Thyvaert analyses the story of Oroonoko in an article titled "The Sexual Construction of Male and Female Characters in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave." Thyvaert discusses the role of women in society as portrayed in the story of Oroonoko (33). Women are seen as the weaker gender and treated as material possessions by men. Thyvaert pays close attention to Imoinda who is the lover of the main character showing how the society treated her (33). This essay analyses the author's view of women in particular Imoinda who represents the many women whom society looks down. The life of Imoinda is broken down from her courtship to her death to analyze how women are viewed and oppressed by society.
Beauty as a Curse
Thyvaert describes Imoinda as the most beautiful creature on earth. Imoinda's beauty attracted many suitors whom she turned away (Thyvaert 1). It is the beauty of Imoinda that swept The Prince off hos feet. The Prince could not contain his feelings and fell in love with Imoinda. The Prince asked for her hand in marriage which she gladly accepted (Thyvaert 1). However, when the King heard of the beauty of Imoinda, he desired her and sent her a sacred veil which forced her to be his wife (Thyvaert 36). Imoinda had no choice but to oblige. Thyvaert argues that Imoinda's beauty should have been something to be cherished, the face of the nation. Instead, it turns out to be the beginning of her downfall. In history, Kings, prominent rulers, and the rich have always had their way with women. Young girls are forced into marriages with people old enough to be their fathers. Low-income families have been the major targets. The families are offered substantial remuneration in exchange for their daughters. In the case of Imoinda, it was worse since it was the King who wanted her hand in marriage. The King ordered for Imoinda to be given the sacred veil which meant that she had to oblige failure to which she would face the consequences (Thyvaert 33).
I agree with Thyvaert's analysis of how the beauty of Imoinda, in the end, proved costly. Today, in the world we have beauty pageants where young women get to showcase their beauty and are rewarded. The winners go on to be ambassadors of the world and their respective countries. Imoinda was the definition of beauty, but instead of this being a positive thing it turned out to be costly. The King's greed to have the most beautiful girl in the land meant that Imoinda was to be a slave of her beauty.
The Punishment of Imoinda: Cost of Love
When Imoinda received the sacred veil from the King, she was bound to join the endless list of his wives (Thyvaert 36). It did not matter that the Prince had offered his hand in marriage. Well aware of the consequences, Imoinda went behind the King's back and consummated her marriage with the Prince (Thyvaert 36). When the King found out about the marriage, he sold Imoinda as a slave as punishment for her treachery (Thyvaert 41). To the King, Imoinda was not a wife or at least a human being; she was a property that he could do with whatever he willed. Imoinda, an innocent girl was sold as a slave for being in love with another man. It shows the lack of rights of women in the setting. Women were treated as material possessions by men. Men were allowed to marry as many women as they wanted on condition that they could provide for them and offer security. The sexual value of a woman was lost when she grew old, and she was then retained in the man's home who was obligated to take care of her. Women are like livestock which men can own. There is no mention of a woman having more than one husband. I agree with Thyvaert that women were treated as material possessions. Men felt they were superior to women and they exerted their control and dominance over them. I concur with Thyvaert's view on how the King treated Imoinda. The King did not seek the consent of Imoinda but, issued a directive to have her brought in as one of her wives showing how materialized women were. It was almost as if the King had sent his workers to do shopping where the item being collected was inanimate.
Polygamy is a tradition that has survived up to date. Many countries have made polygamy legal with some religions also advocating for it. Polygamy is a tradition that looks down on women making them less human beings. The fact that women are not allowed to have more than one husband shows the society's perception of women. However, Imoinda is lucky enough to be the only wife of the Prince who is deeply in love with her. But, the aspect of possession is seen when the Prince vows that Imoinda would be the only woman he would possess (Thyvaert 36). The view that a man possesses a woman has been held for many years. Thyvaert explains how husbands owned their wives and could do anything they wanted with them apart from abandoning them (Thyvaert 35). The liberty and power granted to men are what gave the King the mandate to sell Imoinda as a slave. Husbands were supposed to protect their wives, but instead of protecting Imoinda, the King sold her off (Thyvaert 34). Up to date, women continue to be materialized. Domestic violence is a common norm in a society which explains why men treat women as their property. Another culture that shows how women have been materialized is dowry or bride price. In many communities, before marrying a woman, a man is required to offer some compensation to the wife's family. It is a type of trade similar to buying cattle or sheep which gives the man control and power over the woman.
