In the beginning of Oroonoko, the narrator (an unnamed Englishwoman) directly addresses the reader to explain that the tale she is about to recount is completely true. She claims that she was an eyewitness to many of the events that took place in Suriname, South America. At the time (the 1660s), Suriname was a British colony. The narrator insists that anything she didn’t see, Oroonoko told her.
Oroonoko is one of the first novels ever written in English, and so the genre was still being invented at the time. Thus Behn conflates fiction with autobiography, claiming that her account is true while also clearly inventing most of it. Little is known of Behn’s life, so we can’t be sure how many of the events come from firsthand experience, but certainly it is fictional at its core. The character of the narrator, then, is a hazy one, and probably a fictionalized version of Behn herself.
Before she begins the story of Oroonoko’s life, the narrator makes one further aside. She explains that it is necessary to first give the reader a historical and cultural account of the native people of Suriname. This, she says, will reveal why slaves are imported into the colony.
The narrator clearly has no problem with the institution of slavery itself. While reprehensible, these views were the norm in the West at the time—slaves were seen as a necessary economic component of Britain as a colonial power, and non-white races were seen as inferior, and so deserving of being enslaved. We must then read the novel while keeping in mind the narrator’s inherently skewed, racist perspective.
According to the narrator, the white colonists in Suriname apparently live with the natives in “perfect amity,” and don’t “command” them, but instead treat them with “brotherly and friendly affection.” The natives and the whites have established a robust economy with each other, trading goods which are considered foreign and exotic to each respective culture.
Here the narrator makes the white colonists seem benevolent and tolerant towards the natives, in contrast to their treatment of black slaves. But the basis of this relationship is economic as well—the colonists need to act friendly to keep trade going, and to continue making a profit off of the natives.
Next, the narrator details what the natives look like. Their exotic beauty, which is so different from the European idea of beauty, captivates her. She says that the natives “have all that is called beauty, except the color” and are “extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched.” They are also mostly naked (they wear loincloths), but because they are so used to seeing each other this way, partial nudity does not excite sexual feelings between men and women: “where there is no novelty, there can be no curiosity.”
Even when ostensibly complimenting the natives, the narrator always shows her prejudice toward non-European cultures, as she uses traditional white beauty as the standard to judge the natives. Furthermore, she treats them as though they are not fully human or deserving of her respect—they are like children.
For the narrator, the natives represent “an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin.” She proclaims that religion would only destroy their peace, which they naturally possess through “ignorance,” and laws would only teach them how to cause offense.
Despite her skewed perspective on beauty and color, the narrator seems to be open-minded and have a large capacity for cultural understanding (like Behn herself, in writing this novel). She is awake to the vices of her own society, and though she sees the natives as childlike, she sees the West as generally corrupt.
The narrator relates an important anecdote that illustrates the strong moral code governing the simple but virtuous society of the natives of Suriname. Apparently an English governor promised to come visit the natives on a certain day, but failed to show up or send an excuse for his absence. The natives believed that he must have died, because this was the only reason why someone would ever break a promise in their culture. When the governor finally came to them, the natives asked what the English thought of a man who broke his promise. Not realizing the natives were referring to him, the governor responded that that man would be considered “a liar,” saying that this was a word of “infamy” to gentlemen. The natives then accused the governor of being a liar, and guilty of that infamy. The narrator proclaims that “native justice” is far superior to the laws white men have to offer, and those laws would only teach the natives “vice” and “cunning.”
This anecdote brings up the ideas of honor and betrayal, important themes in the work. The narrator clearly does not approve of how this English governor interacts with the natives, and her inclusion of this unflattering story suggests that there could be disharmony amongst the colonists concerning the treatment of non-whites. By not honoring his promises toward the natives, the governor reveals that he does not consider them his equals, and he would certainly have been shocked to hear them correct him according to his own English standards of decorum. This story also prefigures other instances in the events to come, in which non-Westerners (notably Oroonoko himself) will be shocked at the natural deceitfulness and dishonesty of whites.
The narrator wraps up her digression on the customs and cultures of the natives of Suriname by explaining that the English colonists rely on the natives for information about the foods to eat and trade. She reiterates that their relationship is one of friendship, but also adds that the natives outnumber the whites. Because the natives cannot be enslaved, she explains, the colony imports African slaves to work the sugar plantations.
