Aphra Behn: The Author And The Narrator In Oroonoko

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The publication of Oroonoko was a literary event amongst a period of political uncertainty and its resulting social unrest. In a crisis of succession and the impending threat of perceived Catholic tyranny, members of Parliament clandestinely organized the overthrow of King James, the brother of the now-deceased Charles II, during the year of 1688; the very same year Aphra Behn released her highly contentious work of amatory fiction to the public, still reeling from the Glorious Revolution and its glowing embers of reform. If the people could usurp a king, why couldn’t they instigate social change? Still, it was a time of temperance; it had been a bloodless revolution, so the dissemination of deviant discourse could not be conducted recklessly. Aphra Behn was already known for her entertaining and successful plays, so she knew that now was a time ripe for her protest. Amatory fiction is regarded as the intermediary between Medieval literature and the novel, distinct for its role as a medium that women used to propagate their beliefs and for its incorporation of romantic plots. The appeal of Oroonoko was meant to be broad; passion, betrayal, and exoticism were all enticing draws to a book that Behn already knew she would infuse with her royalist ideas and beliefs regarding human rights. Aphra Behn is keenly aware of the mortality of her work; with there being little female precedence in the writing field, she does not wield the power of authorship lightly and straddles two discourses in an attempt to broadcast to as wide of an audience as possible her ideas in the form of an entertaining yet shocking novel. Behn communicates her credibility through her omniscient storytelling and implicitly transmits her underlying political commentary through an exotic plot and a sensationally haunting finale, establishing her superior authorship and argumentative prowess during a time where women’s opinions were rarely considered in the exclusive academic sphere.

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Despite Behn’s reputation as a skilled playwright, her expertise as a writer was not immediately accepted and she had to prove her competence and reliability at length whereas a male author’s expertise is usually understood by the reader before anything has been said. Her emphatic appeals toward ethos are apparent in opening lines, insisting, ‘I do not pretend in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero whose life and fortunes may manage at the poet’s pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents but such as arrived in earnest to him’ (Behn 9). Behn is all too aware that she does not have the luxury of automatic trust from her readership and must go out of her way to assert her credibility. In addition to these explicit reassurances, she assumes a pseudo-passive voice and a marked modesty to negate potential naysayers from discrediting her work on the grounds that they disagreed with her perceived opinions, as seen when she discusses the Oroonoko’s deception by the captain: ‘ I will spare my sense of it, and leave it to my reader to judge as he pleases’ (Behn 38). Not only does this purposeful ambivalence and submissiveness confine her personal opinions to a state of ambiguity, but it actively encourages discussion on the reader’s end. In fact, it is demanded, because she does not tell the reader how they should feel in response to the betrayal (though she does use emotional appeals to sway them). Even further in her attempt to avoid dissent based on her controversial opinions, she uses a ‘they’ versus ‘we’ dichotomy to cosign or tacitly disagree with the actions of fellow colonists. When she and the other women sympathize with Oroonoko. When Oroonoko is treated inhumanely during his enslavement, she refers to the perpetrators as ‘them’, resigning herself from culpability. Producing a work equivocal in nature, while successful in the fact that Aphra Behn’s life and legacy are still vigorously discussed to this day, critics did not hesitate to deconstruct the premise of her novel but her reliability. Robert L. Chibka writes about the vehement contest of her integrity in ‘Oh! Do Not Fear a Woman’s Invention’: Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, saying, ” Aphra the woman/’ critics have assumed we will agree, was ‘more fascinating, always, than any of her works/’. Thus, controversy over where she lived, whether she married, had lovers, had a barber for a father, and so on, has consumed much intellectual energy’. Her status as a female writer was a public spectacle, her very presence an invitation to criticism. Had Behn not felt she would be targeted for expressing her opinions, which was not seen to be proper in a male-dominated society, she would not have assumed a voice of such purposeful passivity. She knew that even if she weren’t writing such a controversial novel, her character would be questioned. Chibka goes on, explaining that, ‘As contemporary standards of female chastity often overshadowed Behn’s work, so our century’s fear that she lacked another sort of fidelity, to the ideal of historical truth, has distracted attention from her work’ (Chibka 511). Opponents to Behn reasoned that if Behn could be portrayed as a liar for never having visited Suriname and only having claimed to command a greater authority over her storytelling, then her message could be devalued on the basis of dishonesty. Not mentioning that most ‘travel writers’ wrote on speculation rather than experience, whether or not Behn actually witnessed these events is beside the point; Behn had to establish an authoritative voice early on to even get the reader to turn to the next page. She was damned if she didn’t attempt to prove her trustworthiness, and she was damned if she did.

