The Use of the Fantasy Genre in Behn’s The Rover and More’s Utopia

February 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Aphra Behn’s The Rover are two vastly different works of literature that focus on different matters: More’s work is a political document, while Behn’s can be categorized as more of a social one. While the two works in themselves are quite different, both of these authors employ a similar form to shape their work around in order to promote serious issues within their respective writings, with More utilizing the fantasy-like trope of utopia to offer themes evocative of socialism, and Behn using a similar fantasy-like structure of Carnival to challenge the social role of women at the time. By using these fantasy genres, More and Behn are able to test the accepted political and social realities of the era and replace them with hugely radical concepts, all without their work being perceived as threatening because of the “loophole” that the fantasy genre creates. Through an analysis of both works, it is clear that both authors would not have been able to pose these ideas without using the scope of fantasy to mask the seriousness and controversy of these novel issues: Utopia is a primitive socialist document that presents a property-less and classless society during one of the most centralized and hierarchical political situations in history, while The Rover vastly shakes up the status of women by allowing its female characters to choose their own fates, also presented during a time in which women essentially had no political rights and little social freedom. At the time More composed Utopia, Europe’s political systems were rooted in monarchial trends, or small deviations thereof, and class systems were highly hierarchical and immobile—generally, a person’s social and political status were based on which class he was born into and how much property he owned. The fantasy island of Utopia presented in More’s book, however, completely abandons these political realities and replaces them with concepts suggestive of a socialist society—shared land and no private property, no social class lines, and shared labor—completely radical ideas during a time when monarchies still dominated political Europe. However, because More presents these radical ideas within the scope of a description of a fantasy island, the seriousness and danger they could potentially pose become mitigated. For example, with terms such as “aircastle,” “happiland,” and “nowater,” used to name places found within Utopia, it is evident that Utopia is being presented within a fantasy realm, not as a scathing political commentary.Throughout Utopia, communist ideas are nestled between Raphael’s elaborate descriptions of the fantasy island of Utopia. Again though, because the book is structured around the concept of a fantasy-like place, and thus is perceived as a hypothetical “this is how it could be,” rather than a blatant statement from More as “this is how it should be,” the socialist tone is therefore greatly alleviated and not considered dangerous to the political structure at the time. For example, while describing working conditions in Utopia, the character Raphael is simultaneously highlighting the socialist tenet of shared labor. Raphael states, “… Each year twenty people from each house go back to town, having done two years in the country, and are replaced by twenty others. These new recruits are then taught farming by the ones who’ve had a year on the land already and so know more about the job. . . This system reduces the risk of food shortages. . . Two years is the normal period of work on the land, so that no one’s forced to rough it for too long. . .” (More, 51) and later when he says “… wherever you are, you always have to work” (More 65). This concept of an entire population sharing in the same labor duties is highly characteristic of a government rooted in socialism, and though More’s book was written during a time of political turmoil, the overarching trend was still one of strict division of labor and class. Again, though, because these concepts are being brought forth within the discussion of a fantasy island, they are technically not meant to be taken as suggestive, and rather as mere descriptions of a “perfect” place, far away from the reader. The concept of shared labor is again focused on when Raphael explains how all Utopians have a six hour work day, and additionally when he says, “And now for their working conditions. Well, there’s one job they all do, irrespective of sex, and that’s farming” (More, 55). This idea of every person not only doing work, but doing the same kind of work was radically different from the current policies of More’s Europe, as farming work was relied on by only the peasants, and the noble and ruling classes at the time partaking in little to no work at all. Raphael actually speaks of this reality in the lines, “They don’t wear people out though… that’s just slavery—and yet that’s what life is like for the working classes nearly everywhere else in the world” (More 56). Though Raphael’s descriptions appear socialist in theory, because they are being applied to describe another place, not being out forth as a potential system for the current place, readers can see how More’s trope of utopia is a success in that his book is able to offer these radical ideas without More himself looking radical and or dangerous.In addition to the idea of shared labor, Utopia also presents the idea of the abolishment of private property and instead the concept of shared land between the nation, and the abolishment of social class division. For example, when describing Utopian homes Raphael states, “In both cases they’re double sing-doors, which open at a touch, and close automatically behind you. So anyone can go in and out—for there’s no such thing as private property. The houses themselves are allocated by lot, and changed round every ten years” (More 53). During a time in history when a man was essentially nothing without property, this was an extremely radical idea used to categorize a nation. Again the concept of shared land and no class division is highlighted when Raphael describes a typical dining experience in Utopia: everybody eats together and shares the food. According to Raphael, it’s actually “considered