The real reason for the friendship between the natives and the colonists is not just profit-driven, but also to ensure the survival and security of the colony. Because the natives teach the English how to survive, while the colonists offer very little in return, and in fact encroach upon the natives’ land, the colonists also have to keep the natives happy to prevent a rebellion, which the outnumbered colonists would certainly lose.
The narrator then briefly explains how the slave trade works. Those looking to purchase slaves make a deal with a ship’s captain to pay him so much per slave. The slaves on the ships are organized into lots of about ten people, three to four men and the rest women and children. The buyer cannot choose his lot, but has to be content with what the captain gives him. The colony in Suriname buys slaves that are prisoners of war—those captured by the army of Coramantien, the brave and warlike African nation from which Oroonoko came.
This detailed account of how the slave trade works reveals how the institution of slavery dehumanizes everyone involved. Since Coramantien also participates in the slave trade, making money from selling prisoners, this suggests that the relationship between Oroonoko’s people and the whites might be similar to the profit-driven relationship between the natives of Suriname and the colonists.
With this background, the narrator at last comes to the story of Oroonoko’s life. She begins by outlining his royal lineage, warrior upbringing, and the events that brought him to the West Indies (Caribbean). As the last living male descendant and the grandson of the King of Coramantien, a man with many wives, Oroonoko is sent away from court to learn the arts of war when he is five. He is trained by the country’s best and oldest general, the father of Imoinda, who becomes Oroonoko’s foster-father. By age 17, Oroonoko has become an expert captain, one of the best and bravest soldiers of the army, and is beautiful and admired by his people. However, tragedy strikes when his foster-father saves his life in battle, taking a fatal arrow in the eye that had been aimed at Oroonoko. Greatly saddened by this event, Oroonoko becomes the new general, finishes the war, and comes back to court.
Like many heroes, Oroonoko is typically superlative in all areas. The English would have drawn parallels between Oroonoko and Classical Greek or Roman heroes, who were great and noble warriors and who likewise often had tragic fates. Readers would also have been impressed by Oroonoko’s strong emotional response to the death of his foster-father—something which makes him seem more likeable and honorable, rather than weak.
Here the narrator makes another digression from the narrative to describe Oroonoko’s intelligence, morality, and beauty—the traits he was most admired for in the West Indies. She explains that Oroonoko grew up with a background in Western education due to his French tutor, an intelligent expatriate who taught him languages, morals, and science. Oroonoko also had an innate desire to learn about Western cultures. He learned English and Spanish by mingling with the English and Spanish slave traders he sold his prisoners to.
The narrator suggests that Oroonoko became so noble and admirable because of the Western influences of his education, another sign that she views Western culture as inherently superior to all others. Furthermore, the narrator attempts to paint the slave trade in a positive light by pointing out the language benefits Oroonoko gained from it, in addition to the economic ones.
The narrator assures readers of the truth of Oroonoko’s merits by describing her own impressions of him, and the details of their first meeting. After hearing so much about him, she had been eager to see him, and was extremely surprised at how handsome he seemed to her—for a black man. His features are all the more remarkable to the narrator because they are not exactly like what she has seen of his race. His skin is “perfect ebony” instead “brown rusty black,” and his nose is “Roman, instead of African and flat.” Based on his fine appearance, she decides he must be a good ruler with a beautiful soul. His ability to speak intelligently about a number of subjects only confirms these opinions. Because Oroonoko is so beautiful both inside and out, the narrator also thinks him capable of “the highest degree of love,” which only the greatest souls can experience.
Knowing that Oroonoko’s merits would sound unbelievable to her audience, the narrator still endorses them—but Oroonoko himself is, of course, an invented fictional character (though he may have been based on an acquaintance of Behn’s). This becomes more apparent in the description of Oroonoko’s beauty, which is an impossible mixture of pure African blood somehow “corrected” with European traits, like a Roman nose. The narrator’s admiration of Oroonoko is also heavily predicated on his Western traits and education. Overall, Behn’s description emphasizes that Oroonoko is beautiful and noble despite being black, and also suggests that his “white” qualities are his best ones. We will see this capacity for “great love” as the narrative progresses.
