Oroonoko by Aphra Behn: Literary Review
Discuss the treatment of one of the following in the literature of this period: women; the poor; foreigners; the nobility.
There is a gradual progression of the treatment of women from the seventeenth century to the eighteenth century. In Oroonoko, Aphra Behn uses the discourse of slavery and differences in racial circles to demonstrate power structures, specifically relating to the oppression of women in seventeenth century England. The female narrator evidently has strong influences over the African Prince Oroonoko and has considerably more power than the other slaves, such as Imoinda. However, we see that contrary to her belief, her authority and influence only extend to the slaves and she is unable to stop the course of events carried out by the white colonists due to her essentially being female. Imoinda, on the other hand, being inferior not only because of her position as a black and a slave, but also because of her position as women is oppressed, confined, and thus objectified by the white colonists and the Coramantein King. In contrast, while the women in Francis Burney’s novel Evelina, are mostly persecuted by some of the men around them, and consistently deprived of power, Burney shows the women of eighteenth century England as almost being worshipped and through their sensibility they are seen to be somewhat better than the men in this discourse and their position is raised. However, through Mrs Selwyn, we see a negative shift in attitude towards women who did not conform to the ideals of sensibility.
The narrator has power over Oroonoko, evident when the white slave holders ask her to convince Oroonoko of his release at the general’s return. She successfully manages to get Oroonoko’s trust and he believes her, despite his suspicions of being ‘fed Day to Day with Promises’ . She convinces him to take several diversions such as hunting tigers, visiting the Surinam Indians with Imoinda and fishing. While, it is unclear the reason she uses her influence over Oroonoko to delay his uprising, she continuously detaches herself from the actions of the men of her society, despite her previous alignment with the dominant power, making it hard to tell if she is on Oroonoko’s side or the side of the white colonists. This is because, even though she does their bidding, she is unwilling to take responsibility for the actions of the men of her society. Referring to the men as ‘they’, the change in pronouns shows she does not believe herself to be part of them and places their actions separate to herself. She is unable to do anything about the situation, due to her sex, and as a woman, her only choice is to flee from the scene of action. She aligns herself with the Europeans saying ‘we were possess’d with extreme Fear’ and that she and the Europeans were afraid they would cut their throats, however it was while she was away, ‘they acted this cruelty’ . This continuous shift in pronouns shows her powerlessness and when there is open conflict she considers herself a member of colonial society. However by separating herself from the brutality of the white colonists, she doesn’t have to take responsibility as she is clearly aligning herself with the powerless members of society, showing that ‘Behn’s narrator identifies with the fate of a black slave because she sees his powerlessness as homologous with her own’ ; thus contradicting her previous statement of power and authority. Behn shows the narrators denial about her power when she later claims that had she been there she would have prevented it. This however is untrue, and we see that she has an illusion of having high status, because while she may be given the outward respect and status of power, when she is needed and the moment for her to exercise her power appears, she is unable to execute her claims of authority. Therefore, we come to the understanding that in the face of a crisis, it is the men who have the real power; she would not have been able to stop the killing of Oroonoko and arguably she would have become a helpless spectator, because of her femininity. In this way, the narrator takes a position where she is able to observe and record events of the novel, with no actual power of stopping or starting these events.
Throughout much of the novel, Imoinda has little opportunity to control her own destiny. She is not given the choice or refusal of marriage, and due to this she inhabits a very passive role within the novel. Imoinda is described as a black beauty, a most charming thing that the Coramantien King had ever seen in all his years, and it is this beauty that causes her to be objectified in almost every way, by almost all the male characters she comes across. She at once ‘remains alien, remote and largely silent. Doubly oppressed, Imoinda is an emblem of both sexual and racial otherness’ . At the start of the narrative, we see Imoinda being possessed by the African King, because he desires her and he uses his power as King to make her his wife, using the royal viel. In African culture, it was common for women to be claimed by marriage or commandeered as royal property. Imoinda is unable to refuse this offer of marriage by her King, and we see her double enslavement first by the king and then by the white slave holders. The fact that Imoinda had no choice in the matter of marriage shows the inferiority of her position, as she is not given choice, highlighting her inability to control her fate. The only power Imoinda seems to have is the power to not submit sexually to the King, and we see her exercise this small power she has. In this way while the king does possess Imoinda’s body, he is unable to possess her sexually. Imoinda further exercises the small amount of power she has by choosing to make love to Oroonoko, somewhat controlling her fate.
