Controversy #6 (Fall 1998)

"What is Beauty?"

    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 #6: Christian's question (another "epistemic" one) tackles the representation of race and gender with a great comparison between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Aphra Behn. The cultural definition of "beauty" can seem of trivial importance when compared to definitions of concepts like "guilt" or "goodness," but they're all operating at the same level in our cultural imagination, secretly pulling strings to attract or repel us while we read. In fact, as sociologists long have known, they tend to connect to each other below the surface of texts and images, to that "beauty" and "goodness" and "innocence" might tend to be attributed to characters who possess only a few culturally-tagged markers for one of those qualities, the others coming along as unconscious associations. So does Behn succeed in getting us to see a "good" Oroonoko by Europeanizing his features, or does she taint his character with a prejudice that might derive from what she expects us to want? As Heather's response points out, this practice is especially prevalent in modern advertising and popular cinema, but she also raises the point that knowledge, as well as physical appearance, also might be one of those culturally-tagged markers. As I lead you through the English 211 syllabus, am I "tagging" you? Participants are Christian Henderson and Heather Mull.

 "What is Beauty," Christian Henderson, 11/16/98

It bothers me that, although Behn's (or the narrator's) admiration of Prince Oroonoko and Imoinda seem to be sincere, her definition of a beautiful African is one who has "white" features. For instance, Behn says that Oroonoko's nose "was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes." It seems common in literature for an author to favor those Negroes whose skin is lighter than most, "a perfect ebony or polished jet," or those with "white" features. I am also currently reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and I see Stowe doing the same thing with her characters (namely Eliza and Harry).

I guess the issue I am trying to raise here is, what affect do these descriptions have on the reader? Do we sympathize more with those "Negroes" with light skin and European features? Also, why are the natives of Surinam described mostly by their jewelry and markings, rather than their features?

A lingering thought: don't Oroonoko and Imoinda seem out of place on the ship? Is this becasue they are attractive, or perhaps becasue we know their story????

 "Beautiful then and now," Heather Mull, 11/16/98

In response to Christian's statements and questions concerning Oroonko's beautiful description, I have noticed a trend.

In the communications course "Making Sense of Popular Culture" we often discuss the media's portrayal of beauty. Typical arguments are the Kate Moss debate concerning her excessive thinness causing young girls to become anorexic, but another interesting point is that if you really look at the people "displayed" within the pages of magazines or television advertisements, all of them have predominantly "Aryan" features. Sure the advertising industry has done it's "best" at being politically correct, but the majority of the models are white people with a skin color other than white.

I think that Behn has followed, (or started) this trend. At this time white skinned people were the most powerful and beautiful, or at least thought they were, it is only "natural" to expect that a non-white person being described as beautiful would be described as Oroonko was described.

Another thought: A common theme in a lot of literature suggests that knowledge equals power. This may be a reason why the Captain feels that he is superior to Oroonko. The Captain, worldly experienced in the world of fraud would think that he was more powerful than Oroonko who had no knowledge of this and was a bit naive, if you will, in the fraudulent sense, in that he believed that his word was enough.

One More: The idea that Adam had direct contact with God, while Eve had to speak to God through Adam brings an interesting parallel to English society. While the clergymen could speak directly to God, the actual people had to go through them in order to be heard. Hence, Eve equals the English people prior to the Reformation. (This connects to Controversy #5 [Fall 1999].)