Slipping back into the chronological sequence of the narrative, the narrator reminds readers that the death of Oroonoko’s mentor (Imoinda’s father) has huge consequences other than just bringing Oroonoko back to court. Apparently the old general had a daughter, the last of his line, who is as beautiful and virtuous as Oroonoko himself. Once back at court, Oroonoko pays Imoinda (the general’s daughter) a visit to offer his condolences, and to give her a present of the slaves the army captured from her father’s last battle. Immediately Oroonoko is struck by Imoinda’s unparalleled beauty, and she by his. Each falls for the other. Oroonoko leaves smitten. In conversations with friends afterwards, he doesn’t even have to bring her up, because she is all they talk about.
The fact that Oroonoko and Imoinda are both the last of their noble lines gives a strong indication that they are somehow meant for each other—both of them impossibly beautiful, intelligent, and virtuous. Later on in Suriname, both characters will be given new, Christian names—but the narrator will continue to call Imoinda “Imoinda,” while Oroonoko will become “Caesar.” In fact, “Imoinda” is the last word of the novel, which further suggests that the name carries an important resonance. Unlike the supposedly innocent, childlike natives of Suriname, the people of Coramantien deal in slavery and warfare just like the English.
Not much time passes before Oroonoko pays a second visit to the fair Imoinda. Shortly thereafter, the brave warrior, unused to talking with women, professes his love for her in a speech inspired by an “unknown power [that] instructed his heart and tongue in the language of love.” Imoinda is likewise inspired to relate her passion to him.
The love between Oroonoko and Imoinda is epic and almost supernaturally inspired, as Behn creates an “exoticized” version of traditional Western heroic love stories.
Importantly, Oroonoko vows that Imoinda will be the only woman he marries, “contrary to the custom of his country.” Even when she’s old, wrinkly, and no longer beautiful, he promises that he will still see and love the eternal youth and beauty of her soul. Imoinda accepts his proposal and receives him “as the greatest honor the gods could do her.” The couple hold a ceremony, which the narrator forgets “to ask how ‘twas performed,” and both decide that they need the blessing of the King (Oroonoko’s grandfather). “Resignation to the monarch” and filial piety are both important virtues in their society.
Oroonoko’s decision to take Imoinda as his only wife is portrayed as unusual in his country, again proving that he is not a typical Coramantien man, but one who holds values similar to Westerners (and is therefore more sympathetic to Behn’s readers). At the same time, Coramantien is a morally rigid, patriarchal society that upholds ideals similar to those of English royalists—like resignation to a monarch’s total authority. Though Behn was a royalist herself, she may also be using Coramantien to point out the corruption she sees in her own government.
The narrator then provides some details about the old King, who is not like Oroonoko at all. Though he is almost one hundred years old, the King is still interested in women, and has many wives and concubines. When he hears of Imoinda’s beauty, the King immediately decides that he has to find out if she is worth adding to his legion of concubines. Before inviting her to court for his “private use,” the King has some reconnaissance work done. He discovers, to his chagrin, that Imoinda is Oroonoko’s “mistress.”
The King is a foil and antagonist to Oroonoko, which automatically foreshadows trouble. He also clearly does not value Imoinda or any of his wives, and is unable to experience the true romantic love that Oroonoko and Imoinda share—instead he is a collector of women, abusing his complete authority over his subjects. The King is essentially a caricature of a corrupt monarch, with an “exotic” twist of having his own personal harem.
The King is hardly dissuaded by this news, however. One day when Oroonoko is out hunting, he brings Imoinda to the palace, wanting to discreetly observe her and her feelings towards Oroonoko. One of the King’s attendants brings Imoinda to the palace to give her a present. He tells her the present is from Oroonoko, but actually it is just the King’s bait.
The King is clearly crafty and is also used to treating people like pawns, from his attendants to Imoinda, who is an unwitting participant in his game. This is meant to starkly contrast with the honorable, idealistic Oroonoko, who could never even begin to act this way.
Suspecting nothing, Imoinda is naturally overjoyed to receive what she thinks is Oroonoko’s gift. She expresses her feelings for Oroonoko in no uncertain way before the King. Seeing Imoinda’s beauty, however, the King resolves that he must have her, even though she loves Oroonoko. He is slightly upset to discover that Imoinda is truly in love with Oroonoko, but he reassures himself that Imoinda will surely accept his proposition. He knows that his people must obey their king like a god, so Imoinda’s sense of duty will surely override her love for Oroonoko and compel her to be his concubine.
