Search

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Absent Female Narrator in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko

          Oroonoko(1688) tells the story of a young Coramantien prince who is sold into slavery. Oroonoko, the prince, is a successful military leader trained by Imoinda’s father. Imoinda’s father saves Oroonoko’s life by taking an arrow to the eye, and after this heroic act Oroonoko becomes general. Oroonoko meets Imoinda for the first time when he goes back to the court, and he falls in love immediately. The two marry, but shortly after, and before consummation, Oroonoko’s grandfather sends Imoinda a royal veil. She must leave Oroonoko to become one of the king’s concubines. Oroonoko and Imoinda communicate secretly, and he sneaks into her quarters to consummate their union. The king, suspicious that something is happening, sells Imoinda into slavery while Oroonoko fights on the battlefield, but he tells Oroonoko that she has been killed. The news devastates the warrior, but he rouses himself in order to lead his troops to a victory. He, and one hundred of his men, are received as royal guests on an English sea captain’s boat, but once on board they realize they’ve been tricked and they will be sold into slavery. 
            Oroonoko winds up in Surinam, where he is sold to a slave-owner named Trefry. Trefry treats Oroonoko kindly, and unwittingly reunites Oroonoko with Imoinda—now Clemene. The reunion fills them with joy, and it’s not long before they conceive a child. Trefry continually ensures Oroonoko—now Caesar—that he will free him, but with a child on the way Oroonoko begins to grow restless and suspicious of this promise. When his restlessness reaches its peak Oroonoko leads a slave revolt. The colonists catch them and the slaves are convinced to surrender after Deputy Governor Byam agrees to fulfill Oroonoko’s demands. Byam breaks the agreement immediately, and Oroonoko realizes that they will never know freedom again. 

