The Politics of Suffering in Oroonoko

ENG 309: British Literature 1600-1800: Response


Aphra Behn’s novel, “Oroonoko,” embodies multiple themes, including violence and power, gender roles, and slavery. What stands out to me throughout the novel is the politics of suffering by which characters resist slavery and attempt to achieve freedom by enduring pain. Hence, pain becomes their source of power. It is interesting because it is still present in our world, for example, some Palestinian refugees refuse to live in permanent settlements and reject projects aimed at elevating their standards of living to maintain their refugee status. Forms of suffering as a political tool presented in “Oroonoko” are hunger strikes, self-harm, and suicide. These acts demonstrate the slaves’ bodily autonomy and are used as political tools and signifiers of rebellion. They show that despite not being free, they still maintain some power.

The first significant act of rebellion occurs on the ship by Oroonoko and his men after being captured by the English captain (‘Oroonoko,’ 179-182). They held a hunger strike because they realized that they became a commodity whose strength and health is its’ selling point; “he resolv’d to perish for want of food” (‘Oroonoko,’ 180). The men refused to eat to weaken themselves and deteriorate their quality as slaves, which can either result in independence or death, both being forms of freedom. In addition, by refusing to eat, they reclaimed their autonomy; despite being chained, they executed control over their body. Subsequently, the hunger strike sparked negotiations that ended with the captain agreeing to unchain Oroonoko and promising him freedom; “he assur’d him he would revoke his resolution, and set both him and his friends a-shore” (‘Oroonoko,’ 180). Although the captain did not follow through with his promise, the negotiations exemplify how suffering gave the slaves power over both their bodies and slave traders’ businesses. This act also sends a clear anti-slavery message because they prefer hunger-pains, weakness, and potential death over giving up their freedom.

Moreover, after the revolt failed, Oroonoko was whipped and tortured. This is significant because, throughout his torture, he did not “make any moan” or “alter his face” (‘Oroonoko,’ 213). I believe this indicates that physical pain means nothing to him, and whipping his body is useless because as long as he rebels and resists, he is free in spirit. I think this is further supported when he tells Behn that “Oroonoko scorns to live with the indignity that was put on Caeser” because he created a distinction between himself as a prince and a slave (‘Oroonoko,’ 215). Thus, the torture he endures as Caeser does not affect Oroonoko. Therefore, by suffering, Oroonoko exercises his control over Caesar’s body.

The highlight of the display of the politics of suffering is when Oroonoko mutates himself; “he rip’d up his own belly, and took his bowels and pull’d ’em out” (Oroonoko, 221). By harming his body, he denies his enemies any claims over it and undermines the pain they may inflict on him. Oroonoko’s actions also reflect how the men from the Surinamese tribe prove to be warriors. Hence, through the process of self-mutation, Oroonoko displays that pain is his source of power and freedom, which further undermines future torture he may experience. This is also significant because it increases the distance being Oronooko (the self) and Caeser (the body), which further signifies that they cannot fully own Oronooko. In addition, he tried to kill himself, suggesting that he was attempting to achieve freedom through death, the ultimate form of suffering (Oroonoko, 221).

Imoinda also uses suffering as a political tool, namely, when she agrees to die with her child by Oroonoko, she takes back her control over her body and life and hands it to her husband, who sets her free by killing her (‘Oroonoko,’ 218-219). Thus, by suffering and dying, she achieves ultimate freedom since no one has the power to bring her back from death or profit from her chained body. Behn emphasized Imoinda’s newfound freedom by stating that she smiled through her death, “severing her yet smiling face” (‘Oroonoko,’ 218).

14 thoughts on “The Politics of Suffering in Oroonoko

  1. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Normally, we read this verse in the context of temptation to sin, which we identify with “the flesh.” Your essay suggests a different and equally compelling interpretation. The flesh may be beaten, tortured, and even killed by the hands of malevolent people or society, but the spirit may endure not only in spite of but through these wounds and deprivations. “We glory in our tribulations” (Romans 5:3). Perhaps, it is in this way that “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Psalms 37:11 and Matthew 5:5). When the spirit of resistance endures even at the moment of death, then the victim has beaten his perpetrator in a way that far transcends what the perpetrator has succeeded in doing to the victim’s flesh.

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  2. I believe this indicates that physical pain means nothing to him, and whipping his body is useless because as long as he rebels and resists, he is free in spirit.

    I think physical pain alwaysmeans something. Afterall, we have a threshold for pain. But regardless, there is pain as sacrifice. As long as i am able to choose, to rebel, to be free in spirit, I am willing to sacrifice the pain for my freedom.

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  3. Slavery was a colonial system. The torture had been for a long time. There were many revolts in Suriname. As a result, the marronage kept increasing. This forced the colonizers to take actions by deploying armies, a lot of money was spent on defense, while the shortage of labor was also increasing.

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  4. So glad you stopped by my blog. I’m going to be writing about Aphra Behn (she’ll be a character in my next novel) and Oroonoko is on my research pile. Making sure I bookmark this for when I’ve read it!

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  5. Good article. I liked your interpretation. It’d be true for anyone facing tyranny, or slavery. I like that you used the vertical axis to remove her digressions on Royalism, and focused on this aspect of the story. It’s very stoic in a way.

    Liked by 1 person

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