Imoinda is proud of the gift giver (Oroonoko, or so she thinks), not of the gift itself, and her purity and simplicity make the king seem even more like a villain. It is clear that the king will get his way in the end, however, because women are not safe in such a patriarchal society—one in which the wishes of a man will always override the free will of a woman. Here Behn also emphasizes the themes of love and obedience, as Imoinda and Oroonoko will soon be forced to struggle between the conflicting demands of these two virtues.
Decided on this plan, the King immediately sends the royal veil to Imoinda. In Coramantien this is a universally understood symbol that denotes “the ceremony of invitation,” and decrees that Imoinda should cover herself with the veil and come to the King’s bed. Disobeying this signal, the narrator warns, is not only an immediate cause for execution, but also “a most impious disobedience.”
This second gift from the King is no gift at all, but a command. As in Shakespeare’s Othello, a piece of fabric signals a woman’s doom. It is ironic that a delicate veil can be a symbol of such brutal power and oppression, and can wreak such havoc on a person’s life.
When Imoinda receives the veil, she is horrified, but she also knows that “delays in these cases are dangerous, and pleading worse than treason.” Trembling and faint with fear, Imoinda dons the veil and departs for the Otan: the King’s private pleasure palace.
Imoinda seems to know quite a bit about what can go wrong in similar cases, which suggests that the King has done this to many other reluctant women. Imoinda is forced to bow to the demands of obedience to her monarch, even when these conflict with her love for and obedience to her husband.
Meanwhile, the King has ordered a bath to be prepared, and he is sitting in the tub when Imoinda finally arrives. He coarsely tells her to take off her clothes and come to his arms. However, Imoinda starts crying and falls to the edge of the bathtub, pleading with the King to listen to her.
The image of a man more than a hundred years old sitting in a bath tub to seduce someone might be comedic if his intentions weren’t so tragic for Imoinda, and his control over her fate so complete.
Imoinda explains that she is still a virgin, and says that she would gladly give her virginity to the King, except that it is not hers to bestow on any man but her husband. She also reminds the King that their country’s laws and his own sense of honor would prevent him from sleeping with her, as well. Imoinda finishes her speech by telling the King that she does not want to “be the occasion of making him commit a great sin” by hiding her married state.
Though Behn’s invented Coramantien people are not Christians, some of their theology contains Christological themes, such as the idea that a woman should remain chaste until marriage, and that certain sins can be “great,” or grave and mortal, rather than slight or venial.
The King is furious that Imoinda is trying to deny him, and she is terrified to be doing so. To make her shut up and comply, the King demands that she reveal the name of her husband. Imoinda is about to tell him when the King purposely interrupts her, threatening death to whomever she names as her husband, even if it be Oroonoko himself! The King demands that Imoinda deny her marriage and swear herself a virgin, the latter of which she has to do, since she has not actually slept with Oroonoko yet. The King is satisfied with this assurance and leads an unresisting but miserable Imoinda into the bath.
Words and names clearly carry a certain power in the novel, as here Oroonoko will die if he is named. In setting up these ultimatums for Imoinda, the King reveals that his idea of love is totally authoritarian and commanding, and matches his use of language.
Oroonoko returns from his hunt and finds Imoinda missing. When he finds out that she has been presented with the royal veil, he is so distraught that he wants to hurt himself, but he is stopped by his attendants. After calming down, Oroonoko begins to despair to his friends over the hopelessness of ever getting Imoinda back from the King. For even when the king dies, it would be taboo for Oroonoko to marry a woman who had been his grandfather’s consort. And even if Oroonoko ignores the custom, he would dishonor his successors. It would be better, he laments, if he and Imoinda could escape to “some unknown world [that had] never heard our story.”
Like Imoinda, Oroonoko also immediately understands what the presentation of the royal veil means for a woman, another indication that it is a well-known symbol in the culture. Oroonoko’s line of thinking—that he will never be able to be with Imoinda because of the taboos and repercussions on his name—reveals that honor, and other people’s perceptions of him, is hugely important to Oroonoko. His preoccupation with honor will be his downfall later, when he is faced with the deceitful, treacherous colonists.
