Aphra Behn was the first woman in the history of English literature to earn her living as a writer. While earlier women had left important works in varied genres, none had achieved commercial success. Behn’s primary significance to literary history lies in her prose fiction. She is an important figure in the transition between the prose romances of the Renaissance and the novel in the early eighteenth century. Her narrative art assures her place in literature, and the humanitarian themes of her works endow them with enduring relevance.
Through its narrative techniques and extensive use of specific details to promote verisimilitude, Oroonoko, the most significant and best known of Behn’s seventeen prose romances, represents a critical work in the development of the English novel. Ostensibly narrating from the authorial point of view, Behn 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 techniques of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. Like her successors in prose fiction, she selects details calculated to appeal to the interest of the English in exotic places like the New World. She describes, for example, South American creatures like the armadillo and the anaconda, and her account of the indigenous peoples idealizes their primitive and simple lives. The numerous descriptive details are highly specific, though sometimes inaccurate, as when Behn describes a serpent thirty-six yards long or discusses tigers in Suriname.
The narrator persona assures the reader that the account is true, and claims periodically to have encountered Oroonoko personally at specified points in the action. Also, the narrative incorporates names of actual people known to have been officials in Suriname at the time of the plot. At one point, Behn leads the reader to assume that she was sent to gather information from the hero by colonists who feared a slave uprising. This detail is in accord with her previous work as an intelligence agent for Charles II in Holland. In 1664, she may have actually traveled to Suriname, as she claims. Other details relevant to her own experiences and life include references to her writings, especially her dramatic works. Collectively, these details support her assurances to the reader that she had been a witness to many of the episodes.
The most important parts of her book, like its themes and characters, show that she is following not a real life, but a literary convention. Measured against a hero who is larger than life in...
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