Aphra Behn Long Fiction Analysis

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In the early twentieth century, Vita Sackville-West, in trying to estimate Aphra Behn’s contribution to English fiction, asked, “What has she left behind her that is of any real value?” Sackville-West bemoaned Behn’s failure in her fiction to reflect fully London life, London characters, London scenes; her attention to exotic themes, settings, and characters merely debased and wasted her narrative gifts. Such a judgment, while plausible, fails to consider Behn’s fiction in its historical and biographical context. Her tales abound with German princes, Spanish princesses, Portuguese kings, French counts, West Indian slaves, and various orders of bishops, priests, and nuns, yet Behn’s real world was itself highly artificial, even fantastic: the intrigue of the Stuart court, the ribaldry of the London stage, the gossip of the drawing room, the masquerade, and the card parlor. Behn, in her real world, took in the same scenes as did John Dryden, Samuel Pepys, and the earl of Rochester. Thus it may be too hasty to assert that her fiction neglects her actual experience in favor of fantastic and faraway window dressing.

In Agnes de Castro, Behn lets loose various powers of love, with the result that her heroines’ passions affect the fortunes of their lovers. Thus, Miranda (The Fair Jilt) reflects the raving, hypocritical enchantress whose very beauty drives her lovers mad, Ardelia (The Nun) plays the capricious lover whose passion carries her through a series of men as well as a nunnery, and Agnes de Castro presents a slight variation on these others in that she is a product of circumstance: She is loved by the husband of her mistress.

Another primary theme in Behn’s work is that of the noble savage, which has traditionally been assigned to Oroonoko, as has the subordinate issue of antislavery in that same novel. In 1975, Professor George Guffey suggested a withdrawal from the feminist-biographical positions on Behn’s work from which the noble savage/antislavery ideals spring and a movement toward “a hitherto unperceived level of political allusion.” Guffey did not label Oroonoko a political allegory but did suggest that readers should look more closely at events in England between 1678 and 1688. Guffey maintained that the novelist deplores not the slavery of a black, noble savage but the bondage of a royal prince—again a reference to the political climate of the times. The interesting aspect of Guffey’s analysis is that his approach lends substance to Behn’s principal novel and to her overall reputation as a literary artist, and it parries the complaint that she failed to echo the sound and the sense of her own age.

In 1678, Sir Roger L’Estrange published Five Love Letters from a Nun to a Cavalier, a translation of some fictional correspondence by the minor French writer Guilleraques. Behn used the work as a model for at least three of her prose pieces: Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, The History of the Nun, and The Nun. For the latter two, the novelist took advantage, at least on the surface, of the current religious and political controversies and set forth the usual claims to truth.

The History of the Nun

There may be some validity to the claim that The History of the Nun exists as one of the earliest examinations by a novelist into the psychology of crime and guilt. The events of the novel proceed reasonably enough at the outset but become less believable; by the conclusion, the events appear to be exceedingly unreal. Despite this difficulty, the novel does have some value. Behn demonstrates her ability...

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to develop thoroughly the key aspects of the weaknesses and the resultant sufferings of the heroine, Isabella. Behn immediately exposes the concept that “Mother Church” can take care of a girl’s problems, can easily eradicate the desires of the world from her heart and mind, and can readily transform a passionate maiden into a true, devoted sister of the faith. In addition, despite her wickedness, Isabella is very much a human being worthy of the reader’s understanding. At every step, the girl pays something for what she does; with each violation against the Church and each crime of passion, she falls deeper into the darkness of her own guilt. What she does, and how, is certainly contrived, but how she reacts to her misdeeds reflects accurately the guilty conscience of a believable human being.

The Nun

Behn’s second “Nun” novel, not published until 1697, certainly leads the reader through a more complicated plot entanglement than the 1689 story, but it contains none of the virtue exhibited in the earlier work. The interesting aspect of The Nun’s plot is that Behn kills the heroine, Ardelia, first; only afterward do the principal rivals, Don Sebastian and Don Henriques, kill each other in a fight. The interest, however, is only fleeting, for those events do not occur until the end of the novel. All that remains of the bloody situation is Elvira, Don Sebastian’s unfaithful sister. After weeping and calling for help, she is seized with a violent fever (in the final paragraph) and dies within twenty-four hours. Certainly, Behn’s ingenuity in this piece demands some recognition, if for no reason other than her adeptness, as James Sutherland has put it, at “moving the pieces around the board.”

