English 201: English Literature to 1700
Prof. Boyer

Reading Questions for Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688)

The best beginning procedure is always to read the assignment all the way through, keeping track of characters, so that you know what's happening. If possible, read the whole work first. Try to get the big picture of the book before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to read the work closely with these questions in mind. In the discussion below, page numbers in parentheses refer first to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 1 or 1C [2000] and then, after a /, to the Norton Critical Edition of Oroonoko edited by Joanna Lipking.

In what follows Oroonoko has been divided into four parts for easier discussion. These divisions do not appear in the text itself. Note that the spelling of Oroonoko is not the same as that of the river in Venezuala.

1. Surinam (South America) (pages 2170-2173 / 8-11)

1. What is the main point of the first two paragraphs (2170-2171 / 8)? What is the effect of these paragraphs? Why has Behn included them?

2. Where in South America is Surinam? How does the author know about it? (You might want to compare Ralegh's description of the same general place, which he calls Guiana, which appears at the end of these notes and also on pages 885-887 of vol. 1 or 1B.)

3. How are relations between the English and the native Indians? Why are the natives important to the whites? Why are they treated as friends by the whites? What evils have the natives learned about from the whites? (See 2171-2173 / 8-11.)

5. Who does the work in Surinam (2173 / 11)?

2. Coramantien (Africa) (pages 2173-2189 / 11-31)

1. Who is Oroonoko? What is his relation to the king (2173-2174 / 11-13)?

2. How does the narrator know about Oroonoko's story? What is her attitude toward him (2174-2175 / 13-14)?

3. Who is Imoinda? How do she and Oroonoko meet? What happens (2175-2177 / 14-16)?

4. What is the king's interest in Imoinda? What do we learn about the customs of the country (2177-2179 / 16-19)?

5. What happens when Oroonoko sees Imoinda in the Otan (page 2179-2180 / 19-20)?

6. Who are Aban and Onahal, and how do they help the lovers (2180-2182 / 20-23)?

7. What happens when Imoinda is dancing and falls (page 2182-2183 / 23-24)?

8. What happens during Oroonoko's last visit to Imoinda in the Otan (pages 2183-2185 / 24-25)?

9. What happens to Imoinda and Onahal as a result of this incident? What does Oroonoko believe has happened to Imoinda? What is his response? (See pages 2185-2186 / 25-28)

10. What happens in the wars when Oroonoko agrees to fight again (pages 2186-2188 / 28-30)?

11. Why does the English commander know Oroonoko? What sort of business have they done before (2188 / 30)?

3. The Ship (page 2188-2191 / 30-34)

1. As Oroonoko prepares to board the ship, how would Oroonoko describe his relationship with the commander in terms of social standing? How, do we learn, would the commander describe it? Why does this become a problem for Oroonoko? (See 2189 / 30-31.)

2. Why is it important that Oroonoko be able to speak English?

3. What happens when Oroonoko and his friends board the ship for dinner? What do Oroonoko and his followers do? Why is this a problem for the commander? How does the commander solve the problem? Why does Oroonoko believe him? (See 2189-2191 / 31-34)

4. Surinam (pages 2191-2215 / 34-65)

1. What surprise awaits Oroonoko when the ship arrives at Surinam (2191-2192 / 34)?

2. Who is Trefry (2192-2193 / 34-35)?

3. What is the response to Oroonoko as he is brought to the estate (2193 / 36)?

4. Who is Caesar (2193 / 36)?

5. How does the narrator rate her clout as a writer (2193 / 36)?

6. How is Caesar received at the estate? Who is Clemene? What does Oroonoko discover when he meets her? What is the result? Why isn't Caesar unhappy at first in his situation? Whose arrival is being awaited, and why? (See 2193-2198 / 37-42)

7. Why does the narrator try to keep Caesar busy (2198 / 42-43)?

8. How does the narrator describe Surinam and St. John's Hill (2198-2199 / 43-44)?

9. What happens in Caesar's encounters with two different tigers and with the eel (2199-2201 / 44-47)? How do these narratives contribute to the work as a whole?

10. What happens when they all visit an Indian village (2201-2205 / 47-51)? Why is it dangerous at this time for them to do so? Are there any discrepancies between this description of the Indians and the one at the beginning of the book? How and why do the Indian warriors disfigure themselves? What results from Caesar's visit to the village? What happens when they meet other Indians (2204 / 51)? What does this tell us about the colonists?

11. What does Caesar convince the other male slaves to do? How does he convince them? What are his long-range plans? What do the slaves do that night? (See 2205-2207 / 51-54.)

12. What happens at the estate the next morning? What different positions do Byam and Trefry have? (See 2207 / 54-55.)

13. What happens when the English meet Caesar and his followers ? Are you surprised? Is Caesar? How does the governor get Caesar to yield? Does all this sound familiar? (See 2207-2209 / 55-57.)

