seems to admit such accusations [18]. In this regard it is to be noted that although the narrator endorses that the natives were the representative of the first state of innocence" before the mankind even came to know the idea of sin. Moreover they were simple and plain in their nature having their own culture and a native justice" as well yet the narrator is not willing to grant them the equal status to herself.

According to the narrator the natives were in the absolute stage of purity and also very useful" to them on all occasions therefore they treated them as their friends and

did not make them slaves to work on the plantations. It is quite interesting that the reason for treating them as friendly and brotherly is that they were simply useful to the

European self-interest; Robert L. Chibka has very aptly remarked:

The true European perception of human or subhuman is quite irrelevant; it is revised from moment to moment to serve the colonialist agenda" [19].

It is clear that Aphra Behn is clearly projecting her colonialist agenda in Oroonoko trying to Europeanise Oroonoko and depicting him as someone who is attractive and familiar yet at the same time strange and exotic:

His Nose was rising and Roman instead of African and flat. His Mouth the finest shapd that coud be seen; far from these great turnd Lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so noble and exactly formd that bating his Colour there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful agreeable and handsome" [15].

Behn tries to reduce Oroonokos otherness" insisting that his color" cannot be ignored. Paradoxically the more she attempts to erase the difference of Oroonokos body the

more significant it becomes. It is not only his color that is definite and fixed but also his sexuality and masculinity.

It can be argued that the very effort on part of the colonial narrator to domesticate her hero indicates his otherness" likewise the use of word Negroes" is again an index of her racial superiority" because she does not seem to acknowledge any diversity that may exist among the

Negroes; she presents them as a uniform creature denying any trace of their separate identities. Fanon has highlighted the same racist attitude of the colonists to the Negroes:

Colonialism which has not bothered to put too fine a point on its efforts has never ceased to maintain that Negro is a savage; and for the colonist the Negro was neither an Angolan nor a Nigerian for he simply spoke of the Negro" [18].

On the basis of her racial attitude towards her hero we may say that she is actually propagating her colonial ideology. Bill Ashcroft et al. are of the view that race thinking and

colonialism" both extend the binary" opposition to draw a line of demarcation between the civilized the Europeans and the primitives the colonized. And it was on the basis of racist description that the Negros" or Black Africans were placed at the bottom [16].

The same practice was carried out during the Spanish rule in the Americas. Claire Taylor has described the Royal Orders of 1523 which created two authorities in the Spanish Indies: first one being the Republica de los indios (Indian Republic) and the second one was Republican de los espanoles (Spanish Republic) however this division does not mean that the indigenous communities were accorded equality or independence contrarily it meant that the Amerindians was inferior to the Spanish and also that the members of Amerindian community could be more easily controlled. The Blacks who were brought as slaves to the Spanish America during the initial conquest and settlement were still lying lower in the hierarchy.

This shows that the racial discrimination was a general practice in the European colonial societies to which Behn conforms and consolidates further on her ideological

footings. Studying the relationships between West/ Europe and its dominated others" not only we discover the underlying inequality that has long existed between the two but also that it is a method of formation of meaning in the Western cultural practices themselves [1].

Behn's Eurocentric perspective does not end with her ethnic or racial depiction of Oroonoko rather she goes on to use him as a tool or medium to take forward her own political and religious ideology. She tells us that Oroonoko mourned for the deplorable death of our great Monarch." After listing some of his good and unique qualities such as his being well-learned and having even the knowledge of the Civil Wars in England" she moves forward to represent him Eurocentritally:

He had an extreme good and graceful Mien and all the Civility of a well-bread great Man. He had nothing of Barbarity in his Nature but in all Points addressd himself as if his Education had been in some European Court. This

great and just Character of Oroonoko gave me an extreme Curiosity to see him" [15].

This gaze of curiosity" is central to the colonial discourse which the author places on Oroonoko throughout her novel in order to sexualize and eroticize him as well as to control him. Despite her emphasis that she is a nonpartisan observer the narrator constantly uses the fetishizing language and expressions of the colonizers.

The narrator does not seem to rise above the biases of her own culture. Because of her refuting any innate African good quality in Oroonoko the African Royal Slave it is beyond her imagination that African continent may produce such a unique man therefore she mentions her own

European Court" as if it was assumedly the source for producing or breeding this great person Oroonoko. Laura Brown comments:

The failure of Behns novella to see beyond the mirror of its own culture in this opening characterization of its hero raises the question of the nature of Behns relationships with African slaves" [20].

As a result we see that the world of Oroonoko is permanently divided between us" and them" dichotomy in which the narrator celebrates her own self as refined educated normal civilized and intelligent.

