“…the executioner came, and first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire.
After that, with an ill-favored knife, they cut off his ears and his nose, and burned
them…” (Behn 2178).
William Blake "A negro hung by the ribs from the gallows" (1792)
In "Oroonoko", Aphra Behn directly challenges Formey’s argument that belief in God and living morally and logically are linked. She completely tears apart his attempts to stifle and force submission by leading her readers to question, and question boldly. By Behn highlighting how Christianity can be used as a tool to uphold power systems through violence she distantly disrupts the trust in monarchy. If it is pervading opinion that Christianity and God can be a vehicle for manipulation, then ideas of "divine right" start looking a lot less like fact and a lot more like deception. The relationship is very similar to the one Sterne has with his readers in Tristram Shandy. Sterne needs the reader to believe that the perspective of Tristram is truthful or the book fails to work, and Sterne, as author, loses the magical power he has over the reader. Monarchy, in the same way, needs"divine right" to appear truthful or it loses its power over the people. Behn disrupts this believability by illustrating the ruthless acts that Christianity can veil. She twists Formey’s argument around and portrays non-believers as the logical, moral beings, and Christians as the ones who act in illogical and violent ways. She does this with her calculated juxtaposition of tribes people like Oroonoko and Imoinda, pure and ethereal beings and the ruthless acts perpetrated by Christians who hide behind the word of God. Behn slowly builds this realization by illustrating the purity and ethereal glow to the native people of Suriname.
Behn illustrates the corruptive powers of religion by illustrating the natives of Surinam as people of superior morality and purity. Behn compares the natives to “Our first parents of the Fall” (Behn 2138), to promote the idea that the natives are without sin, unlike Christians who are clearly the result of the original sin. Behn takes the beginnings of her critique further by implicating the flawed nature of religion by saying,
“And these people represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin; and ‘tis most evident and plain, that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive, and virtuous mistress. ‘Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world that all the inventions of man’ religion would here but destroy that tranquility they possess by ignorance…”
Behn suggests that religion is a human construct that taints the development of purity in Nature. While the narrator’s voice appears to be deprecatory of the natives’ purity by constantly referring to it as ignorance, Behn later proves her intention is to challenge that notion.
By deducing this moral superiority is merely the result of the natives’ ignorance, the narrator’s voice (in relation to this idea of innocence) appears to cognizant of the readers' initial thoughts. This idea constructs a foundation that will eventually serve to challenge the readers’ initial ideas of supremacy over the Natives. Through the construction of Oroonoko and Imoinda as noble people, Behn is able influence the reader’s perceptions of them to evolve into genuine respect and attachment. This is a slow build that eventually twists the alliances of the reader away from the Christian characters, towards the “godless” natives. Behn first does this by riddling the narrative with accolades for Oroonoko and Imoinda.
Behn is not as revolutionary as a modern reader would like her to be. Her goal is not to throw Eighteenth Century racism under critical examination, but instead her intentions are to use subtle disruptions in Eurocentric prejudices and values to move the reader to reflect upon the deceptive nature of Christianity and organized religion. Behn begins this with her portrayal of Oroonoko. She illustrates him to be a Godly figure. This subtly challenges initial notions of the savagery of tribes-people. She does this both on physical and cognitive levels. She conveys his ethereal appearance by saying, “The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome” (2141). Behn is subversive in her disruption of the reader's Euro-centric notions of beauty being limited to whites by saying “bating his color” and then continuing with her accolades of immense Euro-centric beauty. This forces the (most likely) white reader to envision an African prince fitting into their Euro-centric beauty standards. Playing off of this mechanism allows for believability that he fits Euro-centric, Christian ideals better than European Christians. The description of Oroonoko’s superior physical appearance leads Behn to then address his intellectual superiority.
For another blow to the initial perceptions of the reader, Behn fills her outline of physical superiority with the quality of Oroonoko’s character. Behn solidly commends Oroonoko with,
“His discourse was admirable upon almost any subject; and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their errors, that all fine wit is confined to the white men, especially to those of Christendom; and would have confessed that Oroonoko was as capable even of …governing wisely” (2141).
Once again Behn subversively disrupts European Christian ideology by providing Oroonoko as evidence against the idea that “fine wit is confined to the white men”. By disrupting these notions Behn creates the possibility that the reader will accept the God and Goddess-like construction of Ooronoko and and Imodina. Next Behn illustrates Imodina as a pre-sin Eve to act as equal to Ooronoko.