            Oroonoko vows revenge on Byam. Oroonoko realizes that his need for revenge may cost him his life, so, with her blessing, he murders Imoinda and their baby for their own safety. Unfortunately, the plan for revenge gets pushed to the wayside when Oroonoko is overcome by grief. He lays next to her corpse for days, before the colonists find him and rescue him against his will. Eventually Byam gets ahold of Oroonoko, and the royal slave is tied up and dismembered. His remains are distributed by Byam to the other slave-owners to use as an example to the other slaves. 
            Interestingly, the entire narrative is told to the reader by a third party. The unnamed, female narrator claims: 
I was myself an Eye-witness to a great Part of what you will find here set down; and what I could not be Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in the History, the Hero himself, who gave us the whole Transactions of his Youth: And I shall omit for Brevity’s Sake, a thousand little Accidents of his Life, which, however pleasant to us, where he finds Diversions for every Minute, new and strange. But we who were perfectly charm’d with the Character of this great Man, were curious to gather every Circumstance of his Life. (Behn 8)
Here, in the opening of the text, the narrator tells us that she will be relaying most of the story from the account of an eye witness, but it is important to note that not all of it is an eye witness account. She outright says that the parts of the story she did not witness herself were relayed to her directly from the mouth of the ‘hero’. So, although she is the authorial voice, she is providing a male ‘authorial’ presence to legitimize the tale. 
            Scholarship on Oroonoko consistently focuses on the role of Aphra Behn in the novel. She is the author of the text, but is she the narrator? It seems as if she did in fact go to Surinam in her youth[1], but details other than that are blurry at best. The argument over her potential role as the unnamed narrator of Oroonoko still occupies the minds of Behn scholars to this day. In fact, it seems that most scholars choose to align themselves strictly on a particular side when setting up their own arguments. For instance, Jacqueline Pearson, in “Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn,” opens her argument by stating that the narrator “is not coterminous with ‘Aphra Behn’” (112). Pearson, still in the opening of her essay, commends Behn for being “innovative and original,” but believes that Behn is “still a neglected writer” (111). She specifically mentions that, 
Many accounts of the rise of the novel ignore or understate her contribution: Ian Watt’s classic study, The Rise of the Novel, makes only two brief references, and even in a full-length study of Behn’s work, F.M. Link finds her fiction unoriginal and concludes that she ‘made no significant contribution to the development of the [novel] form’. (111)
The debate over Behn’s contribution to the rise of the novel is typically discussed alongside the textual form of Oroonoko—is it a novel or a novella? There are still hang-ups over Aphra Behn’s role in the narrative, and there are also hang-ups over where the text definitively fits based on its indeterminate form. 
            Despite debates over the unknown identity of the narrator in Oroonoko, it cannot be denied that Aphra Behn was at the frontlines in paving the way for the marginalized voice. She gives a voice to the female author and uses the subject of the racial other. In “Aphra Behn and the Female Plot,” Ros Ballaster surmises that Behn must have “recognized at an early age in her literary career that the roles of woman writer and political commentator were incompatible in the public mind.” He continues this thought, explaining that Behn must have realized “if she was to make her living by her writing and succeed in scoring political points for the Tory camp, she would not be able to do so directly” (190). With this in mind it is easy assume that Behn does, in fact, intend for her narrator to represent her. 
            The narrator, though, is conveniently missing at crucial moments in the text—the slave rebellion, the murder of Imoinda and her child, the torture of Oroonoko, and events in Ghana. These instances don’t necessarily paint the image of a brave individual, instead, they showcase instances of cowardice. Many studies have concluded that Oroonoko’s narrator empowers, and gives authority, to the marginalized female; but if you consider the narrator’s failures and absences, then the text takes on a different meaning. Many scholars have concerned themselves with the identity of the narrator, and how the identity influences the reading of Oroonoko.This paper will attempt to show that regardless of the narrator’s identity, the absence of the female narrator, in the most important moments of the text, is a failure of the marginalized voice to make a difference in the life of the racial other. Then, hopefully, this paper will provide readers, and critics, with a new lens with which to apply to their presupposition about the identity of the narrator. 
             Although Jacqueline Pearson states that Behn is “innovative and original,” in the same study on Behn’s work she claims, “the female sex of the narrator lends an authority to her accounts of women’s lives and natures, and reflects the empowering of women, or the mockery of men within the narratives” (112). Pearson discusses the narrators in all fourteen of Behn’s fictions, and it turns out that there are no definitively male narrators. Behn either obscures the gender of the narrator, implies that they are female, or outright says that they’re female. There is a pattern in the gender, as well as the actions of many of her narrators. Pearson examines the actions and arcs of all of Behn’s narrators, and concludes that Behn’s use of female narrators, simply put, “empowers” women and mocks men. In Oroonoko, though, the female narrator is a white colonist that possesses the power to help the main characters, but when the moments present themselves she flees the scene instead. 
            Where Pearson insists that Behn and the narrator are not coterminous, Douglas Northrop insists that they are. In “The Role of the Narrator in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko,” Northrop tells the reader that Behn actually “Insist[s] that we view the narrative in the context of her life” (15). He uses the same evidence that Pearson uses in her argument, but he uses it to defend his claim that the narrator and Behn are one in the same. In his argument, he states that this is the evidence that proves Behn is the narrator: “I was myself an Eye-witness… and what I could not be Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in the History, the Hero himself” (Behn 1). In this study, Nortrop treats Oroonokoas a true retelling of Behn’s experiences. He doesn’t consider the text to be a fiction or a counterfactual history, instead he states, “[Behn] is not claiming for herself imaginative powers or moral insight. This history will be a mere recital of facts” (15). He explains that her signing of the dedicatory epistle leaves no room to “wonder who the speaker can be when the narration begins” (15). He furthers his argument by explaining Behn was making a statement about being a female writer. He explains, “to be a writer was therefore to oppose this notion of what it was to be a woman” (18). For Northrop, Behn was absolutely synonymous with the narrator in Oroonoko, and he believes she did this in order to make a political statement about societal roles females were supposed to fit in to. 
