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Themes and Colors
Racism Theme Icon
Betrayal Theme Icon
Love and Obedience Theme Icon
Freedom and Slavery Theme Icon
Honor  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Oroonoko, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Like with Shakespeare and his play Othello (1603), Behn’s racist perspectives on non-white cultures complicate her treatment of her subject—the tragic life of a royal slave trying to escape slavery. While it isn’t clear that the narrator’s tepid attitude toward slavery as a normal social practice matches Behn’s own ideas of the institution, what is clear is that Oroonoko itself does little to challenge what would have been the widely accepted view of its 17th-century…

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The plot of Oroonoko is almost entirely driven by betrayal, a theme with close ties to what Aphra Behn saw happening within the shifting political climate in 17th-century England. Around the time that Oroonoko was published, England’s Queen Mary and her Dutch husband, William III, replaced Mary’s father, King James II. Royalists like Behn were outraged at what they considered a betrayal of the rightful monarch, James, by the controlling force Parliament was becoming. Thus…

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In Oroonoko, the question of how love relates to obedience is one with different answers for different characters, and a theme which allows love triangles to develop, fuels power conflicts, and even leads to death.

Oroonoko himself struggles greatly throughout his life to find a balance between these two ideals. Conditioned to ethical and social obedience by being raised in a strict culture that expects him to become his country’s next general and future king…

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Some important questions that Behn’s work asks us to consider are: do some people deserve freedom? And do others, then, deserve to be enslaved?

Though to our modern sensibility, the answer is obvious that freedom is an inalienable human right, this wasn’t so clear to Behn’s 17th-century British audience. British readers would already be accustomed to rigid social stratification, even amongst whites (the divine right of kings to rule others, for example), and would have…

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Of all Oroonoko’s traits, his sense of honor, of knowing what is right and just, makes him most similar to Classical Roman and Greek heroes and renders him most admirable and familiar to a Western audience. Honor is even the overarching theme of Oroonoko’s life. It is drilled into him from the strict customs of Coramantien and he stays true to its principles even up to his gruesome death, which he bravely embraces.


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