It’s been a
slow snow slow day – unless you were a New York City public school student, in which case I’m sorry – so here’s another little something about Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1678) from the archives to fill the shelf. The novel recounts the life of the title character, an African king sold into slavery and shipped off to Suriname with his lover, Imoinda. But all of this is refracted through the eyes of Oroonoko‘s speaker, a white Englishwoman who witnesses the “royal slave’s” life in captivity in the West Indies (if I remember correctly). So how does her position – racial, political, and gendered – affect the way things ‘unfold?’
Click the jump to find out – and if you’re concerned about any spoilers, read that free online version I’ve given you (it’s short, I swear)!
“But [Caesar’s] Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his Fame…”
So laments the female narrator of Oroonoko as she observes that her status as a woman writer will do little, if anything, to secure the place of the title character (having just been re-christened as “Caesar”) in history. Indeed, the tension between the narrator’s authority as a recorder of truthful history and her gender is one that pervades Aphra Behn’s text and compels the reader to question how much worth should be given to a woman’s words. Yet the author shapes her narrator’s account in such a way as to largely evade the issue altogether (the aforementioned quote being a notable exception). Indeed, the narrator masks her assumed inferiority as a ‘woman writer’ by manipulating her readers’ expectations and by using her political status – as a British colonial and as a Royalist – to defend her “right to write.” By exploiting the emotional sensibilities of that same sector of the British populace, Oroonoko’s narrator subverts the issue of gender superiority altogether in order to stamp her authority as the scribe, editor, and arranger of her text.
Almost from the very outset of the text, Behn’s narrator assumes power by simultaneously asserting the validity of her account and purposely selecting the events she wishes to relay to her readers. After declaring that she intends to present a “History of the Royal Slave,” she writes:
I was myself an Eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down; and what I cou’d not be Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero [Oroonoko] himself…And though I shall omit, for brevity’s sake, a thousand little Accidents of his life, which, however pleasant to us, where History was scarce, and Adventures very rare, yet might prove tedious and heavy to my Reader, in a World where he finds Diversions for every Minute, new and strange.
This passage reveals the nature of the struggle that the narrator must contend with in portraying a reliable account while defending her position of authority. Beginning with her claim to be both “Eye-witness” and direct recipient of information from “the Hero himself,” she aligns herself with a truth that, presumably, is not to be contested – after all, the reader is to expect a “History” as opposed to “Adventures of a feign’d Hero.” But the narrator quickly decides to filter this wealth of information at her disposal, selectively omitting “a thousand little Accidents” both for “brevity’s sake” and for fear that these “Accidents…might prove tedious and heavy to [her] Reader.” Thus she immediately establishes considerable distance between the “Reader” and the plot, and it becomes clear that we are no more than secondary observers to a series of events that are being relayed to us.
While this distance is self-evident and expected for any mode of historical narrative, it becomes especially powerful – and complicating – when the narrator cites the potential tedium and heaviness of the omitted “Accidents,” as well as the claim that the “Reader” is subject to “Diversions for every Minute, new and strange.” The use of the word “Diversions” almost ironically draws attention to itself, as it forces us as readers to consider how much of the text is to be believed. Indeed, the narrator plays on the aforementioned tedium of the omitted “Accidents” and the need to delete them for “brevity’s sake” to assuage her reader’s doubts over her position as a primary source. This exploitation of the reader’s emotions, as well as the inclination for “Diversions for every Minute,” demonstrates her craft for controlling and compelling her audience, and thus she immediately establishes a stance of control and authority. Even more notably, all of this is achieved without any explicit mention or suggestion, as yet, of the narrator’s gender.