‘The ideal love between Imoinda and Oroonoko becomes symbolic of the inequality of the power relations between men and women’ . In order to protect Imoinda from possible punishment, Oroonoko kills her with the intention to kill the white colonist next. His killing of her is justified by him not wanting her to be assaulted by the white men, believing that he is protecting her virtue. It is this ownership that he has over Imoinda sexually that allows for him to carry out this task. However, Imoinda is not depicted as being helpless during this as Behn shows the bravery in Imoinda’s character. It is Imoinda who suggests being killed by Oroonoko’s hands before he has a chance to make this offer. On the other hand, Imoinda wouldn’t have said no to Oronooko’s suggestion, because as his wife she would have been obedient to his desires. Behn equips Imoinda with masculine characteristics several times in the story, showing that while Imoinda has little power she still tries to take control whenever she gets a chance. Here, she chooses to have a notable death rather than facing the possibility of a brutal rape and murder, which would dishonour her. Another point in which Imoinda is depicted as a powerful women is when the uprising occurs, and the other slave females are put in the rear of the male slaves with the children, Imoinda whilst heavily pregnant draws her arrow and stands fearless beside her husband, successfully injuring the general.
In contrast, Francis Burney does not equip her heroine with fearless characteristics, instead the qualities valued and rewarded in women of the eighteenth century were chastity, passivity and fragility; all of which are attributes of sensibility and which Evelina possess. Evelina has a high sense of passivity throughout the novel and even in the face of danger takes on a more passive role, choosing to wait for another individual to save her. In this case, she relies on Sir Clement to save her from a group of drunk men, only then to make unwanted advances that make Evelina uncomfortable. We see how Sir Clement takes advantage of his dominance over Evelina, and interestingly several of the men in the novel exercise their authority over Evelina, for instance Mr Orville and Mr Villars who is Evelina’s guardian. However, Burney shows their dominance to be positive, rather than negative as it allows Evelina to grow and mature in a protected atmosphere. Evelina is consistently open to attack, because in terms of sensibility she was raised to be passive, and essentially a perfect woman. ‘The ideal women was an essentially passive creature, her power was not in action but in influence. Her virtues consisted primarily of negatives: she did not contradict or complain; she did not attract undue attention; and most important of all, she did not make selfish demands’ .
Indeed, we see that Evelina does possess all these negative characteristics towards the end of the novel, however, at the beginning Evelina voices her true opinions and exercises free will over her actions. For instance when she first goes to the ball, she notes that the ‘gentlemen, as they passed and repassed looked as if they thought we were quite at their disposal, and only waiting for the honour of their commands’ . She does not seem to like how the men are the ones who are given the power to choice, she appears to understand and shows a resentment towards the rules at the ball which place women in a power of weaker position. The fact that she refuses to dance with Mr Lovel and then accepts a dance with Mr Orville show her desire to be given the choice to pick her own dancing partner, thus making her equal to the men. However, this is because she wasn’t aware of the fundamental rules of courtship and the ‘impropriety of refusing one partner and afterwards accepting another’ . Another point in the novel in which Evelina doesn’t conform to sensibility is when she is unable to control her laughter at Mr Lovel. As the novel progresses, Burney’s heroine ‘becomes more and more unwilling to voice her opinions, much less laugh, out loud’ .
Burney’s Mrs Selwyn is an example of women who challenge the rules of conduct, and mock the male authority. She can be described as a female trickster who is ‘the polar opposite of an angel, she wilfully violates codes of female behaviour, and above all, she laughs’. Evelina describes Mrs Selwyn as having an understanding that can be called masculine and that her acquiring knowledge about men has caused her to lose her softness. Mrs Selwyn isn’t described in a negative way, and her disputes with the gentlemen who say they have an aversion to strength in a female usually end with her having the last laugh. She is able to mock the masculine authority in a way that Evelina is not able to, and she unlike the other female characters doesn’t possess the delicate characteristics they do. Yet, she is still portrayed as a strong and positive female character.
The women in Oroonoko are depicted inferior to men, as even though they are working within different circles, both females are left in the outside of decision making. While Imoinda’s power structure with Oroonoko is one of loving and choice, she allows Oroonoko to lead and accepts that he is the man, the narrator has power over the slaves, however she is still placed lower to the white men who are at the top. Similarly, the women in Evelina are inferior to the men, but their inferiority is not depicted negatively and Burney allows for the creation of a strong female in Mrs Selwyn whose understanding and reason aren’t deficient.
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