Travel Journals and Narrative Form in Oroonoko

Having read Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko several times for several different classes, I am struck after each reading by the richness of such a short text and the different levels of engagement with it that are possible after each reading.  Of course, after a first reading the most striking features are clearly the sensational events – slave uprising, murder of wife and child, gruesome torture, etc.  Subsequent readings then often take on a clearly theoretical tinge – post-colonial, feminist, psychoanalytic, Marxist, historicist – it is all there for the analyzing, which is perhaps why the text is so often taught in intro to theory classes.  However, when I read Oroonoko this time, what struck me most is something that I think most readers take for granted – the narrative form of the text.  The reason for this is, I think, because the linear prose narrative structure it utilizes has largely become normative in what we have come to know as the novel, despite the fact that the text does not necessarily conform to all of the conventions of a novel.  Instead, I see far more similarities to the 17th and 18th century travel journals and journal letters that were beginning to become popular and profitable during this period.  By addressing the narrative to a specific individual, using first person narration throughout, and framing her story clearly within the bounds of her journey to Suriname, Behn illustrates the contribution travel journals made to the rise of what we know as the novel.

The letter to Lord Maitland, with which the novel opens, is the first example of how the text fits into the travel journal conventions.  Travelers to exotic locations often would send back manuscript journal letters that were then circulated among friends and family.  The young John Wesley, for example, sent back lengthy journal letters from Georgia which later became the basis for the first volume of his published Journal.  The dedicatory letter at the beginning of Oroonoko thus serves a dual purpose – not only does it locate the story within the particularities of the English Civil War and draw clear parallels between the plight of Oroonoko and the exiled Charles II – but it also locates the story within the genre of the journal letter and illustrates the movement of these travel narratives from manuscript into print.

The first person narration of the events of the story is also unique.  Though it is certainly an open question to what extent the Aphra Behn in the text is the Aphra Behn of real life; nevertheless the author is present within the narrative to an unusual extent.  Even the events of Oroonoko’s early life are presented as information that has been related to the author directly from Oroonoko himself.  The events that occur in Suriname are then (for the most part) presented as an eye witness account.  The effect of this narrative form is further heightened by the bounded space of the travel journal.  The narrator says that, “My stay was short in that Country, because my Father dy’d at Sea, and never arriv’d to possess the Honour was design’d him… nor the advantages he hop’d to reap by them so that though we were oblig’d to continue on our Voyage, we did not intend to stay upon that place” (76).  The events of the story are thus bound completely bounded by Behn’s stay in Suriname and what she saw and heard there.  This fact contributes not only to the strong first person voice, but also to the linear prosodic structure of the narrative that so closely resembles the novel.

Of course it remains an open question as to how much of Behn’s narrative is fact and how much fiction. Nevertheless, by utilizing the conventions of the travel narrative, she not only illustrates how many novelistic conventions were appropriated from these narratives, but also the popularity of travel journals and their movement from manuscript into print.

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