With Oroonoko’s narrator having used her audience’s expectations to define and assume authority as a writer, she proceeds to strengthen her position by citing her social stature. This defense – which follows her father’s death – is made explicit in a lengthy passage that sheds light on her lineage, background, and politics:
My stay was to be short in [Suriname]; because my Father dy’d at Sea, and never arriv’d to possess the Honour design’d him, (which was Lieutenant-General of six and thirty Islands…) nor the Advantages he hop’d to reap by them…Though, in a word, I must say thus much of it; that certainly had his late Majesty, of sacred Memory, but seen and known what a vast and charming World he had been Master of in that Continent, he would never have parted so easily with it to the Dutch…
Here we see the externalized factors that define the narrator’s authority as a writer: namely, that she is the daughter of a man set to be named “Lieutenant-General” of a number of territories, and that she is thus educated and recognized as a woman of position. The nature of the language of this passage is also indicative of her high status – for instance, she is bold enough to inject her own judgment on British colonial policy in Suriname, and very nearly chastises the “late Majesty” for ceding the colony “so easily” to the Dutch (she manages to soften the criticism with the appositive “of sacred Memory”). The confidence in her political discourse sets the stage for a vivid description of Suriname’s environment rich resources: among other things, she praises the land as being of “more noble Earth than all the Universe beside…It affords all things both for Beauty and Use; ‘tis there eternal Spring…Groves of Oranges, Lemons, Citrons, Figs, Nutmegs…” This catalog of Suriname’s “wonders” conveys both the narrator’s deep understanding of and her passionate argument for the benefits of British colonialism – two ideas that likely would not have been expected of a woman writer of Behn’s era. Yet again, it is this exploitation of her readers’ expectations that allows Oroonoko’s narrator to subvert her supposed inferiority as a “woman writer,” using selective rhetoric and assertive judgment to keep her audience in check.
As if to stave off any final doubts about her authority to write, the narrator describes her lavish house in Suriname in rhetoric that elevates her socially:
As soon as I came into the Country, the best House in it was presented me, call’d St. John’s Hill: It stood on a vast Rock of white Marble, at the foot of which the River ran a vast depth down…On the edge of this white Rock, towards the River, was a Walk or Grove of Orange and Lemon-Trees, about half the length of the Mall here [in London]…and sure, the whole Globe of the World cannot shew so delightful a Place as this Grove was…”
Although her rhetoric here is clearly hyperbolical, the narrator nonetheless paints the scene in terms that present her as a ‘goddess’ inhabiting what may very well be a resurrection of Eden. The positioning of the house on “St. John’s Hill,” described as a “vast Rock of white Marble,” conveys images not only of the narrator’s own elevated status and stature, but also of the superiority of the Christian, European whites over the natives and slaves that the former hold control over. Thus the narrator is explicitly aligning herself with a race that has proclaimed itself to be physically and morally superior over the races that it commands. Power is in full display in this scene from so many different angles – topographical, theological, and social – to the extent that it would be difficult to distance this “woman writer” from the people she associates herself with. Indeed, this passage gives strength to the narrator’s position as a woman, to the extent that she portrays herself as a demigoddess. This self-deification is suggested in her final comment that not even the “whole Globe of the World” can display the full beauty and splendor of her house and its setting. A globe or map may not be able to express how majestic the narrator’s surroundings are, but it appears that her words can assume most (if not all) of that power.
Throughout the course of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, then, the female narrator deftly mounts a defense for her ‘gendered’ writing by drawing and capitalizing upon the expectations of a Royalist, pro-imperial British public. Her deliberate manipulation of language, observation, knowledge, and judgment allow her to take full control of a text that plays to, seizes upon, and defies her readers’ sympathies while simultaneously giving her further justification for her right as an educated, confident, and aristocratic Englishwoman to write a historical account of the text’s eponymous “Royal Slave.” Given, then, the extent to which Behn’s narrator manages to exert her social, political, and rhetorical authority, the issue of whether or not her words are valuable should, perhaps, shift to another matter altogether: Namely, what is it about us (as a ‘unified reading public’ spanning the Restoration through the present) that has largely made Behn, her Oroonoko, and its narrator suffer the “Misfortune” of drifting into “an obscure World, that afford[s] only a Female Pen to celebrate [all three parties’] fame?”
This essay was adapted from a paper written in 2011 by the author (Chris Chan, myself) and may not be reprinted elsewhere without his (my) permission.