            Similarly, to Northrop, Patricia Pender believes that Behn aligns herself with the narrator in Oroonoko. Pender, though, discusses the historicity of the text. She, too, looks at the opening page of the text, and she states that:
If the first paragraph of Oroonokocentres on a justification of the authority and authenticity of the child/text, the second attempts to establish Behn’s credentials as narrator, or guarantor, of this “True History.” The text’s claim to an epistemological and historical authenticity devolves onto Behn’s role as eyewitness and the validation of an ocular testimony. (461)
Pender recognizes that Behn must ensure all readers of her authority, as well asthe authority of the “fellow auditors” she gets information from. The “True History” of the text relies on the sense of authenticity that the narrator—here, Behn—can evoke in her readers. Pender goes on to agree with Charlotte Sussman that the authenticity of the novel is strengthened by “historical specificity” (Pender 468). 
            In “The Other Problem with Women: Reproduction and Slave Culture in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko,” Sussman discusses Imoinda and the impact of the slavery in the text. Sussman is interested in Imoinda’s body. First, in Coramantien, Imoinda’s “marriageable body” disrupts the organization of politics and family, and in Surinam “her body as a reproductive vessel” makes Oroonoko feel conflicted about their captive situation (23). Sussman concludes: “On both continents the crisis is solved in the same way; not by any change in existing conditions but through the elimination of the offending piece of property—Imoinda’s body” (23). The struggle over what to do with Imoinda’s body—by anyone other than her—is an example of the “material facts of slavery,” they provide historically specific examples of colonial Caribbean slavery (24). These examples strengthen the historicity of the text.
            Ros Ballaster made his claim that Behn and the narrator are one in the same, but his essay, “Aphra Behn and the Female Plot,” also discusses the role of femininity in the text. Ballaster claims that the narrator is able to excuse the multiple instances of her abandonment of Oroonoko through the “virtue of her femininity” (203). This is controversial because almost every time the narrator disappears something bad happens to Oroonoko. Also, the statement presumes that her femininity would prevent her from having any power. Ballaster writes: “The lack of social power accorded to women excuses her lack of activity and intervention in the tragic stories she tells” (203). Although Oroonoko was published in 1688, the female narrator was a privileged character. She was a white colonist, who supposedly had a powerful father who was set to be the deputy governor. Her presence, and voice, could have made a difference during most of the conflicts that Oroonoko found himself in.  
            Laura J. Rosenthal also paints a controversial picture for the readers of her essay. In “Oroonoko: Reception, Ideology, Narrative Strategy,” she considers the relationship between Oroonoko and the narrator. According to Rosenthal, “both Oroonoko and the narrator live in some form of exile” (155). Now, Oroonoko and Imoinda are most certainly living in a kind of exile—slavery, but is the narrator in exile? Technically, she’s waiting for her father to arrive, but comparing that to the grips of slavery seems like a bit of a stretch. Rosenthal goes as far to say that the text “tells the story, at least in part, of a complicated friendship between an independent white woman colonist and an enslaved African prince” (155). Friendship is a strong word for the relationship between a slave and a free woman, especially when the free woman continually tells him he will eventually be freed.  
            Much of the scholarship surrounding Oroonoko has focused on the role—identity—of the narrator in the text. There is a clear line in the sand separating those scholars who think that Aphra Behn is the narrator of the text from the scholars who don’t think she is the narrator. Regardless of where scholars align themselves, it is clear that they all have something to say about the effect of this presupposition. 
            “I was myself an Eye-witness to a great part of what you will find here set down” (Behn 8). In the second paragraph of the text the narrator ensures the reader that everything she writes is either an eye witness account, or it is coming from the mouth of the main character—Oroonoko. She takes great care to describe Surinam as best as possible—the people, the goods, the creatures. Then she takes great care to describe Oroonoko. She regales, “This great and just Character of Oroonoko gave me an extreme Curiosity to see him” (13). In a weird turn of events, immediately after she tells us that this story will be an eye witness account, with some help from the main character, we get an entire retelling of the love story between Oroonoko and Imoinda. The scales are immediately tipped toward a second-hand retelling, rather than the eye-witness account she promised in the opening of the novel. 
            In fact, the narrator doesn’t meet Oroonoko for quite some time. When she finally meets him for the first time she’s taken aback by his appearance and grace: 
He came into the Room, and addressed himself to me and some other Women with the best Grace in the World…Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince civiliz’d in the most refin’d Schools of Humanity and Learning, or the most Illustrious Courts. (14)
Oroonoko impresses her, even though she has already heard many great things about him. Based on his appearance and their first conversation she surmises to understand exactly why this man is a prince—and a good one at that. 
            Although Laura J. Rosenthal defined the relationship between Oroonoko and the narrator as a friendship, it becomes increasingly apparent that this relationship might be entirely one-sided. The Christians in Surinam have a habit of renaming the slaves because “their native ones [are] likely very barbarous, and hard to pronounce” (36). Shortly after arriving Oroonoko is given his new name—Caesar. This is one of the first instances where the narrator reveals her true alliance. On the subject of the renaming, she says, “For the future, therefore, I must call Oroonoko, Caesar, since by that Name only he was known in our Western World, and by that Name he was receiv’d on Shore at Parham-House, where he was destin’d a Slave” (37). The narrator doesn’t ask Oroonoko is he wants to be called Caesar, but instead says she must call him that because that is the name by which he was known. 
            Once Imoinda conceives a child Oroonoko grows weary of the promises of liberty. The narrator seems to be very deliberate in her use of ‘we’, ‘they’, and ‘I’. She said, “I had assur’d [Oroonoko] of Liberty as soon as the Governor arriv’d,” but there is no way of proving whether or not she is telling the truth (40). It’s suspect, because on the very next page she mentions Oroonoko is growing impatient with Trefry and his promises: “They fed him from Day to Day with Promises, and delay’d him till the Lord-Governor shou’d come; so that he began to suspect them of falsehood, and that they wou’d delay him till the time of his Wives delivery” (41). Here, the narrator is very specific in her use of ‘they’. Instead of aligning herself with the free colonists, she refers to them as a separate entity. They are ‘other’ from her. Immediately after this, though, she tells the reader that she was encouraged to keep him calm. 
