Download Aphra Behn Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Aphra Behn World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,626 words.)