The idea of discrimination, particularly racism, is not a new concept. Clearly, the issue still plagues societies all across the world today; one can see this just by turning on the news. To combat such an abhorrence, many are complacent enough to simply notice and identify racism when it rears its head. However, that is only half of the battle. It is just as important to understand where racism comes from and where its roots can be traced back to, as it is to simply identify it in daily life. When reading British texts from the Restoration Period, racism is quite evident. At this time, there was the theory of the so-called “Noble Savage”. According to Britannica.com, the definition of the term is “[i]n literature, an idealized concept of uncivilized man, who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization”. During the years spanning from 1660 to 1789 (the Restoration Period), this term was used to describe people of color who seemed to display very white, European looks and values. This, of course, was a supposed to be a “positive” term. In Oroonoko, Aphra Behn’s short history from 1688, it is quite blatant that the character of Oroonoko (the main character) is portrayed as a black man who lives up to the Noble Savage standards. The reason that Behn makes use of these standards is because there would be no other way for a European audience to root for/want to read about a black man otherwise.
Aphra Behn and Oroonoko
Not even two pages into this classic prose, Behn speaks of slaves and the slave trade. What is even more striking when it comes to setting the racist tone of the story is how Native Americans are described. Behn refers to them early in the work as “beauties”, and proceeds to write about how wonderful they appear by writing, “Some of the beauties, which indeed are finely shaped, as almost all are, and who have pretty features, are charming and novel; for they have all that is called beauty, except the color, which is a reddish yellow…” (Behn 96). Immediately in the story, Behn succeeds at establishing the idea that those who are not Caucasian are exquisite, and would even be more beautiful if it wasn’t for their unlucky dealing of darker skin than their European counterparts. Once “noble” physical qualities have been illustrated for the reader, Behn says of the Native Americans’ morals/behavior, “And these people represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin” (Behn 96). Here, she even goes as far as to equate what she sees as naiveté within Native Americans to that of Adam and Eve before they fell from grace in the Garden of Eden. These prelapsarian images are carefully constructed all throughout this story to keep readers from developing their own negative connotations towards characters of color.
Illustration of a Native American “Noble Savage”
If one was to think that the idea of the Noble Savage was already quite perpetuated at the beginning of the story, it only goes downhill even more once Oroonoko is introduced. Behn immediately sets out to try to separate Oroonoko from the race to which he belongs, which seems to be deemed as beneath that of the Caucasian race. She writes, “His face was not of that brown rusty black which most of that nation are, but of perfect ebony, or polished jet” (Behn 98). Had Oroonoko’s face been one of a much darker hue, Aphra Behn surely could not have convinced white Brits of the Restoration Period to take a liking to his character. She says more regarding his features, especially regarding his lips and nose. Regarding his nose, Behn writes, “His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the negroes” (Behn 98). Today, readers would find this appalling. In 1688, this was a flattering description of an African prince who sounded even more relatable to a European audience.
However, despite how “noble” Behn made out her “savage” to be, she still threw in rather barbaric behavior, surely to remind the reader of what she thought to be Oroonoko’s true roots (despite his sophisticated upbringing). After killing his wife, which is violent and terrifying in itself, Oroonoko cut off her “yet smiling face from that delicate body” (Behn 132). The act of murder itself is violent, but done so that Imoinda may not be “ravaged by every brute” (Behn 131) back at the camp. However, the scene goes from one of a mercy killing to one of graphic violence and cultural taboo once Oroonoko severs his deceased wife’s face. In addition, we must remember that this scene takes place in the jungle. Clearly, the scene of a black man killing his wife and severing her face in a jungle is meant to parallel racist misconceptions about those of color at the time. His behavior continues to be unorthodox after killing Imoinda, and “still mourning over the dead idol of his heart and striving everyday to rise, but could not” (Behn 132).
Oroonoko is an interesting piece of literary history, due to how Aphra Behn illustrates characters to resemble her audience. In her own mind, she was probably writing very complimentary descriptions of characters while describing them as European-looking. For the time period, this tale was not considered one riddled with racism. Looking at this text with a twenty-first century lens allows us to clearly see that, through heavy utilization of the Noble Savage theory (among other reasons), racism runs through the very core of this short history. Though it does not excuse the behavior, it is easy to see why the text had such prejudice. Not only was racism an accepted way of viewing the world in 1688, but had Oroonoko not displayed the values and physical features of what people associated with Caucasians, there is no way that Behn’s audience would have wanted anything to do with her prose that centered around such a prince.
For more information on the concept of the “Noble Savage”, click here
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Currents in British Literature II Course Packet. Comp. Ann McClellan. Plymouth, NH: 2014. 95-134.
“Noble Savage – Discover the Networks.” Noble Savage – Discover the Networks. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/viewSubCategory.asp?id=720>.
“Noble Savage | Literary Concept.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. <http://www.britannica.com/art/noble-savage>.
Oroonoko, The Royal Slave. Digital image. The Hundred Books. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.thehundredbooks.com/Oroonoko.htm>.
Understanding Stereotypes and Historical Trauma in Indian Country. Digital image. American Indian. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://americanindiantah.com/Stereotypes.html>.