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, Oroonoko then learns a different kind of obedience through his love for Imoinda, which teaches him to obey his heart. Not only does he learn the language of love and how to express his passion, but by continuing to love Imoinda even after the King has taken her as his concubine, Oroonoko disobeys his unjust grandfather and his society’s traditions. He thus learns to prioritize and protect his love for Imoinda above his obedience to cultural norms and to his treacherous grandfather, the King. In the colony, then, Oroonoko’s patience with being obedient wears thin, as the colonists urge him to continue waiting for his freedom, which will never come. It is again his love for Imoinda and their unborn child that guides his decision to try to break free of the yoke of slavery, no matter the cost. Eventually, it is that same love that compels him to accept the harsh reality that he will never be a free man again, and to take dire action to secure freedom through death.
For Imoinda, obedience seems to be a natural requirement of love, especially given the social expectations in Coramantien society that women revere their husbands like gods. However, when the King brings her to court to be his concubine, Imoinda realizes that obedience is not always a form of love when free will is not present. As the King’s consort and Oroonoko’s wife, Imoinda has to obey the King and perform loving actions, while also disobeying her heart and her husband. By the tale’s end, however, she is able to reconcile her understanding of the relationship between love and obedience. She willingly accepts her murder at Oroonoko’s hand, happy to be able to prove her faithfulness and pleased that he has chosen a culturally honorable means to end their tragic love story.
The King’s understanding of love and obedience is much less familiar to Western audiences (especially as he is essentially an African caricature created by Behn). A polygamist who has unlimited power and assumes he will have his own way in everything, the King expects love to spring abundantly from his people, who must obey him without fail. Imoinda’s resistance to his advances thus confuses and angers him, as does Oroonoko’s disobedience, because it rocks his worldview that someone could dare to refuse him or deny him the love he expects to receive.
Love and Obedience ThemeTracker
Love and Obedience Quotes in Oroonoko
Imoinda is as irrecoverably lost to me as if she were snatched by the cold arms of death… Oh! she is never to be retrieved… unless I would either ignobly set an ill precedent to my successors, or abandon my country, and fly with her to some unknown world who never heard our story.
He sent a messenger to the camp, with orders to treat with him about the matter, to gain his pardon, and to endeavor to mitigate his grief; but that by no means he should tell him she was sold, but secretly put to death: for he knew he should never obtain his pardon for the other.
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.
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.
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.
He tore, he raved, he roared like some monster of the wood, calling on the loved name of Imoinda. A thousand times he turned the fatal knife that did the deed toward his own heart, with a resolution to go immediately after her; but dire revenge, which was now a thousand times more fierce in his soul than before, prevents him.