Behn’s Tiger as Devil and Human

The paragraph in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko detailing Caesar’s killing of the tiger shows the colonialists’ moral rationalization for killing the tiger through property, demonization, sentence structure, and symbols.

From the first sentence, there is a clear divide between the tiger and the colonialists as shown through property. The tiger took “sheep and oxen, and other things that were for the support of those to whom they belonged,” which signals that animals are regarded as objects that are owned by people (Behn, 2342-3). The animals that are property are only owned because they are useful in perpetuating the life of their owners, primarily by being the colonialists’ food. Animals, such as the tiger, that are not property are the colonialists’ enemy. There is no space in the colonialists’ worldview for there to be animals that live autonomously.

The only time the foe is identified as a tiger is in the first sentence, which shows a change from known to unknown. Even within the same sentence, the tiger is called a “beast” and a “devil,” which is a progressive shift to the formidable and unnatural (2343). A tiger is a specific type of animal with known features and attributes. A beast is a vague word to describe any living thing that is threatening and can be applied to human beings. The fact that a beast lacks specific features serves to move the tiger into the unknown. The unknown is more terrifying because a person cannot be prepared with how to deal with it. For example, a tiger is an animal that has physical necessities, such as food, water, and air, to sustain its life. In knowing what a tiger needs to survive, a person can remove the necessary item in order to kill it. With a beast of unknown qualities, a person does not know what to remove in order to cause it to die. The sense that the colonialists do not know how to kill the tiger is strengthened with the accounts that “they had shot her with several bullets” but it was still alive (2343). In the natural world, an animal usually dies when it is shot, especially when it is “through the very heart” (2343). Therefore, the tiger must be something unnatural. The tiger is called a devil, which crosses the threshold into the unnatural and the immortal. Not only is a devil not a part of the natural order of the world, it has an evil intent. There are many constructed images of a devil in Christianity, but commonly it is a mixture of humanoid and animal. The tiger has been made into something greater than a mere animal to make it a worthier foe. The tiger is turned into an embodiment of the greatest conflict in Christianity, God versus the devil in the battle of good and evil. The tiger is amped up into an immortal, evil thing so that it is a more formidable foe for Caesar to conquer. The slaying of the tiger becomes a quest for Caesar because “he should be rewarded” by the colonialists if he succeeds (2343). This reward parallels the Christian doctrine in that if a person is able to decline the devil’s temptations and even vanquish the devil, they will have the eternal reward of joining God in heaven after their earthly demise.

The sentence structure of the paragraph is primarily long independent clauses combined by semi-colons, which gives the effect of a fast pace to mimic the action. Specifically, the sentence beginning, “When they came in view…” is two independent clauses joined by a semi-colon (2343). The first clause addresses Caesar and the colonialists’ perspective of first seeing the tiger. The second clause shifts to the tiger “seeing herself approached” (2343). Both clauses begin with each party encountering the other. The semi-colon serves to bring the two clauses close together to see the encounter from both parties in the same moment as well as to tighten the prose and thus the action of the story. Behn does not have time to stop in the middle of the action with a period. Likewise, the reader is propelled forward in the narrative by the use of a semi-colon instead of a period. The reader is not given the pause to take a breath that a period affords in the same way that Caesar and the tiger cannot stop in the middle of their actions.

Only humans can own objects and in making the tiger own an object, she is made to seem human. The tiger is likened to a human being in that she has “possession” of the sheep she is eating and does not want to lose it (2343). The conflict of the colonialists’ possessions being stolen is now flipped where the tiger is afraid of losing her sheep. Sheep have been mentioned twice before, which displays how it is a common animal used by the colonialists and thus important for their livelihood. Sheep are mentioned in the first sentence with the list of animals the tiger has stolen and again when Caesar asks if he will be rewarded for killing the tiger that steals the colonialists’ “lambs and pigs” (2343). It is significant that the animal the tiger is eating is a sheep because it is a symbol of innocence and community in Christianity. The Lord is the colonialists’ shepherd and thus the colonialists’ are His sheep. Second, the sheep is defenseless and so the tiger is taking advantage of the weak, which is sinful. A tiger in itself is an animal that has no conception of right and wrong, but since this tiger has been likened to a human, it is under the moral jurisdiction of the colonialists. Even more so, if the tiger is a human and the sheep is a colonialist human, then the tiger has committed murder, which can be punishable by death. In this way, the colonialists, most likely subconsciously, rationalize their killing of the tiger.

The pronouns “she” and “he” are used for a majority of the paragraph to refer to the tiger, which does not automatically suggest the subject is an animal. The use of these pronouns makes the tiger like a human because “she” and “he” are most often associated with people. For instance, when Caesar is not being referred to by his name, the pronoun “he” is used. The switch from “she” to “he” during moments of intense violence shows how violence is strongly attributed to males. Making the tiger a male also serves to create emotional distance by making the situation seem like a battle between two men. Further, only a female tiger would have the justifiable excuse of being aggressive to defend her cubs, but even this reason to sympathize for the tiger is removed by making it a male when it is killed.

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. C. 9th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print.

“Another time, being in the woods, he killed a tiger which had long infested that part, and borne away abundance of sheep and oxen, and other things that were for the support of those to whom they belonged; abundance of people assailed this beast, some affirming they had shot her with several bullets quite through the body at several times, and some swearing they shot her through the very heart, and they believed she was a devil rather than a mortal thing. Caesar had often said he had a mind to encounter this monster, and spoke with several gentlemen who had attempted her, one crying, “I shot her with so many poisoned arrows,” another with his gun in this part of her, and another in that; so that he, remarking all these places where she was shot, fancied still he should overcome her by giving her another sort of a wound than any had yet done; and one day said (at the table), “What trophies and garlands, ladies, will you make me, if I bring you home the heart of this ravenous beast, that eats up all your lambs and pigs?” We all promised he should be rewarded at all our hands. So taking a bow, which he chose out of a great many, he went up into the wood, with two gentlemen, where he imagined this devourer to be; they had not passed very far in it but they heard her voice, growling and grumbling, as if she were pleased with something she was doing. When they came in view, they found her muzzling in the belly of a new ravished sheep, which she had torn open; and seeing her self approached, she took fast hold of her prey with her forepaws and set a very fierce raging look on Caesar, without offering to approach him, for fear at the same time of losing what she had in possession. So that Caesar remained a good while, only taking aim, and getting an opportunity to shoot her where he designed; ’twas some time before he could accomplish it, and to wound her and not kill her would but have enraged her more, and endangered him. He had a quiver of arrows at his side, so that if one failed he could be supplied; at last, retiring a little, he gave her opportunity to eat, for he found she was ravenous, and fell to as soon as she saw him retire, being more eager of her prey than of doing new mischiefs. When he going softly to one side of her, and hiding his person behind certain herbage that grew high and thick, he took so good aim that, as he intended, he shot her just into the eye, and the arrow was sent with so good a will and so sure a hand that it stuck in her brain, and made her caper and become mad for a moment or two; but being seconded by another arrow, he fell dead upon the prey. Caesar cut him open with a knife, to see where those wounds were that had been reported to him, and why he did not die of ’em. But I shall now relate a thing that possibly will find no credit among men, because ’tis a notion commonly received with us, that nothing can receive a wound in the heart and live; but when the heart of this courageous animal was taken out, there were seven bullets of lead in it, and the wounds seamed up with great scars, and she lived with the bullets a great while, for it was long since they were shot. This heart the conqueror brought up to us, and ’twas a very great curiosity, which all the country came to see, and which gave Caesar occasion of many fine discourses, of accidents in war and strange escapes.”

– Aphra Behn, Oroonoko

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s