Aphra Behnï¿½s works are largely considered to be a precursor to the feminist literary movement that would later flourish in British literature. However, her portrayal of the heroine Imoinda in her tale Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave, shows that she still knew the conventions of ï¿½a womanï¿½s placeï¿½ in society. The result of this is a female character who largely allows herself to be subjugated between one sort of male-dominated submission to anotherï¿½a far cry from the sort of ï¿½liberationï¿½ that Behn is believed to have created in regards to her sex.
From her introduction in Coramantien, Imoinda is shown to be what every man wants in a wife, and she is willing to accept Oroonokoï¿½s proposal of marriageï¿½something most women of Behnï¿½s day would have done to ensure their place in society and their quality of life. When the King of Coramantien decides to take Imoinda as his concubine, the traditions that dictate are very strict: she must accept the position, ï¿½and ï¿½tis death to disobey, besides a most impious disobedienceï¿½ (Behn 2189). From a feministic standpoint, Imoinda had some options; namely, to refuse the veil and accept death over the insinuate betrayal of her betrothed. However, Imoinda does not choose any of these ï¿½other options,ï¿½ preferring to allow herself be subjected to the male-dominating traditions of her culture.
This acceptance of male dominance is not relegated to just the one instance. In the bath scene, though Imoinda tries to convince the King to relent and free her from the harem so as to marry her ï¿½husbandï¿½ (betrothal being akin to marriage in her culture), she succumbs to the Kingï¿½s command that she ï¿½lay aside her mantle and suffer herself to his caressesï¿½ (Behn 2190), otherwise, ï¿½he swore that happy man that she was going to name should dieï¿½ (Behn 2190). In this instance, Imoindaï¿½s own desires for her future were considered irrelevant to the desires of the dominant male. Though some could argue that the King, being the supreme ruler over his subjects, could easily supersede Imoindaï¿½s own plans for her future with his own by divine right, a feminist would likely have shown Imoinda putting up a strong fight for her own cause. That she caves in to the Kingï¿½s threats rather easily is a signal that Imoinda is accustomed to a second-class status that women of Behnï¿½s time were often subjected to.
It is worth noting that though much of Imoindaï¿½s time in Coramantien shows her accepting her subjective state, she is able to retain some sense of herself that is not controlled by her society. Though the King tried to ravish Imoinda as his own, ï¿½she remained a spotless maidï¿½ (Behn 2196) and instead relinquished her maidenhead to Oroonoko during a secret tryst. Though the consequences of this act were dire (sale into slavery rather than honorable death), it is an example of Imoinda making a decision for herself, rather than allowing the dictates of her male-dominated society to choose her lover against her wishes. This is mirrored in Surinam, as the overseer Trefry says of her ï¿½I have been ready to make use of those advantages of strength and force which nature has given me. But oh! She disarms me with that modesty and weeping, so tender and so moving that I retire, and thank my stars she overcame meï¿½ (Behn 2206). Though as a slave she is in a more subjective position than merely as a woman, Imoinda still manages to hang on to her feminine sense of honor.
Behn tends to portray Imoinda in accordance with the style of society ladies of her time, especially in Surinam. When Oroonoko meets with Imoinda again, she is set up apart from the rest of the slave population in a decent cottage. She is allowed to have a ï¿½little shock dogï¿½ (Behn 2207)(a fashion for well-to-do ladies of Behnï¿½s time) and is not really required to do much work, if any at all. Though this can simply be explained as art imitating life, a more feminist view would have had Imoinda doing something of value on the plantation, even if only non-laborious tasks. Instead, she quickly marries Oroonoko after meeting on the plantation, and ï¿½in a very short time after she conceived with childï¿½ (Behn 2208).
Behn does not make Imoinda a large part of the push to gain freedom for herself or her impending child; rather, she ï¿½did nothing but sigh and weep for the captivity of her lord, herself and the infant yet unbornï¿½ (Behn 2216). She instead leaves the task of procuring their freedom to Oroonoko, the dominant family patriarch. It is almost as if she should not be actively involved with such a life-altering conceptï¿½there is a man to take care of this and other such things for her. A feminist would likely have had Imoinda making more of a concentrated effort to gain her own freedom before the revolt sequence.
Even in death, Imoinda is shown to be subjective to a dominant male figure. Though it is custom in her culture to choose honorable death rather than submit to indignity, she needs to be convinced by Oroonoko that his plan to kill her himself and then seek revenge is the better option. Though Oroonokoï¿½s reasoning for the plan is sound--killing Imoinda himself would not leave her ï¿½ravished by every brute, exposed first to their nasty lusts and then a shameful deathï¿½ (Behn 2223)-- Imoinda as a more feministic character would have likely committed suicide rather than allow anyone to kill her. This option would have allowed her to stay true to her culture and preserve herself from being debauched by her enemies, and yet play a more decisive role in her fate.
For all of Imoindaï¿½s acceptance of a second-class status, she does get one real chance to shineï¿½when all of the other slave women convince their men to turn on Oroonoko, Imoinda alone continues to stand with him, even going so far as to try and mortally wound Byam, their chief pursuer. This small scene could be construed as feministic because it shows Imoinda finally taking a stand for herself and not allowing the men who dominate her life to stop her from doing so.
Though Aphra Behn might be considered the first to express the ideas of feminism in her works, it is not shown through the eyes of one of her more well-known characters. For as much as Imoinda is a heroine in the story of Oroonoko, she is still a product of a subjective and male-dominated culture and society, and Behn makes no stunning advances to show her situation or her character as anything but a woman who is considered a second-class piece of chattel within the realms she inhabits.
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume C: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, 8th Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. 2183-2226.