Social Hierarchy in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

The joke here obviously cuts against the definition of “masculinity” held by the European whites. If one misses the irony, then Oroonoko seems demasculinized. But the irony sug-gests that Oroonoko is demasculinized only in relation to a European standard that measures masculinity in fluid ounces. Oroonoko is in fact the only true man left standing. In having Oroonoko represent the true standard of masculinity, Behn pokes fun at the idea of white supe-riority. Her manner of making slavery culturally intelligible thus does not require an essentialized view of race; i.

e., slavery does not require any notion of black inferiority in order to be culturally justified.

One might argue against my position that Oroonoko and Imoinda are exceptional, and that their status as such supports racism by indi-cating that Africans are generally, though not universally, inferior to European whites. But one must remember that their exceptional sta-tus is determined by lineage. Their noble behavior arises from noble blood, reinforcing a classist ideology but not a racist one.

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That most of the Negroes in the novel are lesser people than Oroonoko and Imoinda is clear enough. But so are most of the white people. Thus if the exceptional integrity of Oroonoko and Imoinda devalues others, it devalues white and black alike.

Race, in other words, is not an active factor in the operation. What we have is rather a typical elitist distrust of the rabble operating across racial lines. The black rabble has a de-servedly lower station than the black heroes. The white rabble, mean-while, has to some extent usurped the authority of its betters As the commercial order, providing the novel’s tragic context.

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On the relation between lineage and station in life, the novel’s oxymoronic subtitle–TheRoyalSlave offers the reader a knot that re-quires some energy to unravel. The subtitle at first might seem to cut against my thesis.

If Oroonoko’s blood is royal, and yet he is a slave, then mustn’t it be race and not class that renders his status as a slave intelligible?. Not exactly. The whole point of the novel is that Oroonoko should never have been a slave, at least not in terms of the commercial order.. The commercial order would indeed account for Oroonoko’s status racially, eliding the “royal” half of the oxymoron. But from the narrative sequence of Oroonoko’s capture to the digressive adventures with tigers and the like, the novel consistently shows the “slave” part of the equation to be problematic and the “royal” part to be a good fit. Because of the natural rank commensu-rate with his blood, Oroonoko should have been treated as he himself had treated his noble bondsman, amoan, “(whom) he never put .. . amongst the Rank of Captives … without distinction, for the common Sale, or Market” (29).

By placing Oroonoko “amongst the Rank of Captives without distinction,” the commercial order creates the cul-turally unintelligible “royal slave.” To picture the problem spatially, in Oroonoko’s treatment of Jamoan, we see the wholesome master-slave relation as having a hori-zontal as well as a vertical component. Jamoan is Oroonoko’s slave but he is also a “Prince” by blood and of Oroonoko’s own rank. Oroonoko’s sense of slavery takes this into account, and Jamoan becomes as much the companion and courtier as the slave. The implication is that in a heroic or landed culture deeply invested in the ideology of blood and rank, slavery cannot be culturally intelligible if it ignores that ideology. And the commercial form of slavery does just that. It forecloses the horizontal component of the master-slave relation without regard to blood quality.

Trefry indeed seems to try to retain the horizontal com-ponent, as he “loe’d him (Oroonoko] as his dearest Brother, and shew’d him all the Civilities due to so great a Man” (35). But Trefry’s ineffectiveness marks an extra level of danger associated with the com-mercial order: not only does it corrupt master and slave alike, but it is hegemonic enough to disempower even the well-intentioned individ-uals who emerge within the system. Thus, the commercial order, in as-signing Oroonoko to the vertical rank of slave without regard to blood quality, fails to assign his identity in a culturally intelligible way. Oroonoko becomes the signifier of the commercial order’s failure to render slavery culturally intelligible.” And the tragic trajectory of the story follows from this failure. Oroonoko doesn’t “fit” the system; he is a kind of floating semiotic disturbance within the system, and also evi-dence that a fault line in a culture’s conceptual space can have serious material consequences.

As commercialism developed in the eighteenth century, brokers of the old landed order do not disappear from the map. The extent to which they collaborated and succeeded in positioning themselves in the new economy is much debated among those who map the material history of the eighteenth century. In terms of conceptual history, how-ever, the procedure of accessing slavery through reference to landed hierarchies, behind which stood the Great Chain of Being, became less and less viable.