The interests of women are not factored in their relationship with men. In the story of Oroonoka, women were required to respect men as much as deities were respected. The fact that women were supposed to respect men this much shows their lower rank in society. Women were supposed to follow the orders of men blindly without questioning their authority. When the Prince organized the rebellion, he called onto the men to support him in their quest (Thyvaert 37). The women were left out of the decision-making since men had the power to decide on their behalf. The rebellion would put the women's lives at risk, but this did not matter. The prince called upon the men to support him and claimed that any woman who preferred slavery to her husband deserved to be abandoned and left at the mercy of the enemy (Thyvaert 39). Women were not only required to accept their husband's decisions but, they would be punished if they failed. Today, people read of such atrocities and judge the men without realizing that they are as guilty as they were. When a man gets a new job that requires him to switch countries, he accepts it without consulting the wife. The woman is required to follow the man, leave all she had behind without any opposition. Failure to support the man may lead to a divorce or the man moving and marrying a second wife. This case is not as different as the slave women who blindly followed their men to war.
I agree with Thyvaert on the poor status women had in society with their views disregarded. Women were not given a chance to speak. The men made vital decisions on behalf of the women. Women were seen as feeble and with little to offer. The men plotted a rebellion and did not involve the women in the decision making. The work of women was to stay behind the men as they fought.
The Death of Imoinda
The epitome of women's suffering at the hands of men is seen in the death of Imoinda. Up to this point, Imoinda has been a faithful loyal and loving wife to the prince. She accepted the Prince's hand in marriage. Imoinda went on to risk her life by defying the orders of the King. The price for her love was slavery. Lucky for her, she was reunited with the Prince who took such good care of her that she fell pregnant. For fear of having the child grow up as a slave, the prince requested for their release but was unsuccessful (Thyvaert 40). The Prince plotted a rebellion which backfired. The Prince then decided that to avoid the child living a life of slavery the best alternative was to put an end to its life (Thyvaert 40). Imoinda was also not spared as she was to be killed by the Prince to avoid the struggles that would follow (Thyvaert 40). The Prince decided to rebel without consulting Imoinda and put her life and the child at risk. The Prince had reached a dead end, and the solution to the problems as a result of his stupid move was death. Imoinda the faithful and loyal wife obliged and was killed by her husband.
I agree with Thyvaert on how insignificant Imoinda's life was. Since the Prince was going to be killed it did not make sense for Imoinda to continue living, they had to die together. The life of women was tied to men. Women were dependent on men for everything which meant that Imoinda would not survive without her husband. To make the situation worse, the husband was the one to take Imoinda's life, and she had no say.
Thyvaert shows how Imoinda, an innocent girl suffers from her beauty when the King desires her. In love with a Prince, Imoinda defies the King's orders and escapes with the love of her life. The King punishes her by taking away her freedom and selling her as a slave. Fate reunites Imoinda with the Prince with whom she bears a child. The child meant to be a blessing turns out to be the cause of their demise. The attempts of the Prince to save Imoinda and the child are futile as their lives are in danger. The man steps up and decides the solution is to kill Imoinda, the child and himself. All along Imoinda has had no say even on whether she has to live or not. That is how superior man is to women. The role of women in society is to follow, respect and obey. In the end, Imoinda is forgotten. The title of the book bears the name Oroonoka, Imoinda's name is just another character. Just like Imoinda, women continue to live in the shadows of men.
Thyvaert, Hanne. The Sexual Construction of Male and Female Characters in Aphra Behn'sOroonoko, or, the Royal Slave. 2015, https://lib.ugent.be/fulltxt/RUG01/002/213/066/RUG01-002213066_2015_0001_AC.pdf .
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