Aphra Behn’s exigence in writing Oroonoko was not to decry slavery instituted on a racial basis or to advocate for emancipation movements; its persuasive undertones were chiefly concerned with its political allegory to the Glorious Revolution. Of course, this does not diminish the fact that it still brings a sorely needed awareness to the institution of human trafficking and its inherent inequality, but Behn used the interest in this controversial debate to direct attention towards her tacitly royalist narrative. Though there is a purpose to the story beyond her monarchical advocation, with substantial insights into human rights and provocative and daringly-close-to feministic ideas, much of the early novel’s draw was the exotic setting and tragic romance. It is important to note her depiction of Oroonoko, the African slave, as an exception to his ‘gloomy race’ and possessing European qualities that put him above other ‘negroes’. Behn describes Oroonoko as follows: ‘His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony […] His nose was rising and Roman instead of African and flat. His mouth was far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of Negroes […] and whoever heard him speak would have been convinced of their errors that all fine wit is confined to the white men’ (Behn, 15). Here, Behn describes the ‘noble savage’, suggesting a certain beauty and intelligence that is natural to Europeans and rare in other cultures. While she is complimentary of Oroonoko, she devalues all other blacks in comparison to this decidedly whitewashed and ‘exceptional’ figure.

Oroonoko’s exceptionalism is depicted with the agenda of elevating Aphra Behn’s own status. Oroonoko’s nobility is confirmed through his outward beauty, that is, his inherent Europeanness. Even when he is enslaved, he is referred to as Caesar, a name evocative of unquestionably righteous power and totally justified leadership. While the foundations of racism and biological inferiority were still in its infancy, here, Behn advocates for the intrinsic distinction between noble blood and common blood. There is something inside of Oroonoko that makes him a prince, and that birthright to greatness should be inalienable; that is the tragic element to his story. Behn puts his blackness secondary to his nobility. Were he not African, he would be above Behn in her society; a white prince would command automatic respect. Both Oroonoko and Behn occupy positions of marginalization and privilege. Were Behn a man, the novel would have noticeable omissions of appeals to ethos and a more active tone. Aphra Behn sought to make her readers respect Oroonoko in spite of qualities that would lower his social status in a European society. By association, she is elevating the role of female writers. Her sympathetic portrayal of Oroonoko begs the question that why should she, another marginalized individual, be denied that same respect in spite of another uncontrollable aspect to her identity: her gender? If blackness can be tolerated, then why not womanhood? She purposefully implies this double standard to infuse her argument with logic, reasoning her way through discrimination. In Susan Andrade’s article on cultural developments that influenced Aphra Behn, and Behn’s influence on cultural developments, she elucidates the relationship between the struggles of enslaved Africans and marginalized women, writing:

Criticism has failed to recognize that differently oppressed groups in given historical moments often have conflicting political agendas […] however sympathetic members of one marginal group might be toward another, they must contend with the results of inherent differences. For when giving voice to the abject status of another may threaten their own interests, members of a privileged (but also oppressed) group may vacillate between identification and disavowal. 

A common understanding of discrimination and social immobility is shared amongst marginalized groups in society, but efforts in reform are not always organized in tandem but as a promise of eventual reciprocation. While she gives the debate on the justification of slavery a platform, she does not give the ending to her novel a triumphant ending denouncing the institution, but a poignantly graphic ending to create an unsettlingly ambiguous ending. The tragic fall of a noble king is witnessed, but there is no resolution. The grisly and haunting ending provokes contemplation rather than inspires outrage, and Behn relishes in her role in having told the epic tale. The novel begins and ends with her reminding the audience of her position as the Narrator and the arbitrator of whose stories are told. She has the power to construct a narrative and influence how the events she recounts are portrayed. Behn reclaims power in a seemingly hopeless and unjust situation; she uses a tragedy to breed inspiration, and persecution to highlight empowerment. The preservation of feigned ambivalence is what creates the purposeful gap for the audience’s guided interpretation.

