A Postcolonial Body: Oroonoko’s Hybridity, Masculinity and Colonial Anxiety

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Caitlin Hart
English 348
Dr. Corrinne Harol
April 10, 2017

A Postcolonial Body: Oroonoko’s Hybridity, Masculinity and Colonial Anxiety

Word Count: 2253



In Aphra Behn’s short story Oroonoko, the titular character is racially-coded and his
physical abilities are described in great detail. Oroonoko’s hybrid identity and martial
action/inaction create ambivalence for the colonialists, which lead to the creation of Oroonoko’s
post/colonial, hybrid identity. Specifically, I will look at how Oroonoko can be read as metaphor
– do the colonialists fear him because he represents the king, or because his physical prowess
threatens their whiteness? Oroonoko’s hybrid identity as noble and slave, alongside his
embodiment of masculinity, calls into question Western binaries, and by extension unsettles the
colonialists who observe him. Some key terms I will use in this paper include hybridity,
embodiment, nobility and post-colonialism.
Oroonoko is described as having “perfect ebony” (Behn, 12) skin, with a “rising and
Roman” (12) nose and without the characteristic full lips of African decedents. The narrator
notes that, aside from the colour of his skin, he looks European. This is significant for two
reasons: first, because there is significant debate in the academy whether Oroonoko is “truly”
black or if he is simply a stand-in for the king; second, because aside from his title of slave and
the brutal way he is killed, Oroonoko is not treated as a slave. He is allotted land, and is regarded
as a leader. These features are not only racially coded, but speak to assumptions about class as
well. Darker skin is associated with the physical labour of the working class; Oroonoko’s white
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teeth are more hallmarks of the nobility’s hygiene. Representing both slave and noble features
further complicates Oroonoko’s complicated and multi-faceted identity. His bodily description
codes him dually as both slave and nobility, a clear example of hybridity.
Hybridity comes up frequently in the text. Hybridity, as defined by Homi Bhaba, is a dual
existence wherein the colonized (or postcolonial) individual is both unquestioningly affected by
colonialism, while also maintaining some degree of native sensibility which leads to a double or
hybrid identity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Oroonoko’s name. He is renamed Caesar, a
European name, which implies kingship and power. As Rob Baum explains, this naming was
common among slaves as a means of mocking slaves; it holds particular meaning in Oroonoko’s
case, as he is a prince by birth, and also capable of leading a slave rebellion. Hybridity also
appears in Oroonoko’s physical descriptions. He is “jet black” (12) with European features, and
is regarded by the narrator as beautiful. His very body is a hybrid of African and European.
Hybridity can induce anxiety, due to its beginnings in imperialist interactions. Because European
thought is generally positioned in binaries, the hybrid identity threatens Europeans by
challenging binary assumptions. Oroonoko does this by being both slave and king, African
savage and “well-bred” (11) European man. There is ambivalence, too, in Oroonoko’s
relationship to violence. He becomes Prince Oroonoko in battle, where he is regarded as “one of
the most expert captains and bravest soldiers” (10). However, he is also somewhat marked by his
anti-violence. His slave rebellion is stirred, not by violent riot, but in a rousing speech. This lack
of military intervention
Beyond his facial features, Oroonoko’s body is the subject of much of the story. His
physical prowess is displayed when he kills the tiger that hunts on the plantation. This scene is
contrasted to the moment when he attempts to kill an eel with his bare hands but ultimately fails.
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While this could be interpreted as a moment of physical failure, or a hole in the plot, it is more so
a moment of expressing hybridity and undoing western notions of masculine performance.
Oroonoko is defined by both his physical violence, and his quiet suffering and non-violent slave
liberation. The episode with the eel expresses Oroonoko’s incomplete physical power, the way
his blackness or whiteness is incomplete, due to having features associated with both races. This
incompleteness could be read in relationship to his hybridity. Hybrid identities are necessarily
incomplete, because they take aspects of multiple cultures and identities, so that the identity of
the individual is only complete through the meeting of these multiple identities.
Hybrid identity appears again in Oroonoko’s mixed reaction to the Indian warrior’s selfmutilation.
His repulsion speaks to a noble (and decidedly white) reaction to indigenous cultures,