Social hierarchy, in other words, was losing some of its ideological viability. In one cultural arena, the concept of “sensibility” blossomed into a new ideological centerpiece, a new way of justifying hierarchy and inequality, wherein elites earn their role not by birch but by showing a sublime sensibility surpassing that of this under-lings. As the concept of “sensibility” grew into a form that could offer ideological support to a hierarchy that was otherwise losing its ideolog-ical viability, so the concept of “race” came to give “slavery” a new kind of ideological support Neither “race” nor “sensibility” was invented in the eighteenth century, but each of these concepts was remapped into the cultural gestalt with a new significance that ended up outlasting the immediate political needs it served.

Robinson Crusoe is poised between these two poles slavery justified by a landed class paradigm, as in Behn’s Oroonoko, and slavery justified by a race paradigm. In other words, when moving from Oroonoko to Robinson Crusoe, the conceptual zone of race and the conceptual zone of class merge slightly, so that there is now a space of overlap, and what one finds in the space of overlap is the concept called slavery. This is clearest in the case of Friday, who, when he is not being called “my slave,” is alternately called “my servant” and “my savage,” slipping freely between class and race paradigms.

Interestingly, Friday is also frequently called “my friend,” conjuring up an image of a horizontal and sentimental bond between equals. It is almost as if Defoe, a “tire-less proponent of colonization,”.8 recognized the problem in com-mercial slavery’s full erasure of the horizontal component of the master-slave bond, and wants to retrieve something of that missing component. But what comes through in Robinson Crusoe beneath the his veneer of friendship is the essential dysfunction of the acquisitive psyche. Crusoe has a kind of Lockean property-orientation, as any aes-thetic pleasure the island might afford is eclipsed by Crusoe’s “plea-sure … to think that this was all my own … and [over it I] had a right of possession” (113-4).19 This attitude of possessive control first bleeds over into Crusoe’s relations with domestic animals, whom he anthro-pomorphizes just enough to ratify his control fantasy, had the lives of all my subjects at my absolute command; I could hang, draw, give lib-erty, and take it away, and no rebels among all my subjects” (157).

By the time Friday enters the picture, it seems almost natural that the same attitude will be carried into human relations. After all, Crusoe had already had a recurring desire for “one, nay two or three savages … so as to make them entirely slaves to me” (204). With Friday, Crusoe fixes himself in to a position of control over his “slave,” but then de-mands of the other party the reciprocal, emotional benefits of a “friend.” Luckily for Crusoe, he exists in a fictional world where such a fantasy comes true, as Friday, following Xury, takes to slavery quite naturally, and with real sentimental devotion to his master.

Thus, references to “my friend” become a way of sentimentalizing slav-ery, even as slavery itself becomes a trope for what many might call the characteristic dysfunction in human relations under capitalism.. In judging the competition between class and race paradigms as ex-planations of slavery, one might first consider that Defoe, as enthusias-tic about the new commercial order as Behn was suspicious of it, repeatedly criticized the ideology of blood and birth that had in-formed the traditional class paradigm. We see him questioning that ideology as early as The True-Born Engiishman (1701): What is, to us, what Ancestors we had, If Good, what better, or what worse. if Bad,

For Fame of Families is all a Cheat, Tis Pelona, Virtue only makes us great. (1205-6, 1215-6). Twenty-five years later, the same note is sounded in The Complete Eng-lig Tradesman (1725): “Nor do we find any defect either in the ge-nius or capacities of the posterity of tradesmen, arising from any remains of mechanick blood?. The very conception of Robinson Crusoewould seem to be a visionary correlative to Locke’s tabula rasa, wherein the accident of birth privi-lege is removed and we are left with a clean slate for the inscription of economic individualism.

However, the attitude toward the old social hierarchies remains ambivalent. After all, the new commercial order, retrospectively, needed to critique the blood and birth ideology of the traditional class structure if it was to breach the traditional landed power base; but prospectively, it needed to lock in its own form of eco-nomic domination. Thus we see that the master-servant bond is still the medium through which relations generally become intelligible, as Crusoe dubs the dog from the wreck his “trusty servant” (82), enlists a parrot and a goat, among others, as “my domesticke (124), and main-tains a self-image in his isolation by imagining himself as “king and lord over all this country” (114).

