April Swarey
Dr. Morillo
ENG 563
25 September 2006       
                                         Oroonoko and the Eel: Desires Benumb’d
            Aphra Behn’s novel, Oroonoko, is named for a brave and adventurous man who confronted life’s difficulties with unusual strength and energy. Secure in his identity as a prince, Oroonoko faced obstacles with an unshakable belief that he could overcome whatever lay in his path. Although he was taken as a slave and even renamed, he never surrendered the belief he should be free and most importantly, that he was a king among men. His identity then remained bound up in kingship, as a man born to rule, appointed by nature to be superior to other humans. A tremendous internal conflict arises when he is taken as a slave and denied even the basic freedoms an ordinary man may enjoy, let alone the prerogatives one of royal stature would demand. Although events and difficulties, partly of his own devising, transpired to teach him otherwise, he remained firm in his beliefs that he was above the personal limitations that shape the lives of ordinary men. He loved Imoinda and their unborn child more than anyone else, but he proves by killing them that his greatest desire is still to rule over his own fate and those of others as well. His encounter with an electric eel most effectively encapsulates his struggles to achieve that desire and provides an outline for his adventures throughout the novel. The eel is no longer just a fish for supper, but becomes the symbol of Oroonoko’s desire for power.
            Oroonoko has retained some vestiges of kingly identity and delusions of autonomy because until the eel, he has not encountered a situation in which he has the opportunity to be utterly powerless, and therefore, come to understand his own human limitations. He was allowed to have special privileges aboard the slave ship, such as roaming freely, and though he takes off his princely robes, he is still shown the respect owed to a monarch. In the renaming for his new role as slave, he is given the ancient name of kings in “Caesar” (Behn 69).  Being referred to as “Caesar” would only remind him of the royal status enjoyed earlier and serve to reinforce hopes of a higher station than slavery. He even finds the beautiful Imoinda again in Suriname and they are married. Therefore, the bad events in his life, such as being taken as a slave, appear to be just a way for fate to smile upon him in other ways, as it should do for those on a higher plane than ordinary mortals. He knows, though, that until he achieves freedom, he is still labeled as a slave. He decides to do what he can to preserve his sense of self-efficacy and kills the menacing  tiger, which “gave Caesar occasion of many fine Discourses; of Accidents in War, and Strange Escapes” (79). Having been thwarted from performing real princely duties, Oroonoko is reduced to killing animals and boasting of past glories. Ironically, his stories focus on the other occasions when his desires have nearly killed him, just as the eel will nearly end his life later in the narrative. The “accidents in war” occurred when he swooned with grief over Imoinda until it was nearly too late to save his troops and the “strange escape” concerned his flight from Imoinda’s chambers after having been discovered by the king’s guard. He has always been a man governed by his desires and now, in order to prove himself, he is naturally drawn to attempts to catch the electric eel he has been told is so powerful in itself. To subdue such a mighty creature would preserve a sense of power in his own abilities.
            Fishing would seem to be an innocent enough activity for a slave to enjoy, until the reader is introduced to Oroonoko’s aquatic nemesis, which is not an everyday fish, but one possessing extraordinary powers: “At other times he wou’d go a Fishing; and discoursing on that Diversion, he found we had in that Country a very Strange Fish, call’d a Numb Eel” (80). The narrator confesses to have eaten this fish, but also tells us that “while it is alive, it has a quality so Cold” (80). The quality she is referring to is the electric current physically generated by the eel, but as Oroonoko discovers, failing to obtain one’s desires is a cold experience as well.  Behn goes on to tell the reader, “that those who are Angling, though with a Line of never so great a length, with a Rod at the end of it, it shall, in the same minute the Bait is touched by this Eel, seize him or her that holds the Rod with benumb’dness” (80). The passage is rife with phallic references, symbolizing power, such as the references to “the Rod,”  and an eel would be shaped as a phallus itself (80). Humans merely hold the rod, or control, temporarily, and it may be torn from their grasp suddenly. It is not inherently a part of their existence, but the electricity, or energy, emanates from the eel as a part of his being. Those rod holders, or humans, like Oroonoko, who imagine themselves maintaining some control over their desires are in danger of being overwhelmed, just as those who wish to overwhelm the eel will be electrically stunned.  The aggressor becomes impotent in that instance of electrocution and the experience will “deprive ‘em of  Sense, for a while” (80). So will Oroonoko be deprived of sense as he murders his beloved Imoinda and child later in the story and wallows in madness. The narrator warns that most people suffer some consequence from an encounter with the eel, for “some have fall’n into the Water, and other drop’d as dead on the Banks of the Rivers where they stood, as soon as this Fish touches the Bait” (80). The electrical current will disable most people if not dealt with quickly, just as ordinary people will falter when faced with a complete loss of power resulting in a violent shift of self-identity. The former role of aggressor becomes that of victim, which comes as a nasty mental shock. Oroonoko will experience a similar situation when the slaves he imagined he ruled over as his subjects in rebellion betray him and return to their white masters. Pursuing one’s desires can be a deadly business, as Oroonoko learns too late.
            Oroonoko, or Caesar, reveals a firm confidence in his own abilities as the narrator writes, “Caesar us’d to laugh at this, and believ’d it impossible a Man cou’d loose his Force at the touch of a Fish” (80). Most importantly, he “cou’d not understand that Philosophy, that a cold Quality should be of that Nature” (80). He is ignorant in this situation, but unwilling to believe fully the eyewitness accounts of others. He misreads the situation and imagines the eel to be just an everyday fish who could not steal away man’s power. Rather than eel fishing being a dangerous activity in which he is risking life and limb, he chooses instead to believe in his own superior strength and understanding. He underestimates the power of the eel just as he underestimates the power of his desires to lead him to despair and death.  