Oroonoko’s friends try to comfort him by telling him that his grandfather is in the wrong, and the law is on his side. Oroonoko takes some comfort in this idea, and decides that he has to see Imoinda to find out if she is still a virgin. However, getting into the Otan to see her won’t be easy. Oroonoko knows that he can only enter if the King invites him—to trespass is death. Lacking an immediate plan to gain an invitation, he can only wait and suffer.
In their patriarchal society the King circumvents the laws, so it is cold comfort for Oroonoko to know that justice is on his side when in reality no one would dare oppose the king. For a woman, virginity before marriage is essential in Coramantien culture. It is what makes Imoinda so appealing to the King and, to a lesser degree, to Oroonoko.
In the meantime, the King is suffering, too. Not only does he feel bad about taking away Imoinda from his noble grandson, but every time he is with Imoinda, her weeping reminds him of his treachery. When she is with the King, Imoinda is bold enough to speak often about her husband, something the King allows because he still dotes on Oroonoko.
It is Imoinda’s small revenge that the King’s pleasure turns into guilt when he hears about Oroonoko. The King clearly doesn’t have Oroonoko’s sense of honor, but he is at least capable of feeling guilty for so cruelly betraying his grandson.
To make matters worse for Oroonooko, the King has been asking his friends and attendants how he’s been coping with the loss of Imoinda. Concerned about Oroonoko’s safety, they all lie and tell the King what he wants to hear: Oroonoko has gotten over Imoinda and fills his time studying, hunting, and training his army. The King is pleased by this news, and gloats about it to Imoinda, hoping to get her to stop pining for her lover and properly attend to the King instead. Imoinda pretends to be unconcerned whenever the King starts gloating, but inside her heart is breaking. She is only happy when she can be alone and give vent to her grief.
In trying to protect Oroonoko, his friends only reinforce the King’s mistaken belief that what he did to his grandson was not so wrong because Oroonoko never cared much for Imoinda. Because of this, the King’ sense of triumph grows. However, Imoinda is also lying to the King by hiding her grief in order to lessen his gloating. It is also ironic that she feels happiest when she is able to fully express her sadness about being separated from Oroonoko. Only in private can she act honestly and also honor her husband.
In time, Oroonoko and the King have a number of meetings. By carefully hiding his true feelings, Oroonoko convinces the King that he is no longer in love with Imoinda. Eventually Oroonoko is invited to the Otan to dine.
Oroonoko plays along with the ruse that the King has been fed in order to be with Imoinda—proving that Oroonoko has now clearly prioritized his love for Imoinda over his obedience to his grandfather.
Despite being able to fool the King, when Oroonoko sees Imoinda for the first time since she’s been taken away, he blushes deeply and almost faints. The narrator interrupts to confirm that it is indeed possible for dark-skinned people to blush—she’s seen it. Luckily for Oroonoko, his good friend, Aboan, is there to support him, and the King happens to look away at the right moment.
While trying to be a worldly ambassador with her fresh colonial insights, the narrator (again) reveals her deeply ingrained racist thinking because she feels compelled to justify her story with her own eyewitness account, rather than letting her description (which she imagines sounds unrealistic) stand on its own merit.
Imoinda is overjoyed to see Oroonoko so pained, because now she knows that he still loves her. While caressing the King, she steals several glances at Oroonoko. Whenever their eyes meet, Imoinda’s pained expression tells him that she doesn’t want to be there either. They continue speaking through their eyes until Onahal, one of the King’s older wives and Imoinda’s keeper, opens a door, and Oroonoko sees she has decorated the bed. The King then rises and leads Imoinda off to the bedroom. Oroonoko is so upset that he cannot control his rage, and he falls to the floor, groaning for a long time.
That the lovers communicate their feelings through their eyes suggests a number of old, well-known adages, such as “the eyes are the window to the soul.” In addition to helping him “speak” to Imoinda, Oroonoko’s vision also reveals the ugly truth of their situation when he sees the bedroom she shares with the King. We will come to see that as a “great soul,” Oroonoko is prone to these overwhelming, debilitating fits of emotion—whether grief or, in this case, anger.