and Oroonoko asserts that the Indians practice a form of masculinity he would not partake in, but
he “express’d his Esteem of ‘em” (Behn, 58), showing the Other’s understanding and
sympathies. Like Oroonoko, the Indians are marked by their difference and Otherness, the
narrator noting that the Indians had “some strange aspects; that is, of a larger size, and other sort
of features than those of our country” (Behn, 56), their physicality distancing them from the
normalized white body. Similar to the ways in which Oroonoko is black, but not fully black, the
Indians are regarded as recognizably human, but different enough to justify their subordinace to
the British.
Oroonoko’s death is one of the most disturbing scenes in the story. His limbs and ears are
cut off and thrown into the fire. This is a powerful moment of embodiment in the story, as
Oroonoko “smoked on, as if nothing had touched him” (72), so that he suffers virtuously and
effectively “becomes a positive sign of Christ-like forgiveness” (Richards, 653). This allows the
narrator to “represent Oroonoko’s body in pain without fully implicating herself in imperial
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politics” (Richards, 653). Creating a martyr out of Oroonoko allows his hybridity to be written
over, so he becomes merely symbolic, and the embodied mixed identity is erased, since his body
has been destroyed. He comes to represent the problems and pitfalls of slavery. Susan B.
Iwanisziw suggests in her paper “Behn’s Novel Investment in Oroonoko” that Oroonoko’s
fortitude in the face of his torture “dramatizes his disdain for these colonials” (82), suggesting
that his stoic response is more political than spiritual or metaphorical. This argument reduces his
suffering to simple embodiment, when it actually represents much more than himself. Oroonoko
stands in for Christ, and perhaps even other monarchs. However, Richards contests this when she
writes that Oroonoko’s death scene lacks “both Protestant and Catholic martyrologies” (653) in
that there is no great spiritual revelation; Oroonoko’s death is deeply human. Many academics
speculate that Oroonoko represents the king of England, explaining not only the execution but
also the ambivalent emotion the colonialists express towards Oroonoko. As colonialists, the
characters in the story are both vehemently anti-slave, and anti-king. However, their heritage is
staunchly monarchical and there may be some residual feeling of respect for noble classes which
causes heightened anxiety around Oroonoko, as he deeply embodies the colonialists greatest
perceived enemies. Oroonoko’s physical prowess only adds to this complicated response to his
classed and racialized body. The physical power that Oroonoko exhibits is threatening to the
colonialists who know of his history as a military commander, and his physical power has the
possibility to throw off the colonial powers.
Oroonoko’s metaphoric interpretation creates some problems for a purely embodied
reading. It is difficult to claim whether Oroonoko’s entire narrative is contained in his body, or
whether he is really a body at all, or if he is a fictional manifestation of England’s monarch. His
skin colour others him, marking him as the central figure in the slave narrative, but his features
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and his way of carrying himself are decidedly king-like. The colonialists take a very particular
approach to Oroonoko by allowing him to own land, and respecting, to a certain degree, his
relationship with Imoinda. He is treated with almost no violence up until the end of the story.
This marks his difference from the other slaves. This is possibly explained by the trickery with
which he is acquired, when he is tricked into boarding the slave ship.
Earlier in the story, when he is forced to take on the identity of Caesar and dress as a
slave, he is “unable to disguise his manner” (Baum, 23) which betrays his noble origins. As
Frohock states, “his noble quality emanates from his very person” (58) so that his hybrid
slave/prince identity is always expressed and carried with him in his body. Yet again, Oroonoko
embodies an ambivalent identity that threatens the colonizer. Despite taking on the clothing of
the slaves, Oroonoko is unable to effectively throw off his noble origins and embody the slave.
This is what makes his slave rebellion successful, and what makes him so deeply unsettling to
the colonialists: he is enough like the slaves in clothing and skin colour that they trust him, but
commanding and noble enough to orate and inspire others, as well as strategically plan their
revolt. Oroonoko threatens not only the racial hierarchy, but perhaps more crucially, the class
hierarchy. Gary Gautier writes about the “double theme” (163) of the story, in which the
narrative of slavery is supported, while white supremacy is questioned. This relates back to the
notion that the story is more concerned with class based hierarchy than it is racial binaries.