            She is able to divert his attention for a while, but once Imoinda’s belly starts to become more pronounced his patience runs dry. Oroonoko leads a slave revolt to try and regain freedom. Conveniently, the narrator is missing when the confrontation between the slaves and the colonists happens: “apprehension made all the Females of us fly down the River to be secur’d; and while we were away, they acted this Cruelty” (57). Oroonoko was savagely beaten, and when she hears what has happened she thinks, “I suppose I had Authority and Interest enough there, had I suspected any such thing, to have prevented it” (57). So, when she heard news that Oroonoko was leading a slave revolt she chose to flee out of fear instead of showing up to the confrontation where she thinks she would have been able to keep the men from beating her friend. After the beating, though, she helps Oroonoko recover and begs him to believe she had nothing to do with his torture. 
            This isn't the only time that the narrator is absent during an important moment in the text. After his beating, Oroonoko swears revenge on Byam. In a twisted bout of rationalization, Oroonoko decides he must murder his pregnant wife before he can exact his revenge. He fears he will not make it back alive, and he doesn’t want to leave her behind to be taken advantage of. He kills Imoinda in the woods. The colonists find him, days later, lying next to her rotting corpse, and Oroonoko decides to take his own life before the colonists can: “He rip’d up his own Belly, and took his Bowels and pull’d ‘em out” (63). Once again, the narrator isn't there to help him or stop him, she is absent when he gravely injures himself. Similarly to the first time he is hurt, she grants him her presence through the healing process. 
            Finally, she is absent for Oroonoko’s execution. She leaves on a boat for a three-day journey, and in her absence “a wild Irishman” seizes Oroonoko and ties him to a whipping post. Here, surrounded by cruel strangers, abandoned by the one person who he may have called friend, Oroonoko meets his brutal end. On the subject of his death the narrator laments
Thus dy’d this Great Man, worthy of a better Fate, and a more sublime Wit than mine to write his Praise: yet, I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to make his Glorious Name to survive all the Ages, with that of the Brave, the Beautiful, and the Constant Imoinda. (65)
This final account is the one that doesn’t fit with the rest. Recall the first page of the text—it ensures the reader that this is an eye witness account with help from the hero of the tale. At the end of the novel, though, the narrator had fled, once again, and Oroonoko is killed. So, there stands the question of who recounted the savage dismembering of Oroonoko’s body, and the conversations that took place before. Cynthia Richards comments on this phenomenon in “Interrogating Oroonoko”: 
Although the execution happens in public, it occurs outside the direct gaze of the narrator and, to some extent, outside the declared parameters of this published account of Oroonoko’s life. As a consequence, the scene’s ability to function as a spectacle appears compromised by the narrator’s failure to witness these events and to provide a first-hand account of the execution. (649)
Again, the narrator loses the thin veil of believability that she was holding onto in this final scene. Readers feel as if they’ve been lied to, because how could this piece of the story fit into the story parameters set out by the narrator at the beginning of the text?
            The narrator’s absences are felt just as fully as the characters. After each of the absences the narrator makes it known that her presence at the scene could have changed the outcome. This draws attention to the absence, making it palpable and present to readers. She says that she wants to make a difference, and could have if given the chance, but she’s never able to step in and do anything other than clean up the mess. Cynthia Richards remarks that what really matters is the idea that the narrator just wants Oroonoko to believe her. Near the end of the novel she is using the inclusive ‘we’ to talk about the colonists who were trying to heal Oroonoko, and Richards agrees that “what matters…is this newly insistent representative “we” and its legitimate interest in his fate—and accept their protestations of innocence and the “truth” of their appeals for legitimacy” (673). 
            The ‘truth’ of the novel crumbles in on itself at the end. Richards says that Behn strategically chose, “to represent her narrator, who is absent during this crucial scene, as failing to meet her own standards of credibility. The plot detail allows Behn to reveal the narrator’s fiction of power to be just that—a fiction” (675). Oroonoko is often questioned on its legitimacy, whether it is fact or fiction or, even, a counterfactual history, but the answer seems to be right there at the end of the novel. The impossibility of the narrator to get a first or second-hand account of Oroonoko’s final moments illegitimates her claim to truth. 
            Laura Rosenthal suggests that, “Behn manipulates the narrative’s point of view to offer the perspectives of distinct narrative voices” (164). The two voices belong to the narrator and Oroonoko, but Rosenthal calls Oroonoko “innovative” and says that “it’s narrative technique differ[s] from both heroic romance and literal-minded journalism” (164). Behn did, in fact, do something different and original, but critics have been unable to define what exactly she’s done or how to categorize it. 
            In John Searle’s “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse,” he discusses the idea of a simulation. For Searle “there is no textual property, syntactical or semantic that will identify a text as a work of fiction” (325). So, even when Oroonokonarrator claims in the beginning of the text that it’s a first-hand account, it could be considered a simulation. Searle explains that fictional narratives are just simulations of factual narratives, and the author could just be asking the reader to ‘believe’ it. There will be no hints of the simulation in its characters. Searle’s idea of simulation fits quite well with Behn’s Oroonoko.The narrator is asking us to believe what we are reading, and the reader can easily fall into the ‘simulation’ of reading. 
            We may never know the answer to whether or not Aphra Behn is coterminous with the unnamed narrator in Oroonoko. What we do know is that she paved the way for female authors everywhere. She found a way to write on the topics she was interested in, and she did it in a new and innovative way that showcased her talent as a writer. There are an endless amount of studies concluding that Oroonokois empowering, that it makes a claim on narratological authority, and that it gives a voice to the marginalized female; but the absence of the “Eye-Witness” during the most important, and influential, moments of the text showcases the failure of the marginalized voice to make a difference in the life and, later, murder of a racial other.