In perhaps the most remarkable pro-motion for established class hierarchies, Crusoe equates his own “orig-inal sin” with “the general plague of mankind, whence . . one half of their miseries flow; I mean that of not being satisfy’d with the station wherein God and nature has placed them” (198). The tension between ideological needs pushing for and against hi-erarchical social formations is ultimately resolved through the deploy-ment of slavery in Robinson Crusoe. In Crusoewe see how a discourse of race might be used to justify slavery where the class justification was in-secure, and also might be used to provide a general model of eco-nomic domination. The much-analyzed footprint episode might be read from this vantage point, as a lens upon the psychological and so-cial nuances of how this particular paradigm shift takes place.

Crusoe begins the episode, “It happened one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprized with the print of a man’s naked foot I stood like one thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an appari-tion …. [I fled] like one pursued … [and then heartened myself] with the belief that this was nothing but the print of one of my own feet … [yet] how often Hooked behind me … (as if] haunted with an evil con-science. (162, 166). The uncanny effect of the image might first suggest that Crusoe is reliving a primal trauma, perhaps the primal trauma of passing from imaginary to symbolic orders. But particularly interesting in this con-text is how Crusoe’s reliving of that early trauma develops coordinates on a cultural map as well as a psychological one. John Richetti sees something of this cultural map in viewing the cannibals as the natural “antitype. in “Crusoe’s drive for order and towards civilization… But folded into the more general cultural significance is a specific racial significance. As the coordinates on the psychological map mark the passage into the symbolic order, the coordinates on the cultural map mark a step-by-step formation of a concept of race.

In psychoanalytic terms, those fifteen years of solitude before the footprint indicate a re-turn to the imaginary order, but in cultural is they indicate a re-turn to what Crusoe himself calls “a meer state of nature. (130). On the psychoanalytic level, the footprint shocks Crusoe into a differen-tial recognition of me versus the other; on the cultural level the differ-ence is of my type of people versus that other type of people, figured as “the savages of the mainland. (163).25 Crusoe’s first response to this racial recognition is to “[give] God thanks that had cast my first lot in a part of the world where I was distinguished from such dreadful crea-tures. (172).

Indeed, the otherness of the savages leads Patrick Brant-linger to conclude that “emsoe remains just as profoundly isolated afterhe has rescued Friday as before–the isolation implied by mastery, as opposed to equality… This concept of otherness might provide a simple enough recipe for racism and slavery based on biological essentialism, but things become more complex. The incubating fea-ture of Crusoe’s concept of race is not otherness but the conflation of otherness and sameness. The racial other is not merely an other, but is an other-like-me. Hence when Crusoe moves from the image of the footprint to the image of the savages, he goes a second step in concep-tualizing race. His first response, justified by difference between those people and my people, is to kill them. His second response counters the first by recognizing the similarity between peoples.

He now con-siders “hat authority or call I had, to pretend to be judge and executioner upon these men as criminals. (177). If they are men-like-me, a simple biological essentialism will not work. But all-soe wants to own a savage so badly that he even dreams about it (202). The question he is left to struggle with is how to justify enslaving mem-bers of another race in the absence of a simple biological essentialism. Crusoe manages to cut through that Gordian knot by putting forth what might be called a kind of racial essentialism that works diachroni-cally rather than synchronically. The simple form of biological essentialism holds whites and blacks up in a synchronic relation and pronounces whites to have superior capacities.

If we read the text through the lens of this synchronic relation, we might conclude with Lieve Spaas that mutually conflicting discourses are at work: “Defoe’s novel sustains the view of the undisputed superiority of white man . . . yet, the text reveals a hesitation and a resistance which, consciously or unconsciously, subverts some of the existing beliefs.”28 But I suggest that what we have, rather than mutually conflicting discourses, is an essentialist form of racism that is disintegrating on a synchronic axis and reconstituting itself along a diachronic axis. In synchronic terms, Crusoe, usually laconic and practical in his rhetorical style, is quite lo-quacious about the biological equality across races. He explicitly grants that God has given the natives “the same powers, the same rea-son, the same affections, the same sentiments of kindness and obliga-tion, the same passions, and resentments of wrongs, the same sense of gratitude, sincerity, fidelity, and all the capacities of doing good and receiving good, that He has given to us.

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Social Hierarchy in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. (2019, Dec 04). Retrieved from

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