rather bad form” (More 62) to not eat in the dining hall with the rest of society. This concept of sharing that binds Utopia is especially prevalent in descriptions of social class. For instance, this idea is expressed quite unequivocally by Raphael when he says, “Under such a system, there’s bound to be plenty of everything, and as everything is divided equally among the entire population, there obviously can’t be any poor people or beggars” (More 65). Again Raphael focuses on the fact that Utopians are not divided by social class and that no one has more or looks richer than another—a defining feature of European society at the time. Raphael states, “You see, from the Utopian’ point of view—apart from the few who’d had occasion to go abroad—all of that splendor was merely degrading. . . . The Utopians fail to understand. . . how anyone can be silly enough to think himself better than other people, because his clothes are made of finer woolen thread than theirs” (More 68-69). The idea of a classless society was something that Europeans at the time would have been completely unfamiliar with, as it was custom for the nobility to act and dress as such, and for peasants to do the same for their respective role. Social class was highly hierarchical and immobile in the 1500’s, which is another reason why the concepts of a classless society reflected in More’s Utopia could appear as controversial. More’s decision to present these ideas, regardless of whether he endorsed them or not, within the scope of a fantasy island, though, is a key tactic in their success in having an effect on readers. While on the outside More’s document appears nothing more than an optimistic sci-fi novel, the fact that it is seen as “only fantasy” enables serious political issues to simultaneously surface—issues so radical at the time that they could not have been published outside of the realm of “utopia.”The Rover, is quite similar to More’s Utopia in its use of a fantasy-type setting—in Behn’s case, carnival—to enable the discussion of a radical idea. Through Behn’s use of the setting of carnival in her play, her female characters are both enabled and granted a wish unheard of at the time: a woman’s ability to choose her own marital fate, rather than having it determined by a male. During the time Behn’s play was composed, women not only had no political rights, but also were unable to make personal decisions, such as who one wanted to marry, as it was predetermined by a paternal figure. This situation was no different for two of the women in The Rover; Hellena was assigned to enter a nunnery, pursuant to her brother’s wishes, and her sister Florinda was also arranged to marry a man she had no interest in rather than the one she loved, again based on her brother’s and father’s wishes. At the beginning of the play, these two outspoken women both express their strong will to make the decision of what they want and who they want to be with for themselves, rather than falling victim to the voice of a male figure. Florinda voices her distaste in following her brother’s orders and marrying the man he or her father had selected for her stating, “With indignation; and how near soever my father thinks I am marrying that hated object, I shall let him see I understand better what’s due to my beauty, birth and fortune, and more to my soul, than to obey those unjust commands” (Behn I.i.20-24). This line allows readers to see immediately that Florinda has a strong will, yet is at the mercy of a patriarchal social structure at the time. Likewise, her sister Hellena also expresses this same will in her resistance to enter a nunnery as her brother had commanded and her sympathy for her sister’s similar situation. Hellena says, “Is’t not enough you make a nun of me, but you must cast my sister away too, exposing her to a worse confinement than a religious life?” (Behn I.i.90-92). The exchange between Hellena, Florinda and their brother Pedro at the beginning of the play help to demonstrate the accepted social hierarchy in regard to women at the time, but also the extraordinary will that Hellena and Florinda possess to defy it. For example, when Hellena is protesting her brother’s plans for her to become a nun, he becomes irritated at her indignation and tells the maid to “lock her up all this Carnival, and at Lent she shall begin her everlasting penance in a monastery” (Behn I.i.136-137). With this comment though, Hellena has an equally as strong reaction, stating, “I care not; I had rather be a nun than be obliged to marry as you would have me, if I were designed for’t” (Behn I.i.137-138). Pedro reasserts his command, insisting that Hellena will become a nun as he had planned, but again Hellena objects and exposes her willful personality and wishes, sarcastically saying, “Shall I so [become a nun]? You may chance to be mistaken in my way of devotion. A nun! I am like to make a fine nun! I have an excellent humour for a grate” (Behn I.i. 140-143). Through witnessing this exchange at the beginning of the play, readers are not only able to view the typical social structure at the time, one in which a man’s word prevails, but also can see the will of Hellena and Florinda to rebel against it. With the introduction of Carnival and with it the ability to wander the streets in masquerade, though, this key plot technique that Behn introduces allows both Hellena and Florinda to temporarily escape and reverse this social hierarchy. “What, go in masquerade? ‘Twill be a fine farewell to the world, I take it. . .” (Behn I.i.171-172), the maid exclaims. Through Behn’s use of Carnival, both women are indeed able to say farewell to the world as they see it, and, more importantly, this radical social reversal is also looked upon as a situation that is actually plausible under this fantasy-like trope as well.For example, the minute Florinda and Hellena put on their Carnival masks, both girls are able to escape their social realities, as Hellena playfully flirts with men on the street, and Florinda is able to finally take action and find Belville, the man whom she wants to marry, against her brother’s will. In disguise, Florinda is able to write to Belville, in hopes that they can sneak away undetected and elope. Belville states, “See how kindly she invites me to deliver her from the threatened