Aphra Behn World Literature Analysis

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For an author whose career lasted less than twenty years, Aphra Behn was exceptionally prolific. Her canon contains at least seventeen dramas, and perhaps as many as twenty-one attributions are included. It also includes numerous occasional and lyric poems, fourteen titles in prose fiction, and a handful of translations. She launched her literary career with drama, a natural beginning for an aspiring writer of her time since the theater provided more secure financial rewards than publication. Her plays are exceptionally varied, including tragicomedies, comedies of wit and intrigue, and political satires. Like many authors of her time, she drew upon previous dramatists for plots and characters. For her portrayal of character, conflict, and setting, she is particularly indebted to earlier Jacobean dramatists, such as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Richard Brome, and John Marston. In addition to earlier plays, her sources include Spanish and French novellas and, for one drama, The Widow Ranter: Or, The History of Bacon of Virginia (pr. 1689, pb. 1690), a contemporary account of the Virginia colony.

Although her plots are often complex, she is noted for sprightly action and for colloquial, witty dialogue. These qualities appealed to her audience and led to theater revivals of some of her dramas well into the eighteenth century. A recurring theme is young love overcoming obstacles imposed by the lovers’ society and elders. A related theme is the necessity for women to make their own choices in marriage.

In addition to drama, she wrote numerous works of prose fiction, ranging in length from short story to novel. Most of these were written late in her career, after 1684. Though normally classified as novels, the longer works are not true novels but rather antecedents of the genre. Her narrative technique includes numerous details to ensure a realistic effect. Frequently the narrator assures the reader that he or she has witnessed the events firsthand, lending a touch of realism. Yet the works lack the psychological realism of true novels, and coincidence is too frequent and too substantive for the settings that Behn creates. The sources are often French and Spanish romances, though many depend on English settings or contemporary events.

Her longest prose work, Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1683-1687), is a roman à clef based upon a scandalous contemporary romance between a nobleman and his sister-in-law. Written in three parts, it enjoyed popular success despite a length of 200,000 words. Its significance lies in Behn’s early use of the epistolary narrative technique, foreshadowing the eighteenth century novels of Samuel Richardson.

Romantic love, the dominant theme of Behn’s fiction, often reaches heroic proportions. Stories such as “The Unfortunate Happy Lady” (c. 1697) and the novel The Adventure of the Black Lady (1698) depict success in love as a combination of forgiveness, intense passion, and endangered but inviolate virtue. This tendency to develop the theme of heroic love reaches its height in her best-known prose work, Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, a True History (1688), a narrative featuring an exotic setting and a hero who embodies love and honor. Even in a novel featuring the femme fatale like The Fair Jilt: Or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688), love is uncritical and entirely forgiving.

Among her poems, Behn wrote numerous lyrics, occasional verses, panegyrics, songs, prologues, epilogues, and a few satires. In her elegy on Edmund Waller, a poet prized for his polished verses, she professes that she learned the art of English poetry from studying his poems. The acknowledgment is noteworthy, for her heroic couplets reflect the idiomatic fluency and smoothness that one associates...

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with Waller’s poetry. She achieves the limpid diction and polish that marked the style of the best writings of her times though her poems lack the insouciant tone and sharp-edged satire of witty writing at its best. Her love poems often invoke the idyllic setting of the pastoral mode, and her finest love poetry achieves an effect that is simple, rhythmic, and eloquent. Two of her best-known lyrics, “Love Arm’d” and “Song” (“’Tis not your saying that you love”), are on the theme of unrequited love, perhaps a result of her ill-fated affair with John Hoyle, a London rake. The final stanza of “Song” illustrates the stylistic purity and earnest tone that the poems achieve:

But if I fail your heart to move,And ’tis not yours to give;I cannot, wonnot cease to love,But I will cease to live.

Among her occasional poems are numerous prologues and epilogues that were published with her plays. Like other poems of this type, they appeal to the audience for approval or at least indulgence. These prologues and epilogues are written in heroic couplets, the dominant verse form of the age.

By 1680, Behn had begun working as a translator, producing poetry and prose of popular works. Her translations are from Latin and French, and the diversity suggests that she turned to translation not because she found the works congenial, but because she needed to supplement her income. By modern standards, her translations take excessive liberties with the originals, but her practice accorded well with the theory of translation put forth by John Dryden, the dominant literary figure of her time. His theory accepted paraphrase and alterations to accommodate the tastes and understanding of the audience.