Said has therefore pointed out in Introduction" to his Culture and Imperialism that it is a striking feature of colonial discourse to construct the stereotypes regarding the African mind" and then the notion of bringing civilization to the barbaric peoples lands and at the same time severely punishing them whenever they misbehaved because they understand violence best. In a nutshell they" were not like us" and for that reason deserved to be ruled" [1].

During the course of the time the narrator is able to minimize the otherness" of her hero and she presents him as a transformed figure who has completely accomplished the standard qualities of European humans. The greatness of soul" well-refined concept of true dignity and absolute generosity" are some of the characteristics that the hero has. Even for these qualities the narrator gives the credit to

heros French tutor who taught Ornoonoko morals language and science:

Some part of it we may attribute to Care of a French-Man of Wit and Learning; who finding it turn to very good Account to be a sort of Royal Tutor to young Black and perceiving him very ready apt and quick of Apprehension took a great pleasure to teach him Morals Language and Science" [15].

To a great extent it is because of the French tutor that the hero is able to get knowledge and be enlightened in the light of European civilization. Without French tutors endeavors the hero would have remained a flawed individual just like his other countrymen.

3. The Colonial Discourse in Oroonoko and the self"

Bill Ashcroft et al have pointed out that colonial discourse" is a system of statements in which colonies and colonial people are represented. This system shows the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized:

Rules of inclusion and exclusion operate on the assumption of the superiority of the colonizers cultures history language art political structures social conventions and the

assertion of the need for the colonized to be raised up through colonial contact" [16].

Behn has emphatically maintained her cultural and intellectual superiority by the appointment of a French tutor who obviously represents European cultural norms for raising up her hero. Laura Brown has aptly put forward the idea that as Oronooko was educated by a French-man he is therefore admirable because of having close-connection with the European civilization not-distance from it [20]:

Oroonoko who was more civilizd according European Mode than any other had been and took more Delight in the White Nations; and above all Men of Parts and Wit" [15]. So slowly and gradually the narrator has brought her hero to

her own European ideological dimensions the phrase; the White Nations" clearly indicates her duplicity and complicity with the colonists. It is yet to be explored that

how far the narrator is true in claiming that her royal slave took or expressed his great inclination to the White Nations" whom he prefers to call Dogs" [15] when the real or actual face of the Whites" is disclosed to him. However the narrator is deeply rooted in her colonial

ideology and cannot get rid from her imperialist attitude. Though the narrator wants to reduce her heros otherness" by domesticating him yet while doing this she is actually involved in the process of distorting his native and domestic African identity. Fanon has remarked:

Perhaps we not sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is no simply content to impose its rule upon the present and

the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not merely satisfied with holding people in its grips and emptying the natives brain of all form and content. By a kind of

pereverted [sic!] logic it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts disfigures and destroys it [18].

This is what is happening in this novel. Oronookos own country is not able to teach him good morals and intellectual values; rather his country is shown as a blank page in the

history of human beings. It is the colonizers who know that what is best for the colonized peoples.

Janni Ramone [21] is of the view that the barbaric images are the recurring themes of the colonial literature which work to maintain the long-cherished claims of the colonizers imperialist ideology that the colonized races were not able to have self-government to govern their own societies because they were undisciplined and undeveloped. In addition to that the portrayal of the colonized is often reinforced in the depiction of the governed communities as highly emotional and unstable characters so that the colonizers may justify their presence in the other world on

the basis of humanitarian endeavor" [21]. As whole we may conclude that Oronookos character is constructed on the narrators own imperialist and colonial ideology which consequently results in the ethnic superiority of the white

woman over the black native. In this way the Black Royal Slave becomes the narrators silent other".

This is what Said has suggested in Orientalism:

There are Wsterners there are Orientals the former dominates the later must be dominated which usually means having their land occupied their internal affairs rigidly controlled their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another Western power" [17].

Despite the fact that Orientalism is mainly concerned with the Arabs and Islam who constituted the Orientals for hundreds of years in the British French and American imperialism nevertheless the concept as Janni Ramone has argued may be applied far more broadly to other locations and peoples especially once colonialism is taken into consideration" [21]. This same demarcation between self"

and others" may be regarded as one of the prominent themes in Oronooko which finally leads to the deculturisation and dehumanization of the natives.

However there is a moment in the novel when the narrator becomes conscious of her own strange looking in the eyes of the natives. This took place when the narrator and her travelling party including Oroonoko went to an Indian village upriver on a daring expedition. Here the narrator undergoes an experience that forces her to describe herself for the very first time in the novel. When she meets the Indians who have never seen a white creature before she immediately becomes attentive of her own so-called superior

self" because now she saw herself through their wondering eyes:

They had no sooner spyd us but they set up a loud Cry that frighted us as first; we thought it had been for those that should Kill us but it seem it was of Wonder and Amazement. They were all Naked and we were Dressd so as is most comode for the hot Countries very Glittering and Rich so that we appeard extremely fine; my own Hair was cut short" [15].

