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Violence and Awe

The Foundations of Government in Aphra Behn’s New World Settings
  • Richard Frohock

Abstract

A prolific and successful poet, playwright, and novelist, Aphra Behn (1640–1689) holds the distinction of being the first English woman to earn a living off the proceeds of her writing. Her popularity among her contemporaries carried over into the eighteenth century, and her collected works went through eight editions by 1735. Behn’s prose works eventually fell out of favor with scholars—the writer of the entry on Behn in the Dictionary of National Biography calls her prose works “decidedly less meritorious than her drama and the best of her poems.” Yet, this judgment obscures the fact that it was Behn’s Oroonoko, a novella, that contributed more than any other single work to the formation of her literary reputation among her contemporaries. (The renown of Behn’s Oroonoko increased in 1695 when it was transformed into a successful play by Thomas Southerner.) In recent decades, Behn’s Oroonoko has once again become popular with readers, and has generated a new body of criticism and scholarship. An indication of Oroonoko’s success with today’s readers and its increasing status in the canon of English literature is its recent inclusion in the sixth edition of the Norton Anthology of British Literature (Vol. I).

Keywords

Council Member Colonial Government Plantation Owner Physical Coercion Unresolved Tension 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    Aphra Behn, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave. Edited by Lore Metzger (New York: Norton, 1973), 1. Parenthetical references are to this edition.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Ernest Bernbaum, “Mrs. Behn’s Oroonoko.” In Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn, 1913), 419–35.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Maureen Duffy, The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn, 1640–89 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977), 30–41; Angeline Goreau, Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn (New York: Dial Press, 1980), 41–69; and Janet Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 35–66.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    George Guffey, “Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Occasion and Accomplishment.” In George Guffey and Andrew Wright’s Two English Novelists: Aphra Behn and Anthony Trollope (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), 1–41. Guffey argues that “Behn makes a strong argument for the absolute power of legitimate kings, and that, through a series of parallels between James and the mistreated royal slave Oroonoko, she attempts to gain the sympathy of her reader for James (16–17). Maureen Duffy further explores this link, arguing that emotionally Oroonoko, Imoinda, and the unborn child are James II, Mary, and an unborn child. See The Passionate Shepherdess, 275.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Call for such political readings can be found in the introduction to The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature. Edited by Laura Brown and Felicity Nussbaum. (New York: Methuen, 1987), ii; the introduction to Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. Edited by Heidi Hutner (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), iii–iv, vi; and Laura Brown’s Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 26–27.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    John Locke, Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 2: 1.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Anita Pacheco, in “Royalism and Honor in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” SEL: Studies in English Literature 34 (1994): 491–506, gives a cogent account of the royalism that is forwarded in Behn’s novella, but that never achieves “ideological closure” (491). My work parallels Pacheco’s in asserting that the royalism Behn promotes in the novel is riddled with tension. Brown also identifies the combination of aristocratic and bourgeois systems as the “ideological contradiction which dominates the novella” (Ends of Empire, 48).Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    Similarly, Captain John Smith reports trading pins, needles, and beads for berries, bread, and fish in A True Relation of… Virginia, The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631). Vol. 1. Edited by Philip L. Barbour (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 23–108.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Robert L. Chibka discusses how the Caribs are subordinated and made subhuman in “‘Oh Do Not Fear a Woman’s Invention’: Truth, Falsehood, and Fiction in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30:4 (1988), 516.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    There has been much dispute about Behn’s attitude toward slavery. See Pacheco; Hutner (1); Charlotte Sussman, “The Other Problem with Women: Reproduction and Slave Culture in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” In Hutner, Rereading Aphra Behn, 217; Moira Ferguson, Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670–1834 (New York: Routledge, 1992), 27–49.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    Aphra Behn, The Widow Ranter: or, The History of Bacon in Virginia. Edited by Aaron R. Waiden (New York: Garland, 1993), 88. Parenthetical references are to this edition.Google Scholar
  12. 19.
    Michael McKeon, Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 178.Google Scholar
  13. 20.
    Since Brown first treated the subject in “The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves” (chapter 2, Ends of Empire) several critics have considered the politics of race and gender in Oroonoko. See Stephanie Athey and Daniel Cooper Alarcon, “Oroonoko’s Gendered Economies of Honor/Horror: Reframing Colonial Discourse Studies in the Americas.” American Literature 65:3 (September 1993): 415–443; Ros Ballaster, “New Hystericism: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: the Body, the Text, and the Feminist Critic.” In New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts. Edited by Isobel Armstrong (New York: Roudedge, 1992), 283–295; and Margaret W. Ferguson, “Juggling the Categories of Race, Class and Gender: Aphra Behn’s OroonokoWomen’s Studies 19 (1991): 159–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 21.
    See Guffey; Pacheco; Margaret W. Ferguson; Wylie Sypher, Guinea’s Captive Kings: British Anti-Slavery Literature of the Eighteenth Century (New York: Octagon Books, 1969), 108–116; and Moira Ferguson, 27–38.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    Guffey makes the important point that though the historical Byam was a royalist, in Behn’s novel “he is over and over identified with the rabble” (34). Pacheco also observes that historically Byam and Banister were “high royalist officials,” but in the narrative Behn works to associate them with the lower class. See Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Phyllis Shand Allfrey: A Caribbean Life (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 6–7, for an overview of the history of Byam’s activities in the Caribbean.Google Scholar
  16. 26.
    Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992), 50.Google Scholar
  17. 27.
    Stephen Greenblatt discusses Columbus’s rhetorical use of wonder “as a redemptive, aestheticizing supplement to a deeply flawed legal ritual of appropriation” in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 28.
    Eric Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from “The Tempest” to “Tarzan” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 64–65, 79.Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    Edmund Burke, An Account of European Settlements in America. 2 vols. 3rd ed. (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1760), 59.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    This discussion of the fictions imposed on the Native Americans through technology is indebted to Stephen Greenblatt’s discussion of Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia in “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 18–47, esp. 18–25. Greenblatt argues that the subversive elements in Harriot’s narration are almost entirely contained; in Behn’s text, however, I find that the subversive doubt raised is never effectively contained.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Frohock

There are no affiliations available

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