            He then obeyed the “Curiosity he had to try whether it wou’d have the same effect on him it had on others” (80). There is no reason the eel should affect him differently than others, unless Oroonoko views himself on a different plane from other people. He is notably only curious, not afraid of the powers of the eel. He displays this lack of fear clearly when he stood “Angling on the Bank;  and instead of throwing away the Rod, before it cou’d have too much Power over him; for Experiment sake, he grasp’d it but the harder” (80). Oroonoko does not want to relinquish his desires for an instant and instead clutches “the Rod” tighter. Just as he refuses to let go of the belief in his own potency to shape his life, he refuses to let go of the eel. He is overcome by electrocution and “fainting fell into the River” (80). Completely robbed of consciousness, Oroonoko is at the mercy of the water, as “the Tide carry’d him senseless as he was a great way” (80). He floats this way until an “Indian Boat” takes him out of the water and felt the numbness he passed to them since he still clutched the rod with the eel on the other end (80). The Indians suffer the electrical current just as Imoinda and Oroonoko’s unborn child will suffer the shock of death when Oroonoko refuses to surrender his dreams of freedom. The narrator notes that while Caesar may have been harmed by the eel, he was “more so with that of the Water” (80). The eel did not kill him, but the water nearly did so. As in other points within the plot, Oroonoko sustains harm as a result of the pursuit of his desires. The palace guards nearly killed him during his amorous pursuit of Imoinda at the king’s palace and the white plantation owners will succeed in killing him following his pursuit of freedom later in the novel.
            After hauling Oroonoko from the water, his rescuers found they “had much a-do to bring him back to Life,” and after recovering, he was “not a little Asham’d to find he should be overcome by an Eel” (80). This is a foreshadowing of his being brought back to life after killing his wife. He will be ashamed to face his shortcomings then as well, though that will be shame over his inability to carry out his plan of revenge. The murder of his wife and the seizing of the eel were acts dictated by his pursuit of power, but in both instances he finds himself at the mercy of the consequences of his actions. A king with supernatural strength may have been able to conquer the eel and then go on later to kill his wife and then his enemies, but Oroonoko is just a man. Since that ordinary human persona does not fulfill his desire for power, he rejects it soundly throughout the novel and remains in pursuit of the ruling royal identity he craves.
            Oronooko is most ashamed after the eel encounter because he worries that “ all the People, who heard his Defiance, wou’d Laugh at him” (80). It has become a political event and Oroonoko is not preoccupied with his close escape of death, but rather with the opinions of others. As is common among modern day leaders, or monarchs, he is concerned with how the public body perceived his actions, rather than what really occurred. A form of public poll results are necessary in order to monitor his self-image after he has been proven completely wrong on two points: his own abilities, and the strength of the eel. He overestimated his ability to acquire his desire and underestimated the power of the desired to overwhelm him. The people around him, like any good support staff, try to make light of a truly embarrassing encounter for a man who wants to appear as leadership material. His companions “cheared him up; and he, being convinced, we had the Eel at Supper” (80). The poll results convinced him he had not lost ground as a great conqueror and the group began to eat the Eel. The meat of the eel is described as “most delicate Meat; and was of the more Value, since it cost so Dear, as almost the Life of so gallant a Man” (80). Oroonoko’s identity is also delicate matter that will be carved up by others at the end of the story when his body is dismembered and the pieces sent around to the neighboring plantations as a deterrent to rebellion.  Others, such as Major Banister and his followers, will feed on his misfortune in order to advance their own interests.  Oroonoko and the eel are both overcome in the end by a group of people who seek to devour their power.
            Oroonoko’s encounter with the eel mirrors the movement of the plot as Oroonoko began life full of promise and confidence, just as he faced the eel at first. Under other circumstances, he would have lived out a privileged life of royalty. That normal course of life is disrupted by his being taken as a slave when he thought himself to be a monarch enjoying a slave ship tour. He believed his royal identity exempted him from being taken as a slave, or else he would not have been caught in such an obvious trap. He also doubted the power of the eel for the same reasons. Since he had always viewed himself as superior to ordinary men, he did not expect to be stunned and pulled into the water. Even though he feels the shock of electricity, the desire to rule over the eel motivates him to hold on tightly, even though it nearly kills him. He likewise refuses to surrender the desire to rule his own life and the fate of his family. He kills his wife and child as a result. Like the slave ship that brings him across the Atlantic, the eel takes him a great distance in the water. On both occasions, he is brought out of the water and consoled falsely by friends. Tefry tells him he will soon be free and the Indians assure him no one will laugh at him for his boasting about the eel, but they can’t really know that either claim is true. Both Oroonoko and the eel made a bid for freedom and then became the focus of a banquet of sorts. The eel is served as supper, and Oroonoko is served up in pieces to various enemies. Throughout his story, as in the battle with the eel, Oroonoko desperately clings to his belief in his superior abilities, as proof of his royal identity. He desires most what was his by birth, the power to rule over himself and others.
                                                               Works Cited
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Ed. Catherine Gallagher and Simon Stern. Boston: Bedford/
            St. Martin’s Press, 2000.