Here again she reinforces her racial superiority as the phrase we appeared extremely fine" suggests. She seems to be comparing her appearance with that of the native Indians. It

occurred to her suddenly that even though the natives have cast a sight of surprise and wonder on her body yet she is a symbol of a refined appearance.

To some extent the natives were able to force her to describe herself and revisit her bodily structure or color. What she conceives of herself from this outlandish viewpoint is directly reported in the natives own language; we shall

know whether those things can be speak" the natives enquire either they have sense and wit" or can they talk of affairs of life and war" as they (Indians) can. Therefore in a reversal position it is the colonizers who are first turned into

a worthy-sight to behold and then are judged and qualified on the basis of their visibility and color differences.

In this perspective William C. Spengemann [22] has argued that because of this visit to the Indian tribe the narrator is given a new perspective like her predecessors on the world as a whole and the Indians words which are altogether innocent assume a great role in this context in shattering the Europeans cultural or racial superiority:

Seen from this American coign of vantage Europe is no longer the center of the circle of lands. It is merely one more place on globe as backward in its way as are the barbarous

nations in theirs a relative thing rather than the seat of absolute values by which the rest of the world may be judged" [22].

In the above given discussion we have seen that three different cultures and societies: that are the native Surinamese the setting of the novel the European and that of Coramantien Oronookos African home are compared to

one another but the narrators own cultural norms are celebrated and considered superior to those of Coramantien and Surinam. Therefore the narrator continuously draws a

solid demarcation between her self" and the self" of her silent others in order to show and consolidate her inherent superiority to the other races.

All the above cited extracts from Oronooko show that Behns others" whether this being her hero Oronooko or the natives are depicted as Said has argued; something one judges" something one studies" something one disciplines" or something one illustrates." So the key point here is that in any case the narrators others" are contained" and represented" [17] by her own imperialistic framework. Fanon is worth-quoting in this regard:

The settler makes history and is conscious of making it and because he constantly refers to the history his mother country he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country. Thus the history which he is to write is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation" [18].

Behn herself proclaimed in the dedicatory epistle to her tale that the story she is going to compose or narrate is a true Story" moreover the complete title of the novel runs as: Oroonoko or The Royal Slave: A True History which is an ample proof that she was writing the history of Orooookos life. But as Fanon has pointed out that the settlers are

conscious of their mother history and therefore they cannot go beyond their ideology. The same is true of Behn. On one hand she says that she is composing a true Story" while on the other she serves the colonial agenda which shows that she is also an extension of her mother country.

It is therefore right to say that the world of her novella is clearly categorized in the dichotomy of us" and them" in which her own self" emerges as rational cultured civilized normal and dignified.

4. Behn's narrative strategy and the Self" It is a zero-focalized narrative" that Behn has employed in her novel to narrate the events. As Peter Berry has pointed

out that this type of narrative is not identified at all as an autonomous character with name and personal background history. Rather it a tone" or a voice" which serves as a

mere telling medium". Such type of narrators may be categorized as effaced" covert" non-dramatized" or non-intrusive". Therefore it is called authorial persona" [23].

Said has highlighted that how the authority of novels consolidation which is in part self- validation" during the process of narrative is determined. It is not simply

connected to the social powers and governance. First there is the authority of the author who writes definitely following some conventions and patterns and his ideas are deeply embedded in his or her own society. Second there is the authority of the narrator whose narration obviously anchors in some recognizable and referential circumstances. Finally there is the authority of community according to Said whose representative is the family or more broadly speaking the nation the particular setting or the concrete historical moment. Together all these factors contribute to making the

novel. In Saids own words; The novel is thus a concretely historical narrative shaped by the real history of real nations" [1].

In what follows we would investigate that how this type of narrative serves Behns colonial agenda. See the following lines:

Those then whom we make use of to work in our Plantations of Sugar are Negroes Black- Slaves altogether; which are transported thither in this manner" [15].

The choice of using personal plural pronouns we" and our" that refer to her personal involvement in the process of enslavement. She seems to own the plantations as well as slaves who are mostly Negroes. In addition to this the story of Oroonoko is told in a zero-focalized narrative" that is when the narrator freely enters in the characters minds and feelings as if privy to their perceptions and emotions. This sort of narration or what is generally called an omniscient narration" is peculiar to the classical or traditional narration" [23].