When Onahal finishes attending to the King and his concubine, she exits the bedroom and retires to wait until she is called. She passes by the room where Oroonoko is still lying on the floor, and hears his moaning. She administers cordials to restore him to his senses, but then realizes that lovesickness is what ails him. Onahal changes her tactics and tries to console Oroonoko by telling him that the King cannot do Imoinda any real harm, because the King cannot perform when he tries to have sex with her. Onahal tells Oroonoko that Imoinda still loves him.
Like Greek and Roman heroes, Oroonoko feels emotions powerfully and acutely, and they wreak havoc on his health. Though Oroonoko’s love sickness has caused him to be physically ill, cordials don’t help—only getting Imoinda back would completely heal him. Since this is impossible, hearing Onahal’s comforting admissions is the next best restorative.
Oroonoko’s friend Aboan, who has presumably been with Oroonoko the entire time, agrees with Onahal’s assessment. Soon, all three sit down and Oroonoko tries to convince Onahal to help him. She agrees to act as messenger for the lovers.
As before, Aboan performs the role of “wingman.” The fact that he and Onahal immediately agree to help Oroonoko disobey the King show’s that the King’s injustices are well-known and unpopular.
The talk with Onahal gives Oroonoko new hope, and allows him to act unconcerned when the King and Imoinda emerge from the bedroom. The King requests entertainment, and his concubines and young wives all dance. Oroonoko watches only Imoinda, the most graceful of the dancers. In the meantime, Onahal and Aboan retire to a secluded window seat.
The King gives no thought to the pain that his rendezvous with Imoinda causes Oroonoko, as he calls for music and dance immediately afterward. He also may be flaunting his power over Oroonoko and Imoinda by doing this.
The narrator again interrupts the narrative to describe Onahal’s position in the court. No longer beautiful, she has been cast off by the King and is in charge of instructing the young wives and concubines, as a sort of governess. The narrator imagines what Onahal must think and feel about her new role, and decides that she must feel badly used. For his part, Oroonoko too fears that Onahal might be unwilling to help him because the King no longer desires her.
Onahal is neither the heroine nor a particularly important character, but she is intriguingly human and three-dimensional in a work where good and evil are usually clear-cut. The narrator, herself living in a patriarchal society, clearly feels some sympathy for Onahal’s plight.
Returning to the narrative, the narrator describes what transpires between Aboan and Onahal in the window seat. Aboan is a beautiful and virtuous man, like Oroonoko, and because he has visited the Otan often, he has captured Onahal’s interest. The narrator points out that even though she is old, Onahal is still capable of love.
Onahal, like the King, is mostly attracted to youthful beauty, which suggests a similarly superficial view of love—in contrast to the idealized romance between Oroonoko and Imoinda, who promised to love each other even when they get old.
Aboan is no fool, and he knows that Onahal likes him. He recognizes that courting her could help advance his career, and he’s not vain enough to be picky about the appearance of a woman who is sexually available. Plus, knowing of Oroonoko’s longing to be with Imoinda, he sees an opportunity to help his friend by seducing Onahal. Aboan flirts with Onahal in the window seat, and finds her receptive to his advances.
Aboan’s thoughts about starting an affair with Onahal are mercenary and practical. He clearly doesn’t share Oroonoko’s uncompromising sense of honor, but this also makes Aboan more practically useful in situations like this. Onahal is again an intriguing character, as a woman in a patriarchal society who is acting similarly to a powerful man, and using her authority in exchange for sex.
When the King breaks up the festivities to retire, Aboan returns to Oroonoko with the news of his success with Onahal. Oroonoko asks Aboan to continue to seduce Onahal so that Aboan can ask her to help orchestrate a secret meeting between Oroonoko and Imoinda. Aboan readily agrees, and the two are both impatient to return to the Otan.
Oroonoko is not troubled by the ethical implications of Aboan seducing Onahal, because it means that he will be closer to his love. In essence, Oroonoko sacrifices Aboan’s honor for what he sees as a greater purpose: being with Imoinda. Aboan, for his part, isn’t too upset about being used by his friend, because he stands to gain from both Oroonoko and Onahal.
Soon a war has broken out, however, and Oroonoko must go to the front lines. He vows to meet with Imoinda the next time he goes to the Otan before he leaves. Though Oroonoko doesn’t realize it, spies have informed the King about the persistent love between his grandson and favorite concubine. This is why Oroonoko’s deployment is being hastened.