Works Cited

Ballaster, Ros. Pretences of State: Aphra Behn and the Female Plot.UP of Virginia,1993. 
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave. Edited by Joanna Lipking, Norton, 1997.
Genette, Gérard, Nitsa Ben-Ari and Brian McHale. Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative.
Poetics Today,vol. 11, no. 4, 1990, pp. 755-774.
Link, Frederic M. Aphra Behn. Twayne Publishers, 1968.
Northrop, Douglas A. The Role of the Narrator in Aprhra Behns Oroonoko.Proceedings of 
the Eigth Annual Northern Plains Conference on Early British Literature,2001, pp. 15-22.
Pearson, Jacqueline. Gender and Narration in the Fiction of Aphra Behn.Review of English 
Studies,vol. 42, 1991.
Pender, Patricia. Competing Conceptions: Rhetorics of Representation in Aphra Behn
Oroonoko.Womens Writing, vol. 8, no. 3, 2006, pp. 457-472.
Richards, Cynthia. “Interrogating Oroonoko: Torture in a New World and a New Fiction of 
Power.Eighteenth Century Fiction, vol. 25, no. 4, Summer 2013, pp. 647-676.
Rosenthal, Laura J. Oroonoko: reception, ideology, and narrative strategy.Cambridge 
Companion to Aphra Behn, 2004, pp. 151-165. 
Searle, John. “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse.” New Literary History,vol. 6, no. 2, 
1975, pp. 319-332.
Sussman, Charlotte. The Other Problem with Women: Reproduction and Slave Culture in 
Aphra Behns Oroonoko.UP of Virginia, 1993.
Todd, Janet. Aphra Behn Studies. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Watt, Ian.The Rise of the Novel. University of California Press, 2001.


[1]See Janet Todd, ‘Behn, Aphra (1640?–1689)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Post a Comment

Blog Archive

recent posts

Instagram Feed