Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave. A True History by Aphra Behn is considered to be one of the first English novels – it was published in 1688 when the genre was only beginning to emerge. The story’s protagonist is Prince Oroonoko – an African king’s grandson who possesses all the positive attributes one can imagine: he is rich, brave, intelligent, and handsome, of noble heritage and noble of action. Moreover, he is a leader by inclination and very well-trained in warfare: by the age of seventeen, Oroonoko was already an expert captain and a brilliant soldier. Therefore, one is to come to the conclusion that Oroonoko was not supposed to be a regular protagonist with his strengths and flaws – he was written as a hero.
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That becomes clear not only by the number of qualities traditionally regarded as good that the author bestows upon her character but also by a rich choice of words when describing him. However, the choice of words is what reveals some of Behn’s ideas about what a person must be to be considered a hero – harmful now but fully culturally relevant then.
For example, as has been stated above, Oroonoko is described as handsome: a hero’s good looks are usually a useful attribute in that they help in drawing people to him. As per Behn, Oroonoko was “adorned with a native beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race that he struck an awe and reverence even in those that knew not his quality.” This quote reminds the readers that back when the novel was written, slavery was flourishing, and there was no way for Black people to be considered heroes in Western literature. By setting Oroonoko aside from all the other members of his race, it is as if Behn gives her intended audience a reason to rightfully regard him as worthy of such an honor. Today, it might be viewed as a critique of the standards of Western society: sometimes, people’s race and culture are what stand between them from being recognized for all of their accomplishments.