The Rover: Or, The Banished Cavaliers

First produced: Part I, 1677 (first published, 1677)

Type of work: Play

In Naples, exiled English cavaliers seek pleasure and find suitable marriage partners.

Willmore, the Rover, arrives in Naples where he meets his fellow exiles Blunt, Frederick, and Belvile. They begin rather aimless adventures in quest of pleasure. Although Willmore is an example of the appealing, energetic Restoration hero of wit, it is the women characters who, indirectly, control the action. Hellena, destined by her father for a convent, wishes another kind of life and is willing to venture into the carnival setting to seek it. Once she has seen Willmore, she decides to make him her husband, even if she must pursue him in disguise. In order to thwart his affair with Angellica, an aged former mistress of a Spanish general, she disguises herself as a page. Her sister Florinda has been promised, against her will, to Antonio. Florinda has been in love with Belvile since he saved her life and that of her brother Don Pedro during a battle. Despite numerous mishaps and mistakes that endanger her, she manages to win Belvile in the end. Both women achieve marriages that will assure financial independence and compatibility and will not require excessive emotional commitment.

Not all pleasure seeking, however, achieves its ends. Behn implies that the persons must possess some attractive qualities and panache. Blunt, crudely direct in his hedonism, finds himself deceived and robbed by a courtesan. He represents the naïve country squire of Restoration comedy, who becomes the butt of farcical humor. On the other hand, Willmore’s excesses—drunkenness, brawling, and promiscuity—are redeemed by his wit, savoir faire, and overall good nature.

The drama possesses an abundance of humor, sprightly wit, and farcical adventures. Although the celebration of loyalty may have been its greatest appeal for the Restoration audience, the drama is also noteworthy for its portrayal of strong-willed heroines who choose their own future and act to bring it about. The sequel, The Rovers: Or, The Banished Cavaliers, Part II (pr., pb. 1681) is generally regarded as inferior to the first part, although it is noteworthy for its use of two figures from commedia dell’arte: Harlequin and Scaramouche.

The Fair Jilt: Or, The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda

First published: 1688

Type of work: Novel

Miranda, a beautiful but amoral femme fatale, leads admirers into crime and destruction, but love and forgiveness restore most of the losses.

The Fair Jilt introduces the beautiful femme fatale Miranda, whose unconcerned and unrestrained pursuit of romance and pleasure jeopardizes the lives of others. The narrative divides into two loosely intertwined parts, one involving the heroine’s love for an exiled German prince, Henrick, and a second involving her marriage to Tarquin, the only son of a wealthy Dutch merchant. Miranda, joint heiress with her younger sister to a large fortune, enters an Antwerp convent following the death of her parents, though she has no intention of making permanent vows.

In retaliation for Miranda’s numerous shallow flirtations, the God of Love imposes upon her a deep, genuine love for a young Franciscan friar, who is devoted to his vocation and his vow of chastity. After learning that he is a German prince named Henrick (complete with a tragic past), Miranda begins pursuing him through letters and calculated meetings, offering herself and her inheritance and imploring him to elope with her. He steadfastly refuses all of her advances. Unable to comprehend that he would refuse her because of his religious devotion, she accuses him of rape and sees him sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to life imprisonment after some of her letters to him have been released.

In the second episode, she meets and marries the young Tarquin, whose love for her exceeds anything she feels for him. Having inherited her fortune and having become guardian for her sister’s portion, she lives with Tarquin on a lavish scale in Antwerp, freely spending her sister Alcidiana’s portion while discouraging would-be suitors. When Alcidiana asserts her independence and demands her inheritance, Miranda induces a page to murder her, but the effort at poisoning fails. The page is apprehended, tried, and hanged, while Miranda herself is judicially humiliated by being forced to stand at the foot of the gallows. Still undeterred, she later persuades her devoted husband to shoot Alcidiana as she enters the theater. The bullet passes harmlessly through her garments, but Tarquin is apprehended and condemned to death. Miranda is sent to the prison where the princely friar is incarcerated. Upon release, the friar pleads for Miranda’s freedom, and Tarquin is spared when the executioner wounds instead of kills him. After his recovery, Tarquin joins Miranda in Holland, where, having lost all Miranda’s fortune, they are supported by the wealth of his father.

Behn portrays Miranda as an example of role reversal in love. Bent on dominance and self-assertiveness, she moves from tyrannizing over the friar to tyrannizing over her sister. Yet even she can be rescued from her excesses, and the book suggests that she has lived in quiet retirement with Tarquin until his death.