14. What happens after Caesar gets his written agreement? How well is the agreement kept? What would Byam say if he had to explain why he responded to the written agreement that way? (See 2209 / 57.)

15. How does the narrator respond to what has happened to Caesar? How accurate is she when she says "For I suppose I had authority and interest enough there, had I suspected any such thing, to have prevented it" (1905 / 57)? Why might she be wrong? (See 2209-2210 / 57-58)

16. What is Caesar planning as he recovers (2210 / 58-59)?

17. How does Trefry treat the governor and his council (2210-2211 / 59)? Is he justified in doing so?

18. What is Caesar planning, and what happens when he is freed (2211-2212 / 59-61)?

19. How does Imoinda die? What happens when her body is discovered? How long after her death is the discovery? What has happened in the meantime? What does Caesar do to show how willing he is to fight and die? Does this remind you of anything else in the work? How is Caesar captured, and by whom? (See 2212-2214 / 61-63)

20. Why does the narrator leave the estate? Why does Trefry leave? (See 2214-2215 / 63-64)

21. How does Caesar die (2215 / 64-65)?

22. What power does the narrator claim (2215 / 65)? How does this compare to what she said on page 2193 / 36?


from The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana,

with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa (which the Spaniards call

El Dorado). Performed in the year 1595 by Sir Walter Raleigh Knight

[Note: Ralegh led expeditions to Guiana in an unsuccessful effort to find gold. He had reports from several Spaniards of an unexplored Indian kingdom between the Oronoco and Amazon rivers and of the city the Spaniards called "El Dorado" in testimony to its gold. Called "Manoa" by the native inhabitants, that city was reportedly founded by the Inca emperor of Peru as a new capital after the Spanish invasion. Ralegh's report that he heard about this city from Spaniards who had seen it is probably disingenuous; Ralegh could hardly have met personally Spaniards claiming to have seen Manoa, but he would have heard or read some plausible-sounding secondhand accounts.]


The empire of Guiana is directly east from Peru towards the sea, and lieth under the equinoctial line, and it hath more abundance of gold than any part of Peru, and as many or more great cities than ever Peru had when it flourished most: I have been assured by such of the Spaniards as have seen Manoa the imperial city of Guiana, which the Spaniards call El Dorado, that for the greatness, for the riches, and for the excellent seat, it far exceedeth any of the world.

* * *

I will promise these things that follow, which I know to be true. Those that are desirous to discover may be satisfied with this river [the Oronoco], above 2000 miles east and west, and 800 miles south and north, and of these, the most either rich in gold, or in other merchandises. The common soldier shall here fight for gold, and pay himself instead of pence, with plates of half a foot broad, whereas he breaketh his bones in other wars for provender and penury. Those commanders and chieftains that shoot at honor and abundance, shall find there more rich and beautiful cities, more temples adorned with golden images, more sepulchres filled with treasure, than either Cortez found in Mexico, or Pizarro in Peru: and the shining glory of this conquest will eclipse all those so far extended beams of the Spanish nation. There is no country which yieldeth more pleasure to the inhabitants, either for the common delights of hunting, hawking, fishing, fowling, or the rest, than Guiana doth.

Both for health, good air, pleasure, and riches I am resolved it cannot be equalled by any region either in the east or the west. Moreover the country is so healthful, as of an hundred persons and more (which lay without shift most sluttishly, and were every day almost melted with heat in rowing and marching, and suddenly wet again with great showers, and did eat of all sorts of corrupt fruits, and made meals of fresh fish without seasoning, of tortugas [tortoises], of crocodiles, and besides lodged in the open air every night) we lost not any one, nor had one ill disposed to my knowledge, nor found any calentura, or other of those pestilent diseases which dwell in all hot regions.

Where there is store of gold, it is in effect needless to remember other commodities for trade: but it hath towards the south part of the river, great quantities of brazil-wood, and diverse berries that dye a most perfect crimson and carnation. All places yield abundance of cotton, of silk, of balsam, and of those kinds most excellent and never known in Europe, of all sorts of gums, of Indian pepper: and what else the countries may afford within the land we know not, neither had we time to abide the trial, and search. The soil besides is so excellent and so full of rivers, as it will carry sugar, ginger, and all those other commodities, which the West Indies have.

The Navigation is short, for it may be sailed with an ordinary wind in six weeks, and in the like time back again.

Guiana is a country that hath yet her maidenhead, never sacked, turned nor wrought, the face of the earth hath not been torn, nor the virtue and salt of the soil spent by manurance, the graves have not been opened for gold, the mines not broken with sledges, nor their images pulled down out of their temples. It hath never been entered by any army of strength, and never conquered by any Christian prince. It is besides so defensible, that if two forts be built in one of the provinces which I have seen, the flood setteth in so near the bank, where the channel also lieth, that no ship can pass up but within a pike's length of the artillery, first of the one, and afterwards of the other.

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