Violence and Awe

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


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).


Council Member Colonial Government Plantation Owner Physical Coercion Unresolved Tension 
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  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
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    Ernest Bernbaum, “Mrs. Behn’s Oroonoko.” In Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge (Boston: Ginn, 1913), 419–35.Google Scholar
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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

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