Controversy #7 (Fall 1998)

"Oroonoko and Beloved"

    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 #7: Heather's posting, which I tried to follow up, moves us into the question of how fictional plots relate to the historical context from which they grow. Authors of fictions, even science fiction, are retelling stories about actual events which their imaginations transform into new possibilities. (See Sidney's "Defense of Poesy" on the difference between the historian's view and the poet's.) When we see a strong similarity between two plots written far apart in time and place, we can ask ourselves whether the influence that produced the similarity was literary, historical, or neither. That is, did Morrison know Aphra Behn's plot and (consciously or unconsciously) allude to it, did she know of another historical case (unknown to Behn) in which a similar thing happened, or did she imagine the incident as something that could have happened though she knew of neither Behn's plot nor a historical incident? There are ways to narrow down the possibilities, including asking the author (or reading interviews in which the question is asked), reading the author's biography, and reading the history of the period that would have been accessible to the author as she prepared to write. Participants are Heather Mull and Arnie.

"Oroonoko and Beloved," Heather Mull, 11/18/98

In recent months there has been a great deal of "hype" concerning Toni Morisson's book Beloved (with much help from Oprah's book club and lead role in the film). I hate to admit my ability to be swooned by the media, however I found myself reading the best seller. After reading Oroonoko I have noticed an interesting parallel. In Beloved, Oprah's character, the mother, had escaped with her four children from the plantation where she was enslaved. When the plantation owner came to find her and her children she rushed them into a shed and began to swing them around violently and beat them with an ax. She intended to kill them to save them from the life of slavery she had worked so hard to free them from. The people of the town shunned her because they could not understand why she would do such a thing. In reality, her love for her children was so great, she would force herself to commit the impossible act of killing them so they could always be free. I see that Oroonoko, Caesar, at this point, had the same amount of love for Imoinda, for he would rather kill her, and therefore kill his child as well, than have them live further as slaves. He also got a similar reaction from the "townspeople": "Oh monster! that hast murdered thy wife."

---- for anyone who actually saw the film "Beloved": the "town" on the set of the movie was an actual historical town called "Landis Valley". It is located in Lancaster, Pa, and I passed by it everyday on the way to school and used to play there as a child. I thought that was cool anyway...

"Slaves' reactions to their children's fate," Arnie, 11/19/98

Heather makes an interesting connection that raises an important question about lit. crit. method. Given that Morrison is writing after Behn, could it be she was influenced by Behn's description of Oroonoko's killing of Imoinda? This kind of argument might be supportable (though it wouldn't fly as a self-sufficient thesis for the 211 final paper as I just stated it). However, another, simpler explanation may suffice to connect these two works. They both may have been describing different, real events that were known by the authors to have happened. In fact, it might be that this kind of event, while horrifying, was not entirely unknown by historians of American slavery. Since we happen to have one of those on campus (Peter Bardaglio, among his other interests), you might want to ask him or to consult his book:

AUTHOR Bardaglio, Peter Winthrop.

TITLE Reconstructing the household : families, sex, and the law in the

nineteenth-century South / Peter W. Bardaglio.

PUB. INFO. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c1995.

x1 > Main Collection 306.85 B245r

Other works that might provide help with this topic are:

AUTHOR Boles, John B.

TITLE Black southerners, 1619-1869 / John B. Boles.

PUB. INFO. Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, c1983.

x LOCATION CALL NO. > Main Collection 974.1 B688b

 AUTHOR Morris, Thomas D., 1938-

TITLE Southern slavery and the law, 1619-1860 / Thomas D. Morris.

PUB. INFO. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c1996.

x LOCATION CALL NO. > Main Collection 342.087 M877s