The story also admirably depicts Behn’s concept of love as totally self-sacrificing and forgiving. Smitten by her beauty and charm, the other characters are putty in Miranda’s hands. Yet willingness to forgive means that the worst evils can be remedied. Tarquin harbors no lasting resentment for the calamities she has brought upon him, and Prince Henrick, despite his two years’ imprisonment on a false charge, is eager to beg mercy on her behalf. The limited suffering in the denouement, however, depends upon extravagant improbabilities and astounding coincidence. Despite a wealth of concrete detail and authorial testimony, the story lacks genuine realism, although realism was not a standard for judging long fiction in Behn’s time.

Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, a True History

First published: 1688

Type of work: Novel

Oroonoko, a heroic African prince, dies in an attempt to free himself and others from slavery.

Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, a True History, Behn’s most significant novel, resembles The Fair Jilt in that she attempts to achieve verisimilitude by first-person commentary and an abundance of concrete detail. She asserts at the outset that the story is factual and claims to have known the characters and witnessed much of the action. She injects numerous details to enhance the realism, foreshadowing the narrative technique of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. She describes, for example, South American creatures such as the armadillo and the anaconda, and her account of the indigenous tribes idealizes their primitive and simple lives in the wilderness.

The narrative has two distinct parts. The first, set in the African country Coramantien, introduces the young prince Oroonoko, grandson of the country’s aged king. Oroonoko is a Restoration love-and-honor hero, capable of intense passions. In love, Oroonoko knows no half measures, for Behn embraces the assumption of heroic love that great love implies a great soul. A man of natural nobility, he is not a primitive, but a well-educated, charismatic youth who can read Latin and French and speak English. He achieves rapport with all types of people, including the natives of the New World.

Trouble in his native land begins when he falls in love with Imoinda, the beautiful daughter of a general who has sacrificed his own life in battle to save Oroonoko’s. After Oroonoko has secretly married Imoinda, his aged grandfather, king of Coramantien, decides to make her his wife and summons her to the palace. Deprived of his wife for months, Oroonoko conspires with friends at court to arrange a clandestine meeting. When the king discovers this, he decides to sell Imoinda into slavery because of the betrayal and tells Oroonoko that she has been put to death. The king refrains from taking action against Oroonoko because he is too powerful and too valuable.

Oroonoko, reminiscent of Achilles, withdraws from his role of military leader, depressed over his loss, until an attacking force endangers the country. He throws himself into the conflict and leads the king’s forces to victory. Shortly thereafter, he is enslaved by a treacherous English captain, who lures him and his companions aboard a slave ship under pretext of holding a celebration. During the voyage across the Atlantic, the captain shows himself capable of other treachery and duplicity.

Oroonoko is sent to the English colony Surinam and assigned to a plantation supervised by Trefry, an educated Englishman. When he reaches the plantation, Oroonoko discovers to his amazed delight that Imoinda is living on the same plantation. The two are reunited and live in happiness together for a time. When Oroonoko learns that Imoinda will bear his child, he decides not to permit the child to be born into bondage. A natural leader, he persuades other slaves and their families to flee with him by night into the jungle. A militia pursues and either captures or kills most of the unarmed slaves. Last to be captured are Oroonoko and Imoinda. Their captors vacillate about their punishment. Trefry is inclined to be merciful, but Byam, a cruel master, is unforgiving and punitive. When Oroonoko realizes that he will have to endure further punishment, he kills Imoinda and afterward is captured in a paroxysm of grief. He recovers from his own attempted suicide and stoically endures slow death by dismemberment at the hands of his captors.

Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, a True History remains significant in the development of the novel for its narrator persona and for its use of concrete details to enhance realism. The narrator assures the reader that all the account is true and claims periodically to have encountered Oroonoko personally at specified points in the action. The abundant details are highly specific, though sometimes inaccurate, as when Behn attributes a length of thirty-six yards to an anaconda or describes tigers in Surinam.

Thematically the work touches on values that are typical of Behn’s fiction, including the right of women to select their spouses, opposition to slavery, and condemnation of the slave trade. The work also includes a celebration of the primitive, though this celebration is qualified. The indigenous people of Surinam are admirably adjusted to life in their environment, but they are not so adaptable as the highly educated protagonist. Above all, the novel is an account of the hero who upholds the ideals of civilization among Europeans who are, for the most part, evil.


Aphra Behn Poetry: British Analysis


Behn, Aphra (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))