Imodina appears like a mythological Goddess to Oroonoko’s ethereal nature. Behn exhibits Imodina’s superior attributes by saying, “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…” (2141). Similar to Ooronoko’s construction, Imodina fits into the Euro-centric ideals of the reader. She has unmatched beauty, many white men have vied for her hand, she has charm, and most importantly she has delicate virtues. Instead of creating new standards, Behn takes the present Euro-centric ideals and molds her characters fit into them. By taking this route Behn allows an Eighteenth Century European reader to be fully invested in the love story of Oroonoko and Imodina because they initially fit into their prescribed ideals. Through this investment the atrocities that happen to both Oroonoko and Imodina have great impact on the reader.
Behn uses the atrocities that befall Imodina and Oroonoko to reveal the hypocrisy of organized religion. The first solid instance of this is when Oroonoko was tricked into slavery.
Oroonoko was presented to be far superior in morality than his Christian slave traders. As the dialogue with Oroonoko and the captain of the slave ship progresses it is clear to see the massive ethical holes in Christianity. This is shown in the irony that the captain believes he cannot trust “a heathen”, but really he is the one that should not be trusted. Oroonoko points out the holes in Christian logic with,
“Oroonoko then replied he was very sorry to hear that the captain pretended to the knowledge and worship of any gods who had taught him no better principles, than not to credit as he would be credited; but they told him the difference of their faith occasioned that distrust: for the captain had protested to him upon the word of a Christian...” (2155).
Oroonoko pokes holes into the justification of using the Christian doctrine to support malicious behavior. The act of tricking people into slavery in bad enough, but then purporting that the “heathens” the captain just tricked are not to be trusted because they are not Christian elevates the injustice to a soaring high. The hypocrisy is highlighted further when Oroonoko is betrayed by the captain. Oroonoko reacts by saying, “Farewell, Sir! ‘Tis worth my suffering to gain so true a knowledge both of you and your gods by whom you swear” (2156). This injustice perpetrated by Christians shifts the reader to side with Oroonoko, and while doing so allows them to view Christianity as a potential tool for manipulation. It calls into question the validity of Christian "fact" by showing the atrocities done in its name. In many ways this passage also highlights how Christianity can be used to support power structures. The captain uses his guarantee as a Christian to trick Ooronoko into submission. This allows him to maintain the system of slavery. This is further asserted in the enslavement and eventual death of Ooronoko and Imodina.
Just another in the long trail of injustices is the continuous enslavement of Ooronoko and Imodina. While the reader progresses through the story, the characters that enact the most violent and unjust acts are white Europeans that are using Christian doctrine to hide behind. Even the narrator, who frequently speaks of Christianity, urges Ooronoko to submit and accept this slavery. She uses ideas like God's will and patience to uphold a system of oppression and violence. Through Ooronoko's rebellion, he rejects the deceptive nature of Christianity. He points out the unethical elements of both Christians and the religion by saying,
“There was no faith in the white men, or the gods they adored, who instructed them in principles so false that honest men could not live amongst them; though no people professed so much none performed so little…” (2172).
By seeing this raw brutality and then progressing through the story to witness the murder of Imodina and mutilation of Oroonoko, Behn alters first the perceptions of the reader and then instills a passion to question further. This causes readers to see how religion can act both as a veil and vehicle for injustice and then drives them to examine why and to what end does using Christianity do this. The root of this mental inquiry is power. The readers are offered a window to see a clearer version of the truth through their attachment to the characters’ plight . Similar to the metaphor in The Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot of a person being dropped onto Earth as a clean slate and forming knowledge through experience, the reader is offered that perspective from Oroonoko, who is seeing the reality of Christian doctrine for the first time. The readers are able to view Christianity and the structures it can be used to support through fresh eyes. This allows for self-reflection and critical thinking revolving around the deceptive possibilities within Christianity.
By deconstructing the readers ability to blindly believe, “Oroonoko”, serves the purpose of challenging the religious ideology Formey asserts in his entry on God. With this "Oroonoko" serves as a perfect counter to cause readers to question and critically think about how they are being manipulated and stifled by those who want to uphold power systems. Behn clearly shows how Christianity, religion, and the idea of God can play its part as a deceptive tool, but even while she differs fundamentally from Formey they do have some similarities. Behn shares in the desires of Formey, Pope, and Cavendish to rely on fact and logic to achieve her goal, in fact, she is very much fixated on this idea of truth to maintain her power to influence as author. The main difference is how she desires to feed the flames of questioning, while her counterparts seem fixated on stifling them.