The culmination of her efforts in writing Oroonoko is realized in Aphra Behn’s final lines when she concludes, ‘Thus died this great man, worthy of a better fate and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise. Yet, I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful and the constant Imoinda’ (Behn 77). As she reasserts herself, she elevates Imoinda along with her. The last image is not of the royal slave Oroonoko, but the dignified Imoinda. Behn did not display her empowerment explicitly for fear of being deemed radical but characterized her with a quiet internal strength and incorruptible integrity that is one of the only firm consistencies in the novel. This idealization is reminiscent of the Medieval courtly love literature that is the antecedent to the work of amatory fiction, but it less restrictive and more humanizing. Rather than superimposing standards of femininity onto female characters, Behn gives Imoinda personal convictions and a sense of poise, dignity, and autonomy. She is the one who suggests that Oroonoko slay her and her unborn child to spare them of the injustice and abasement of slavery. She chose when she lived and when she died, and she died retaining her beauty, an outward representation of her inner poise. Behn’s depiction of women in Oroonoko is often criticized as a placation to male readerships, but the purpose of indirect support of feminism is to subvert patriarchal ideals with outward denunciation; it is far too obvious. Literary critic Jacqueline Pearson discusses this tactic, explaining:

Oroonoko, for instance, has been seen as expressing ‘republican prejudices’, or as demonstrating a strong royalist viewpoint, or both. There is especially a lack of consensus on Behn’s treatment of gender: some critics find her a vigorous feminist, making ‘suffragette’ claims for women, while others argue that she compromised with a male-dominated literary establishment and that her work consequently displays a ‘masculine set of values’.

Aphra Behn’s moderate expression of her political and social beliefs is then qualified with her dramatic storytelling and foreboding imagery. As the narrator, she is ambivalent and yielding, but as the author, she makes her beliefs plain through the use of betrayal and usurpation of the African prince as a political allegory and repeated confirmation of her credibility and prowess as a writer. What appears to be agreeable enough on the surface is the burgeoning of a feminist narrative, the rallying cry for empowerment rumbling underneath. Behn knew opportunities were limited, so she chose not to pursue full upheaval, but took a brave and monumental step forward for the rights of women and their fight for equality.

There is a reason why abolitionists praised Oroonoko as an emancipation novel far beyond the time of its initial release. Certainly, Behn’s depiction of Oroonoko as a European man inside an African body was not considered progressive, but how she was able to convey the idea of putting aside qualities of marginalization and recognizing individual merit was the substance of revolution. Oroonoko has a second life in progressive moments because of the way the story was told. Behn was more concerned with how she wrote the story than what the story was about. She needed her controversial opinions to be broadcast without censorship, so she worked with the grain instead of against it to have her voice heard. A rhetorical analysis of her work reveals the longevity within it. She is considered a pioneer in the Women’s Suffrage movement far removed from its context because of the way she commanded attention to her works. Through intrigue and just a little bit of controversy, she was able to reach a wide audience and expose them to her opinions on discourse at the forefront of the European consciousness. With the Glorious Revolution towards the end of her life, she felt compelled to not only advocate for her staunch beliefs in royalism but in her desire for women like her to be laureled for the achievements and not devalued for their gender. She knew that the ‘reputation of [her] pen’ was ‘considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages’, despite what her false modesty may suggest. Aphra Behn was aware of her impact as an author; that is why she decided to write in the first place. Oroonoko is so persuasive because it is entertaining and imperceptibly progressive. To escape the margins, she narrated herself to the center.

Bibliography

  • Andrade, Susan Z. ‘White Skin, Black Masks: Colonialism and the Sexual Politics of Oroonoko.’ Cultural Critique, no. 27, 1994, pp. 189–214. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1354482.
  • Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko. Penguin Books, 2003.
  • Chibka, Robert L. ”Oh! Do Not Fear a Woman’s Invention’: Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 30, no. 4, 1988, pp. 510–537. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40754873.
  • Paxman, David. ‘Oral and Literate Discourse in Aphra Behn’s ‘Oroonoko.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, vol. 18, no. 2, 1994, pp. 88–103. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43293587.
  • Pearson, Jacqueline. ‘Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn.’ The Review of English Studies, vol. 42, no. 165, 1991, pp. 40–56. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/516920.
  • Rivero, Albert J. ‘Aphra Behn’s ‘Oroonoko’ and the ‘Blank Spaces’ of Colonial Fictions.’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 39, no. 3, 1999, pp. 443–462. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1556214.
  • Wezner, Kelley. ”Myself an Eyewitness’: The Imperial Gaze and Narration in ‘Oroonoko.” CEA Critic, vol. 71, no. 2, 2009, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44378383. 
16 December 2021

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