The simultaneous existence of two plots—Oroonoko’s plot to meet Imoinda and the King’s plot to spoil Oroonoko’s opportunities to be with Imoinda—creates increasing tension within the narrative about what’s going to happen next. Behn is here developing a sense of suspense and a narrative complexity that was incredibly innovative for her time.
When an invitation to return to the Otan arrives, Oroonoko senses that this will be his last chance to be with Imoinda before they are separated again. He urges Aboan to do his best with Onahal. At the Otan, the women again dance to entertain the King, while Onahal and Aboan slip off to a corner. When they are alone, Onahal confesses that she wants to take only one lover: Aboan. Aboan charms her, telling her that he wants her too. He also asks for proof of her love.
Because she is no longer desirable, Onahal has much more freedom of movement than the King’s favorite mistresses, whom he keeps close to him. Likewise Aboan, who is not a general (like Oroonoko) or the King’s kin, can move around without fear of being watched. This quality of being overlooked allows the two to hold important private discussions.
Onahal is overjoyed to hear this. She tries to give Aboan her pearl earrings, but he tells her that instead he wants an hour alone with her—implying that he wants to sleep with her. Giving him the pearls anyway, Onahal whispers instructions: she will meet him at the gates of the orange groves behind the Otan at midnight.
Onahal can match Aboan’s flirtation, and demonstrates her wealth and power by giving him the earrings, a token of her love. Though Aboan may have initiated the affair, Onahal will clearly be in charge from now on, as her instructions and her enthusiasm indicate.
All this time, the King is engrossed in the dancing and focuses on Imoinda, who seems prettier than ever because Onahal has been giving her news about Oroonoko. Oroonoko too watches Imoinda, and she watches him. Unfortunately, as she dances closer to the prince, she is distracted from her steps and loses her balance. Oroonoko leaps up and catches her before she falls.
Oroonoko and Imoinda certainly couldn’t have picked a worse time to be overly attentive to one another. The already suspicious King has noticed improvements in Imoinda’s mood and appearance, and is no doubt interested to know the reason behind the change in his favorite mistress.
Everyone in the court sees how happy Oroonoko is to hold Imoinda. He is so excited to have her in his arms that he clasps her close, forgetting that doing so means certain death. Imoinda, however, is much more sensible of the danger Oroonoko is in. To protect him, she springs from his arms and continues dancing, as though nothing had happened.
Imoinda’s dance reveals her skill at manipulating both her body and her emotions. Not only does she improvise recovery steps for her dance after her trip gains her an unexpected dance partner, but unlike Oroonoko, she has better control over her emotions during their surprise encounter.
Seeing this exchange, the King’s jealousy flares. He stops the entertainment and drags Imoinda away, sending word behind him that the Prince must depart for war immediately—if Oroonoko stays another night, he will die for his disobedience. Meanwhile Onahal, recognizing that her happiness with Aboan depends on prolonging Oroonoko’s stay, tells them both to come to the gate before they leave the Otan.
The King’s counterplan seems to set up impossible obstacles for Oroonoko’s mission to reunite with Imoinda. However, Onahal’s interest in Aboan gives Oroonoko a unique advantage that the king lacks: a sympathetic “insider” ally to scheme with.
Behind closed doors, the King confronts Imoinda. He thinks she and Oroonoko planned her fall, and he doesn’t listen when Imoinda protests her innocence. The King leaves Imoinda in her apartments and returns to his own. He then dispatches an attendant to check if Oroonoko is getting ready to leave for battle. Upon hearing that Oroonoko is not making any preparations, the King orders his guard to spy on Oroonoko and send a report of his movements to him.
The King is no longer thinking rationally, and is clearly paranoid about losing his authority in this struggle with his grandson. Oroonoko no longer feels compelled to hide his disobedience or pretend to be a dutiful grandson, because his meeting with Imoinda is now approaching.
At midnight, spies watch Oroonoko and Aboan arrive at the Otan’s back gate, where Onahal lets them in. They relay this information to the King. Meanwhile Onahal leads Oroonoko to Imoinda’s apartment, and then drags Aboan to her own.
Notably, the spies don’t stop Oroonoko from entering. This could be because they weren’t given instructions to do so, or because they want to catch Oroonoko committing a more damning crime against the King.
