With the seeming decline of heroic literature, the central conflicts in literature might be described as less physical and combative and more psychological, social, and spiritural. How is this...

With the seeming decline of heroic literature, the central conflicts in literature might be described as less physical and combative and more psychological, social, and spiritural. How is this change reflected in Othello, Paradise Lost, and Oroonoko?

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appletrees eNotes educator| Certified Educator

These three stories do certainly embody a shift in emphasis towards more psychological, social and spiritual concerns. Certainly it can be said that changing attitudes about human potential and an expansion of learning were in part responsible for this shift within the literature of the period. 

In Othello, the Moor is admired for his bravery as a military commander, and his powerful physicality is a quality that is not only mentioned by others, but implies a threatening quality that underlies his problem with rage and aggression, resulting in the murder of Desdemona. But this physical intimidation is secondary to the idea that it is jealousy that provokes Othello's anger, and this jealousy is aroused by the psychological manipulation of Iago. In this way, Othello's prowess as a warrior is less significant than his poor impulse control and his tendency to bow to the social convention of men's control over women. In other words, it is the flaw in Othello's thinking and emotions that causes this violence, and not his involvement in combat or status as a warrior. This theme is underlined further when we see that other characters in the play who are not connected to the military also experience jealousy (such as Bianca).

The plight of women as portrayed in Oroonoko is subject to psychological and social interpretations. While Oroonoko's actions against his beloved wife, Imoinda, might seem violent and combative, the story portrays them as arising from his deep love and respect for her and his concern for her honor and reputation. This may be an ironic point made by the author, Aphra Behn, who was herself no doubt struggling with writing about the plight of women in the social order of the day. The justification for the prince's violent murder of his wife is justified by his desire to not see her die in shame if she is raped by their captors; and she is grateful to him for his devotion and love. But his actions convey the idea of women as possessions, and also suggests that women's actions can impact the social status of their husbands, making it necessary for them to be controlled. This oppressive social practice is portrayed as connected to the idea of romantic love, but the story's extreme outcome points out how barbaric such attitudes are.

Paradise Lost is clearly more concerned with the spiritual expression of social change. This epic work explores the narrative contained in the Bible and its implications for society. The main idea conveyed in the poem's portrayal of the fall from Eden is that disobedience to God is the cause of human suffering. The quest for knowledge that leads Eve to taste of the apple, and to convince Adam to share her knowledge, is seen as less offensive to God's judgment than their arrogance in disobeying his orders. The theme of free will is strongly conveyed here, and the idea that free will is not possible for humans who choose to live their lives under the structures of religious doctrine. There is also a psychological implication, in that Eve's own decision making, and Adam's devotion to her that causes him to make the same decisions (i.e., eat the apple and engage in "sinful" activities), are the source of deep guilt. This guilt causes negative emotional feelings, which causes a psychological dilemma between desire and duty: a dilemma that can be said to be at the root of the challenge of creating and maintaining a civil society.

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Paradise Lost

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