Agnes de Castro

Because of the relative sanity of its plot, in contrast to the two previous tragedies, Agnes de Castro comes close to what Behn’s feminist supporters expect of her. In other words, in this piece, pure evil or a series of tragic events cannot be blamed entirely on love or on reckless female passion. Although Don Pedro genuinely loves his wife’s maid of honor, Agnes, she, out of loyalty to her mistress, refuses to yield to his passion. Such action encourages the other characters to exhibit equal degrees of virtue. Constantia, Don Pedro’s wife, seems to understand that the power of Agnes’s charms, although innocent enough, is no match for her husband’s frailty of heart over reason. Thus, she resents neither her husband nor her maid; in fact, she is willing to tolerate the presence of Agnes to keep her husband happy.

The novel, however, does not exist as a monument to reason. Something must always arise, either in politics or romance, to disrupt reasonable people’s attempts at harmony. In the novel, a vengeful woman lies to Constantia and plants the idea in her mind that Agnes and Don Pedro are plotting against her. The woman’s report breaks Constantia’s trust in her husband and her maid, and the honest lady dies of a broken heart. The novel, however, remains believable, for Behn simply emphasizes the frailty of honor and trust in a world dominated by intrigue and pure hatred. Given the political and religious climates of the decade, the setting and the plot of Agnes de Castro are indeed flimsy facades for the court and coffeehouse of seventeenth century London.

The Fair Jilt

Although in The Fair Jilt Behn continued to develop the conflict between love and reason, the novel has attracted critical attention because of its allusions to the writer’s own experiences. Again, Behn lays claim to authenticity by maintaining that she witnessed parts of the events the novel relates and heard the rest from sources close to the action and the characters. In addition, the events occur in Antwerp, the very city to which the novelist had been assigned for the performance of her spying activities for Charles II’s ministers.

From the outset of the novel, Behn establishes the wickedness of Miranda, who uses her beauty to enchant the unsuspecting and even tempts the weak into committing murder. Obviously, had Behn allowed her major character to succeed in her evil ways, nothing would have been gained from the novel. What results is the triumph of the hero’s innate goodness; as weak as Prince Tarquin is, he endures. His loyalty and devotion outlast and, to a certain extent, conquer Miranda’s wickedness.

Oroonoko

Behn’s literary reputation today rests almost totally on a single work, Oroonoko. The novel succeeds as her most realistic work, principally because it recounts the specifics of seventeenth century Suriname with considerable detail and force. Behn installs her hero amid the splendor of a tropical setting, a Natural Man, a pure savage untouched by the vices of Christian Europe, unaware of the white man’s inherent baseness and falsehood.

In lashing out at the weaknesses of her society, Behn does not forget about one of her major concerns—love. Oroonoko loves the beautiful Imoinda, a child of his own race, but the prince’s grandfather demands her for his own harem. Afterward, the monarch sells the girl into slavery, and she finds herself in Suriname, where Oroonoko also is brought following his kidnapping. The prince embarks on a term of virtuous and powerful adventures in the name of freedom for himself and Imoinda, but his captors deceive him. Thereupon, he leads a slave revolt, only to be captured by the white scoundrels and tortured. Rather than see Imoinda suffer dishonor at the hands of the ruthless white planters and government officers, Oroonoko manages to kill her himself. At the end, he calmly smokes his pipe—a habit learned from the Europeans—as his captors dismember his body and toss the pieces into the fire.

The final judgment on Behn’s fiction may still remain to be formulated. Evaluations of her work have tended to extremes. Some critics assert that Behn’s novels, even Oroonoko, had no significant influence on the development of the English novel, whereas others argue that the author’s limited attempts at realism may well have influenced Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and others to begin to mold the ostensibly factual narrative into the novel as the form is recognized today. From Behn came the background against which fictional plots could go forward and fictional characters could function. Her problem, which her successors managed to surmount, was her inability (or refusal) to make her characters and events as real as their fictional environments. That fault (if it was a fault) lay with the tendencies and the demands of the era in which she wrote, not with the writer. Indeed, it is hardly a failure for a dramatist and a novelist to have given to her audiences exactly what they wanted. To have done less would have meant an even quicker exit from fame and an even more obscure niche in the literary history of her time.

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