Oroonoko approaches the sleeping Imoinda and awakens her with his caresses. Imoinda is still a virgin, and this, the narrator says, makes the ensuing consummation of their marriage all the sweeter.
Despite spending many nights with the King, Imoinda is still a virgin. The narrator implies that this is possible because the king is unable to “perform”—he is still lustful and can molest his concubines, but his aged body is impotent and he is no longer able to have sex. Thus Imoinda is technically still a virgin, and was never unfaithful to Oroonoko.
As the couple lay in bed, they hear a great commotion in the Otan. Hearing the voices of many men outside Imoinda’s chambers, Oroonoko springs out of bed and grabs his battleax to fend off the intruders. He yells at them that he, the Prince, demands them to stand back or else he will kill the first to enter. Recognizing his voice, the men respond that the King has ordered them to investigate the break in. Before departing, they give Oroonoko a friendly warning to leave quickly before he is killed. Oroonoko and Imoinda say a quick, sad goodbye, and Oroonoko leaves for camp.
While Oroonoko backs up his show of bravado by grabbing for his weapon, what really saves him is his royal identity. The conflicted guards clearly still feel some sense of allegiance for the Prince (or dislike for the King), as they tell him to run rather than immediately attacking him. Oroonoko has put his love for Imoinda above all else, but he still must obey the King by going to fight for him.
Shortly thereafter, the enraged King confronts Imoinda and Onahal. Hoping to buy Oroonoko time and save his life, both women lie and say that Oroonoko broke in and raped Imoinda. Because Imoinda has been “ravished,” and by the King’s own kin at that, she is now a “polluted thing” that the King no longer wants and can no longer have. He cannot simply give Imoinda back to Oroonoko, however, because she was given the royal veil. The King feels spiteful, and decides against executing Imoinda (a noble punishment). Though both women plead for death, he decides to instead sell them as slaves to a far-off land—an ignoble punishment for anyone of high status.
The women do not seem to have the same qualms about honor as Oroonoko does, as they immediately lie to save both him and themselves. The King has always considered Imoinda his property, and now that she has been “used” without his permission, he decides to throw her away, belittling her status and objectifying her even further by selling her as a form of human property: a slave. It is notable that execution is seen as a more honorable punishment than slavery—this is clearly an idea that Oroonoko shares, as we will see.
After executing this plan, the King does feel some remorse. He recognizes for the first time that he has infringed upon great love, the purity of which his courtiers now all openly testify to. He also admits that Oroonoko had good reason to do all he did. But the King mostly repents of his cruelty to Imoinda out of fear of retribution from Oroonoko. He knows that in selling her he acted rashly, and that Oroonoko could hurt himself in his grief—or worse, hurt the King as revenge. The king dispatches a messenger to lie to Oroonoko and tell him that Imoinda was executed.
As is usually the case in tragedies, the King’s regret comes too little and too late. The sincerity of his guilt is all the more questionable as he continues on his path of deception by lying to Oroonoko about Imoinda’s fate. This lie sets up the couple for a surprise reunion later on, however, as Behn builds more narrative suspense.
The messenger arrives as Oroonoko is preparing for battle. Oroonoko guesses that Imoinda is dead from the messenger’s downcast looks. The messenger also informs Oroonoko of the King’s sorrow and guilt. Oroonoko promises not to seek revenge, because death will be coming for the King soon anyway, thus serving a quicker justice than Oroonoko could. Oroonoko falls into a deep depression and refuses to fight. Because of this, his army, now led by Aboan, does poorly in battle and is close to losing.
Oroonoko again acts like an Ancient Greek or Roman hero in his debilitating grief. The deep depression he experiences—which will soon turn into a desire for revenge, despite his promise here—is similar to the Greek hero Achilles’ reaction upon hearing about the death of his good friend, Patroclus, during the Trojan War (as told in Homer’s epic poem the Iliad).
When they are about to lose, Oroonoko’s fighting spirit gets the best of his grief. He storms into battle and gravely wounds the leader of the opposition, a man named Jamoan, and wins the war. He later takes Jamoan as a slave.
Even with his personal life in shambles, Oroonoko cannot turn away from his duties to the living. His sense of honor overcomes his grief, and we see an example of just how powerful he is as a warrior.