Behn Problems/Opportunities

        With Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, we are dealing with a work for which it would be very difficult to answer the "what time is it?" question.  Any of these time-related issues might make a final paper topic, and you might find some of them working for other works we have read.  First, the text was published as a slim, 224-page octavo in 1688, the same year the English forced the abdication of the newly crowned James II (the kid Halkett helped free from prison).  James II had none of the caution, or even humility of Charles II, who had been deeply impressed by the provisional nature of his kingship at the outset of the Restoration in 1660.  When James ordered religious toleration for English Catholics and made his newborn (Catholic) son his heir, an act which also threatened to re-assert royal supremacy over Parliament, an otherwise unlikely coalition of Whigs (radicals) and Tories (conservatives) invited William of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands and wife of an English princess from the royal line, to become the next English king.  William actually invaded England with the aid of the massive Dutch fleet, and except for minor skirmishes, was welcomed with his wife, Mary, as England's new monarch.  James dithered, actually fleeing England twice, before finally abandoning the court to William and Mary.  Because Behn was probably a Catholic and definitely a monarchist supporter of the Stuart cause, these events could hardly have pleased her.  The text might readily be examined for evidence that it supported Stuart conceptions of monarchy, including perhaps intentional echoes of the fate of Charles I in 1642-9).

        The text's "time" is also complicated by its claim that it is "A True History," i.e., that the events she describes actually took place during the earliest days of the Restoration (1664-5) or even during the parliamentary Protectorate.  She claims to have received the facts of the first (African) portion of the narrative directly from Oroonoko, her protagonist.  She claims to have witnessed personally many of the events set in Surinam.  English 215 students will recognize this kind of "inscribed narrator" as inherently unreliable, much like "Chaucer-the-pilgrim," because she has powerful motivations for telling the story.  "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim" is Geoffrey Chaucer's ironic, self-representation which he uses to distance his historical identity from the literary events he stages in his readers' minds.  In this case, Behn seems to wish to depict herself and her protagonist in the best possible light.  In fact, if one reads carefully her description of her own role in Oroonoko's tragic end (in the second part), one can even begin to piece together a sort of confessional narrative that seems interestingly appropriate for a woman of Catholic beliefs in the year before her death.  Add to that the possibility, raised by Behn's scholarly biographer, Janet Todd, that "Mr. Behn" (AB's husband) was a Dutch slave trader, himself, and Behn's ethical and political involvement in Oroonoko's fate becomes even more complex.  It's possible that this is a "Deconstructing" text with more than one discourse actively emerging from it. 

        The third "time" issue creates a third in that Behn's memory of the events, which may have occurred perhaps twenty-four years in her past before she wrote the manuscript (1664-1688), has been overlaid by her frequent retelling of them to English audiences.  The audiences' responses to Behn's oral performances of the narrative would necessarily have affected her sense of the tale's significance.  Behn's successive retellings also would have shaped her memory of the events even before she began composing the manuscript she sent to the printer.  As a writer of dramas, she would be motivated by her audience's reaction to the retellings of the tales to embellish portions of it with the "set speeches" that typically were used to characterize heroes and their antagonists.  (See, for instance, Edmund's soliloquy in Lear I.2, Volpone's in Volpone I.1, or Mosca's in Volpone III.1.)  Can you spot some of these pieces of dialogue that no reasonable person would expect to be remembered, word-for-word, twenty-four years after the words were spoken?

        A fourth "time" complication arises from the text's mythic dimension.  Oroonoko, and his beloved Imoinda, act out sacrificial roles in a highly polarized drama of good and evil that readers of medieval saints' lives would recognize immediately.  The saint is identified from youth as a superior being whose moral stature impress all around him with awe, that immobilizing but attractive emotion we associate with marvelous spectacles.  The same superior quality also attracts the attention of evil-doers who challenge and test the saint's virtue.  The saint suffers tortures for these same virtues, and he is rewarded by death's release from an unworthy world.  Miraculous events may occur during or shortly after the saint's battle with evil, and the saint's death may inspire others to seek martyrdom, as well.  To read examples from a famous medieval encyclopedia of saints' lives, see Jacobus de Voraigne's Legenda aurea (ca. 1260, translated to English and first printed in that language by William Caxton, 1484):  Halkett's own role in Oroonoko's life seems to have involved telling him "tales of the nuns," which may have included the didactic saints' lives which remain a part of the Roman church's religious education (see the first two "time" issues above).

        A fifth "time" complication was produced by the text's prolific "afterlife," first as a 1689 stage drama adapted by Thomas Southerne (which you may read in the Library's 1774 collected edition of TS's works), and as a forceful abolitionist tract that gained in fame and influence during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  Because England did not abolish slavery in the Empire until 1833, both Behn's prose version and Southerne's play continued to be read primarily as a condemnation of slavery, despite the fact that both Behn and her protagonist seem to find slavery a normal social institution.  The text's critiques of Christian Protestant hypocrisy, English marriage law, and the cruel depravity of English colonial subjects seem to have been submerged for those "communities of interpretation" (Stanley Fish, 1988).  Even in our own time, readers may come away with more vivid memories of slavery's wretched injustices than of the text's many other preoccupations, living as we do in a post-colonial culture that is still haunted by its own origins in slave-owning and enslavement.