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.
Through the plot, the narrator examines the sustainability of Oroonoko’s all-or-nothing approach to honor (in Coramantien and Suriname) and how these notions of honor set him up for his disastrous end. Regardless of location, Oroonoko’s particular understanding of honor is predicated on a refusal to compromise, which leads to varying outcomes, depending on whether those around him value honor as well. In Coramantien, honor is a relatively well-understood principle and is highly regarded amongst the men—even by those like the King, who has no honor left and abuse those that do. Indeed, what separates regular men, like Aboan, from exceptional men, like Oroonoko, is that the average Coramantien recognizes that at times he must do things half-heartedly—like Aboan sleeping with Onahal in exchange for political favors—but also is able rise to the occasion and demonstrate his heroism when he can, such as when Aboan leads the troops in a losing battle.
Oroonoko, on the other hand, lives a much more unstable life because he is so totally committed to being honorable in every action that he is forced to make extremely tough decisions between bad alternatives: Let Imoinda live and be raped by white colonists or kill her to prevent her dishonor. Try to kill Byam and be murdered or live a slave until death. Oroonoko’s preoccupation with following his strict code of honor and always keeping promises makes him vulnerable against those who harbor weak morals, mainly his grandfather, the Captain, and Byam—men who are able to lie to Oroonoko and cheat him. Oroonoko’s strong sense of honor also makes him more depressed about being enslaved than others, even though the colonists treat him more like a gentleman than a slave. He does none of the work of a slave, but to be owned by another man seems to him the height of dishonor, and so he is especially concerned that his child should never be born into slavery—it would be better for the child to die instead.
Honor Quotes in Oroonoko
To describe her truly, one need say only, she was female to the noble male; the beautiful black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her person as he, and of delicate virtues. I have seen a hundred white men sighing after her, and making a thousand vows at her feet, all in vain, and unsuccessful.
Some have commended this act, as brave in the captain; but I will spare my sense of it, and leave it to my reader to judge as he pleases.
He was very sorry to hear that the captain pretended to the knowledge and worship of any gods, who had taught him no better principles than not to credit as he would be credited.
He saw an honesty in his eyes, and he found him wise and witty enough to understand honor: for it was one of his maxims, A man of wit could not be a knave or villain.
He begged Trefry to give him something more befitting a slave, which he did, and took off his robes: nevertheless he shone through all, and his osenbrigs…could not conceal the graces of his looks and mien; and he had no less admirers …the royal youth appeared in spite of the slave, and people could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it.
I was infinitely glad to find this beautiful young slave (who had already gained all our esteems, for her modesty and her extraordinary prettiness) to be the same I had heard Caesar speak so much of…we paid her a treble respect; and though…we took her to be of quality before, yet when we knew Clemene was Imoinda, we could not enough admire her.
Much more to this effect he spoke, with an air impatient enough to make me know he would not be long in bondage; and though he suffered only the name of a slave, and had nothing of the toil and labor of one, yet that was sufficient to render him uneasy; and he had been too long idle, who used to be always in action, and in arms.
And why," said he, my dear friends and fellow-sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people? Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honorable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves?
All that love could say in such cases being ended, and all the intermitting irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young, and adored victim lays herself down before the sacrificer; while he, with a hand resolved, and a heart breaking within, gave the fatal stroke, first cutting her throat, and then severing her yet smiling face from that delicate body, pregnant as it was with the fruits of tenderest love.
"Look ye, ye faithless crew," said he, "'tis not life I seek, nor am I afraid of dying" (and at that word, cut a piece of flesh from his own throat, and threw it at 'em), "yet still I would live if I could, till I had perfected my revenge. But oh! it cannot be; I feel life gliding from my eyes and heart; and if I make not haste, I shall fall a victim to the shameful whip."
"My friends, am I to die, or to be whipped?" And they cried, "Whipped!”...And then he replied, smiling, "A blessing on thee"; and assured them they need not tie him, for he would stand fixed like a rock, and endure death so as should encourage them to die; "But, if you whip me," said he, "be sure you tie me fast."