Through her portrayal of Oroonoko, the narrator asserts that “racism has no natural ground [but]
slavery is quite natural” (Gautier, 163), further asserting that slavery and, indeed, Behn’s
political analysis, concerns itself more with class based oppression and conflict than racial
issues. In the slave revolt, “the latent threat of the lower classes … erupts in Behn’s work”
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(Frohock, 53), which reinforces the inherent class conflict at the heart of the plot, which is more
central to the conflict and Oroonoko’s eventual demise than his race.
The narrator’s focus on Oroonoko’s embodiment is made all the more powerful by the
final death scene. Oroonoko’s body, in the way his noble class, his slavery, and his race are
central to the plot and to the destruction of his body. This final scene cements Oroonoko’s
existence in the purely physical. Although the narrator purports to be carrying on Oroonoko’s
“glorious name” (Behn, 73) in her work, the narration actually writes Oroonoko’s ending as
entirely physical. His body is quartered, his limbs are “hacked off” (Behn, 72) and “they cut
Caesar in quarters and sent them to several of the chief plantations” (72-73). Oroonoko is
positioned by the narrator to become a martyr and spritiual representation of the slaves, and the
liberation of different classes of people, but ultimately, the narration contradicts this notion. His
body, once quartered, is even referred to as “it” (73) by Colonel Martin, so that no spirit or soul
exists any longer, and the body is reduced to mere object. The body ultimately becomes a piece
of meat in this narrative, lacking any political feeling or momentum.
Oroonoko threatens the colonialist’s whiteness in two ways. First, he and Imoinda
“consistently debunk the idea of white superiority” (Gautier, 164) by expressing alternative
conceptions of masculinity that challenge European binary concepts, as Oroonoko dislikes
drinking, prefers the company of women, and has the episode in which he is unable to
successfully kill the eel. For the British, this might be a moment of failing masculinity; however,
in Oroonoko’s case, it may be read as an undoing on gender binaries and speak to the way in
which Oroonoko subverts western notions of male embodiment and physical power. As Gautier
states, “Oroonoko is demasculinized only in relation to a European standard that measures
masculinity in fluid ounces” (164) emphasizes physically embodied manhood that depends on
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tests of physical strength. Oroonoko most strongly contests this definition of masculinity in the
event of organizing the slave revolt. He encourages the other slaves through words, rather than
through inciting violence, a call to arms rather than a true taking up of arms.
What is the value of reading Oroonoko in today’s postcolonial context? Oroonoko
represents an uncomfortable part of history which many wish to forget. However, beyond the
gruesome narrative of slavery, Oroonoko is a useful story is discussing the ways in which hybrid
identities, as produced by colonial and post-colonial situations, question binaries to the point of
discomfort for many. These binaries are used to keep the Other separate from the conquering
nation; today these binaries act as political tools to separate illegal from citizen, and refugee from
American. These binaries establish an us versus them dynamic which oppresses certain classes of
people. Oroonoko’s dual slave and royal identity so vexes the colonial and imperialist powers
that they kill him. The text cites his rebellion as the reason for his execution, but the rebellion is
simply a symptom of his noble leadership ability, and his challenge to binary, hierarchical
thinking meant to keep the Other in his place.
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Works Cited
Baum, Rob. “Aphra Behn’s Black Body: Sex, Lies and Narrativity in Oroonoko.” Brno Studies in
English 37.2 (2011): n. page. Web. 6 Apr. 2017.
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, and Other Writings. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Frohock, Richard. Heroes of Empire: The British Imperial Protagonist in America, 1596-1764.
Newark: U of Delaware, 2004. Print.
Gautier, Gary. “SLAVERY AND THE FASHIONING OF RACE IN “OROONOKO,” “ROBINSON
CRUSOE”, AND EQUIANO’S “LIFE”.” The Eighteenth Century 42.2 (2001): 161-79. JSTOR.
Web. 28 Mar. 2017.
Iwanisziw, Susan B. “Behn’s Novel Investment in “Oroonoko”: Kingship, Slavery and Tobacco in
English Colonialism.” South Atlantic Review 63.2 (1998): 75. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 27 Mar.
2017.
Richards, Cynthia. “Interrogating Oroonoko: Torture in a New World and a New Fiction of
Power.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 25.4 (2013): 647-76. MLA International Bibliography
[EBSCO]. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.

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