violence of her brother. . .” (Behn I.ii. 249-250). These disguised transactions between Florinda and Belville and between Hellena and any male figure at all could not have occurred without the setting of Carnival; not only does it greatly contribute to the plot of the play, but it also is an agent in Behn’s reversal of accepted social patterns. For instance, because Florinda’s brother did not approve of Belville, in a normal situation she would have been unable to have communication with him; with Carnival and masquerade, though, avoiding the social realities for these two characters becomes attainable, and for the first time they are able to take action in their own right.Though most of The Rover consists of the comedic actions and consequences of masks mixed with male hormones as a result of the celebration of Carnival, the play’s most significant and serious issue of this interrupted social hierarchy that had permitted Hellena and Florinda to be with men they had chosen is resolved quite interestingly at the end of the play when Carnival has come to a close and the masks have been removed. By using Carnival as an agent, Florinda and Belville are finally able to get married, albeit behind Pedro’s back, yet the fact that for the first time Florinda is able to make a decision based on what she wants, rather than what her brother wants, even in the absence of Carnival, is highly significant. Though Carnival allowed for the circumstances in which this marriage could take place, the marriage’s success in the end actually makes permanent what was originally perceived as a “temporary” reversal of this social order, sending a quite radical message in the success that occurs through a woman’s freedom to choose her own fate. Florinda highlights this freedom in offering advice to another man, stating, “. . . follow the example of your friend, in marrying a maid that does not hate you, and whose fortune, I believe, will not be unwelcome to you” (Behn V.i.165-167). Though this does not seem like a dangerous or harmful concept, at the time the play was composed, freedom, in any scope of life for women, was not something that was frequently heard of or accepted. Behn’s decision to use Carnival to allow this situation to both occur, and then be resolved to the benefit of Florinda, in the end, allows for a serious social proposition to occur within the scope of this comedy.The ending of The Rover also is resolved on a positive note and to the benefit of Hellena’s wishes after Carnival is over, another example of the solidification of the reversal of the assumed social roles that Carnival permitted. For example, though Willmore is not interested in marriage, and instead pleads with Hellena to “return to [his] chamber,” (Behn V.i. 436-437) Hellena is steadfast in her desire to become married, responding to Willmore’s request with “. . . let but the old gaffer Hymen and his priest say amen to’t” (Behn V.i. 441-442). When the crisis is resolved, however, it is Hellena, the woman, not Willmore, who gets her wishes granted as Willmore agrees to marriage. Moreover, even when Pedro learns that Hellena has deceived him, the marriage still proceeds, yet again highlighting the notion of a woman’s will trumping a male’s plans. This concept is evident when Pedro says to Hellena, “This was your plot, mistress, but I hope you have married one that will revenge my quarrel to you” (Behn V.i. 535-536), willfully allowing Hellena to go forth with what she wanted, rather than what he wanted for her. As the play draws to a close, it ends on a discussion of the power of a woman’s will: a power that was enabled through Behn’s use of the celebration of Carnival in the plot, yet ended up outlasting Carnival as well. Even after the theatrics that the celebration had brought had drawn to a close, both Florinda and Hellena were still able to go through with their plans to marry men that they chose, not men that were chosen for them by their father or brother. The strong will of these two characters is summed up at the conclusion of the play when Valeria states, “There’s no altering destiny, sir,” and Pedro, for the first time, recognizing the will and desire of his sisters, responds, “Sooner than a woman’s will: therefore I forgive you all, and wish you may get my father’s pardon as easily, which I fear” (Behn V.i. 537-539). This statement of the desire of a woman to follow the path that she so chooses, is, again, a radical concept during this conservative era, but by being placed within the scope of a comedy, and more significantly within the light-hearted celebration of Carnival, Behn, like More, is able to send a very radical message without appearing radical herself. Carnival takes the “blame” for many of the circumstances and events that occurred, yet in the end, Hellena and Florinda are both able to override their brother and his representation of the patriarchal society at the time and instead follow their own will and plans, Florinda marries Belville, the man she loves, and not only does Hellena not have to enter a nunnery, but she too is able to marry a man she has chosen for herself.To a modern reader, the issues raised in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Aphra Behn’s The Rover—namely More’s description of a society rooted in socialism and Behn’s female characters trumping defined social patterns and expectations set by its patriarchal society—do not appear to be at all radical or threatening, but when put into the context of an extremely centralized government and hierarchical social order in More’s case, and a patriarchal dominated society in Behn’s, the respective ideas that their plays raise appear much more controversial. However, by placing these ideas within the realm of “fantasy,” through More’s island of Utopia, and Behn’s masquerade of Carnival, the ideas themselves become far less radical—these ideas are rooted in fantasy-like worlds, and thus do not appear to be a threat to the “real world order” of the time. Through More and Behn’s tactic of using fantasy settings to bring to light very real matters, both of these authors successfully allow for readers to interpret serious issues that in these eras would have been near impossible to raise outside of a world of fantasy.

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