Controversies, #10 (Fall 1999)

"Behn on Slavery, Christianity, Racism, and Feminism"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #10:   This is a classic case of a controversy that shot off into many directions because its primary text was so interestingly troublesome.  First, Shana spotted some important inconsistencies in Behn's description of Oroonoko and Imoinda which raise questions of Behn's authorial control of her intentions.  Heather tries to plumb Behn's motives for trying to write against slavery as an institution, but notices also that the plot at times resembles two famous satires on the vanity of human ambitions Candide and Rasselas, both published in the winter of 1758-9, seventy years later.   Heather's reading, influenced by her having taken English 212 first, is a perfect example of the way context shapes readings (see Controversy #7 from Fall 1999).  Marjorie and Suzanne remind us that authors don't necessarily have to do all the thinking for their audiences, and that the definition of terms like "radical," "feminist," and "racist" change over time, just like the meanings of any other words.   That led me to a mini-essay on "Reader-Response Criticism."  I hope it helps.  Participants: Shana Hellman, Heather Baron, Marjorie Bliss, Suzanne Elbeeze, and Arnie.

"Is Oroonoko a racist text?"--Shana Hellman, 11/22/99

        Oroonoko has been cited as one of the first texts in the anti-slavery tradition, for its personification of Oroonoko and Imoinda nad its criticism of the social conditions and colonialism. However, the descriptions of Oroonoko and Imoinda are extremely Europeanized, and the narrator herself uses colonialism and idenitification of the other as means of promoting her authority and indirectly supporting the white male power. I was wondering how people felt on the issue and if they felt that the text is particularly one or the other?

"Did Behn fully control her intentions?"--Heather Baron, 11/29/99

        The position of this text on slavery is very confusing. Until the bottom of page 1900 it seems to portray a very positive, unrealistic account of the life of the slaves. Oroonoko is friends with his master, has the freedom to go hunting and fishing and walking around as he pleases and is treated with the respect owed to a prince. Imoinda is not raped by her master or any of the other men on the plantation even though she is the most beautiful woman they have ever seen. Everyone rejoices when Oroonoko and Imoinda find each other again. For the first three quarters of the piece there is hardly any negative association whatsoever with being a slave. Suddenly then the tone changes and the narrator talks about beatings and rebellions. It almost seems like, if this is an anti-slavery text, Behn forgot about that objective for most of the story!!

        I did, however, notice throughout the piece a very pronounced anti-Christian sentiment. I was wondering what anyone else had to say about this in relation to the anti- or pro-slavery question. Could it be that Behn was trying to point out how un-Christian keeping slaves is?

        What do people think about the nature of Imoinda's death in light of Behn's obvious feminist views? I thought it was strange that Imoinda unquestioningly allows herself and her unborn child to be sacrificed to Oroonoko's plan of revenge.

        For those who have had English 212 – Something in the style seemed to remind me a little bit of Raselas and Candide. I'm not exactly sure why, but I guess it probably had something to do with the travel element and also the convenient way that Oroonoko and Imoinda just happen to end up on the same plantation. I'll admit though that the ending is a little more gruesome!!

"Was Behn's anti-slavery position 'Christian'?"--Marjorie Bliss, 11/29/99

        I agree with Heather in that It seems like Behn forgot to choose a side, whether she was pro- or anti- slavery. I also agree with her point that it is very un-Christian to keep slaves and that may be what she is talking about. Because she was Catholic, she would be against slavery.


"Was Behn's anti-slavery position feminist?"--Suzanne Elbeze, 12/1/99

        I agree with everything that has been said about Behn's response or lack of towards slavery. In response to your statement, I think that she was against slavery because of her religious views and because she was somewhat ahead of her times politically. As a strong feminist who was published as a great literary it is not surprising that her views on slavery were radical to that time period. She might have not taken a direct view (pro or anti slavery) because she wanted her readers to choose the "right" on their own.

"Readers' and Authors' 'Horizon of Expectations"--Arnie, 8/3/00 (a summer afterthought)

        These readers are struggling to establish some understandings about Behn's mentality, understandings that have a name in "Reader Response Theory": the horizon of expectations.  Based on the work of Roman Ingarden, Wolfgang Iser, and Hans Robert Jauss, critics can speak of a culture being constructed in people's minds as a series of "schemata" (Ingarden) or predictable patterns of arrangement of things (walls on the side, ceiling above, floor below, "naturally," unless you're a nomad or an astronaut!).  These schemata (plural of "schema") operate because people within the culture share a common set of understandings about what's possible, probable, impossible, etc., their horizon of expectations (Jauss).  Is it likely that I can fly to Boston today?  Not in Hawthorne's world for "Young Goodman Brown," so we suspect the dude in theforest is supernatural when he says he made it from Boston to Salem in under an hour.  On August 3, 2000, at 10:13 AM, I might drive from Ellicott City to BWI and board the next shuttle flight to Boston in time for dinner with friends if the thunderstorms don't close BWI or Logan.  Those are possible statements because of our shared horizon of expectations. 

        Let's use reader response criticism to take this controversy's first "bull" by its dilemmatic "horns."  Can we read this text without having to condemn its racism, treating it as just another cultural feature, or does its significance transcend any horizon of expectations.  Is racism always and forever evil?  Is racism always and forever evil?  That's a tough one, clearly in the realm of philosophy or religion, but on our plate because literature puts it there (thanks, Aphra!).  How about this answer?  I believe racism always was and forever will be evil, but people who don't share my schemata may not believe I am correct.  How about slavery?  Because of America's peculiar historical background, we tend to expect racism and slavery to occur together.   That's the way our past has constructed our horizon of expectations.  Others do not think these two phenomena are inevitably connected.  For example, the Greeks who invented democracy in the sixth century BCE were slave-owners, too.  However, their slavery was not race-based.  Was theirs a "better" slave system because the slaves usually were captured warriors (like Oroonoko's!) and they did not think slaves were inhuman or genetically "lower"?  More apparently thought it plausible that Greek-style slavery was a tolerable social institution--witness the Utopians' use of "slaves of the state" to do repugnant labor because they had committed terrible crimes. 

          So how does this consideration of racism's and slavery's horizons help us read Behn?  In comparison with More's principle-based construction of slavery, Aphra Behn's response to slavery appears to have arisen from her revulsion at the manner in which slaves were treated, not from any categorical philosophical opposition to treating humans as "animate tools" of another's will.  However, she may well have been on here way to thinking that one's will ought to be one's own to control after her struggles to do so as a woman writer in the C17.  Her attitudes toward race-based thinking appear similar to those of other writers in her era, suggesting that they are a basic cultural assumption rather than an abberation.  Should we tolerate early authors' inability to share our perceptions of what is evil, exactly or nearly, or should we refuse to read them on the grounds that their works promote evil by describing it tolerantly?   I have no categorical answer to that question.  For more discussion of this in relation to the anti-semitism of Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale," click here.