In the earlier stages of Oroonoko we are told the narrators company charmed Oroonoko and also that he had a complete trust in her Great Mistress". The narrator even goes on to the extent to remark very proudly that her Word woud go a great way with him". But soon after when Oroonoko shows the signs of rebellion the narrator

immediately becomes aware of her class and persuades him not to doubt her words for this would force the colonists to treat him cruelly which might result in Oroonokos confinement". Here again the narrator uses the phrase; we woud break our Words with him" [15]. So the personal plural pronoun we directly reflects her own association with the colonists.

Robert L. Chibka [19] has noted down that the narrator manipulates pronouns masterfully to set herself half in and half out of the European community. For instance if the assurances of freedom are suspected then they are solely

responsible for them: They fed him" [15] with the promises so Oroonoko began to suspect them" [p. 41] of their being untrue. Similarly if the personal trust is to be

stressed to discard and exterminate any possibility of suspicion then I" evoke it [19]: I was obliged to give him all satisfaction I possibly coud" [15]. Here I" is used to shed off any doubt leveled against her personal dignity

because the narrator wants that her hero should not injure her personal grandeur that her self" may not be tainted with falsehood so that she can safely project her colonial ideology using Oroonoko as an effective means or instrument to propagate her own imperialist thoughts. However when the narrator feels that the dignity of her race is being endangered because of Oroonokos doubt then she employs the singular umbrage of personal pronoun on behalf of plural race: I took it ill he should Suspect we woud

break our Words with him" [15]. We see how her claim of being non-partisan and neutral while telling the story of her Royal Slave is being torn into pieces; because she regards it against the glory of her race to be considered deprived of moral values. Thus she is compelled to make appearance on the stage to defend her race by using pronoun I". And this

in turn provides a clear-cut proof that how Behns narrative conforms to her own ideology.

She warns Oroonoko that if he continues doubting her race or more specifically the European colonists governing the colony of Surinam he would face dire consequences. Like the other colonists she intelligently uses her own mistrust to convince him not to mistrust her urging him to give her a solemn promise of non-aggression. This further leads us to

look into the narrative patterns of control through language. To a large extent this was Oroonokos blind faith in the narrator the Great Mistress" that she holds a firm devotion to truth which eventually induces him to relinquish

any doubt and suspicion.

It was only in the closing-scene of the novel that it was revealed to Oroonoko that all these lies were white-lies. For the narrators dual policy lingers on till the end of the novel. It is apparent from her reaction to the attempted escape of Oroonoko which exhibits that how much she trusted in her heros promises:

We were possessed with extreme Fear which no perswasions coud Dissipate that he woudcome down and Cut all our Throats. This apprehension made all the Females of us fly down the River to be securd" [15].

The selection of the pronouns ranging from we" our" to us" all absolutely point out to permanently categorizing the world into two halves; that is of the White race and its

Others" the latter one being inherently primitives and barbarous. The narrator is not willing at any cost to separate herself from her White superior race; rather she seems to be

cementing her self" with her own race on solid basis. Therefore her absence at the most tragic moment in the novel when her hero Oroonoko was being terribly whipped demonstrates that she did not trust her hero anymore; since he has been transformed from the status of Royal Slave to that of beast-like Monster. So the narrative technique that Behn has employed in her novel is quite fit for her colonial ideology which results in the constant division of the globe into us" and them".

The omniscient narration provided her the opportunity to brilliantly mould the plot of her novel according to her own personal motives. In this perspective Said has maintained: One must connect the structures of a narrative to the ideas concepts experiences form which it draws support" [1].


In this paper as a background we discussed how Black Studies have increasingly investigated attitudes towards the Negro and how fiction on/by them received academic acclaim particularly works by Aphra Behn. The background is followed by a study of Eurocentrism in Oroonoko. In the section that follows discussion on Eurocentrism study of colonial discourse in Oroonoko has been conducted. The penultimate section of the paper critically reviews the narrative strategy employed by the writer.

The basic argument of this study draws upon Saidian framework that conceptualizes literature and writers as captives of history. The study thus challenges Aphra Behns claim regarding her seminal work Oroonoko that it is a true history of the royal slave written impartially as Behn adheres to the colonial ideology and maintains her cultural racial and biological superiority. Textual examples show that

Oroonoko is a colonial text that has frequent instances of othering and misrepresentation conducted owing to the writers Eurocentrism and her use of colonial discourse and narrative strategy.

As a whole we may conclude that this kind of narrative provided Behn an absolute opportunity to project her thoughts with finality and singularity of perspective dispelling any alternate viewpoints. Summing it all up we may safely assert that Oroonoko is predominantly a colonial text that supports and furthers colonial agenda by sticking to colonial standards of civilization beauty education intelligence and mannerism.


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