The Rover Themes
The main themes in The Rover include love, courtship, and marriage.
- Love: The play explores the different ways that men and women experience love.
- Courtship: The play satirizes the way that social conventions can reduce romance to competition.
- Marriage: The play examines the institution of marriage and its role in the lives of men and women, emphasizing the power imbalance that favors men.
Typical of comedies written after the Restoration, The Rover explores issues of love, courtship, and marriage. Like her contemporaries, Aphra Behn treats these issues with a certain degree of bawdy, detached cynicism. Her characters are predominantly self-serving, and her plays never melt into the kind of sentimentality that distinguishes the drama of the later eighteenth century. Similar to other Restoration gallants, Willmore is an attractive, witty, free-spirited protagonist, who falls in love capriciously and desires sex without marriage. He does not, however, treat women as disdainfully as other gallants, such as Horner, the protagonist in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (pr., pb. 1675). More important, Behn avoids her contemporaries’ practice of reducing women either to virginal commodities or to corrupt whores. The female characters in The Rover are complex, intelligent women whose value is not compromised by the sexual desire they share with the male characters. Behn’s satire is not directed toward women but rather toward hypocritical social conventions that reduce romance to competition and women to possessions.
This theme is introduced in the first scene of Part I. Destined for a convent and an arranged marriage, Hellena and Florinda have no sexual autonomy and are trapped in roles that have been assigned to them by their male relatives. The carnival represents an opportunity for the women to escape these roles. Once they are disguised, Florinda can actively seek Belvile, and Hellena can search for the romance she desires. Behn makes it clear, however, that the sisters have not escaped the dangers of masculine hegemony. Without the protections of name and social standing, Florinda is almost raped. In the end, Hellena wins the Rover, but the audience must question his commitment to their marriage, a suspicion borne out in Part II, when Willmore nonchalantly mentions Hellena’s death as he seeks new romance in Madrid. Even Angelica, the prostitute who controls men through her beauty, becomes a victim. Seduced and abandoned by Willmore, she ends the play bitter and powerless. Her pathetic attempt to seek revenge on Willmore casts a dark shadow on the play’s otherwise comic ending and calls attention to the perilous world in which the female characters live.
In Part II, Behn develops her feminist themes more strongly. In their dialogue, Willmore and La Nuche savage the values of their society by equating marriage for money with prostitution. Willmore, true to his convictions, becomes disgusted when La Nuche shows more interest in Beaumond’s money than in his love. In the context of the play, however, La Nuche’s decision is understandable. Like the other women, she must use her sexuality to survive. The fickle Willmore is likely to abandon her as quickly as he did Angelica. Ariadne at first resists the loveless marriage that has been arranged for her. After experiencing the confusion and danger of loving Willmore, however, she agrees to marry Beaumond, not out of love, but because she has given up on love. Exhausted and bewildered, she accepts Beaumond in an effort to avoid the crushing masculine forces that humiliate Angelica and marginalize Hellena. La Nuche and Willmore avoid the hypocrisy of marriage, but there is little hope for their future. Willmore will continue to rove, and La Nuche may once again face the imperatives that drove her to prostitution.
In the end, Behn’s plays send complicated messages. Willmore remains a witty and tenacious hero. Because of her intelligence, courage, and adventurous spirit, La Nuche becomes a heroine. Their union, as Behn scholar Heidi Hutner argues, expresses a “cultural longing for a prelapsarian golden age in which the sexes love mutually and women are desiring subjects...
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rather than passive objects.” At the same time, however, Willmore is far from innocent. However attractive he may be, he willingly participates in a culture that demeans and endangers women.
Marriage and Courtship Women in seventeenth-century Europe had few options in terms of marriage and courtship. They could not initiate relations with men, and often their parents made the final decision about whom they would marry. Families sometimes used marriages to seal business and political relationships, ignoring the daughter's interests. The practice of paying a dowry (by the bride's family to the groom's family) was also still common. Most families would invest their dowry money in the eldest daughter, vying to marry her into the best family possible. Younger daughters often were consigned to a convent, thus reducing expenses, while at the same time "contributing" to the church. In poorer families, prostitution became a viable option. Once married, often to a man she neither knew nor liked, a woman became his property, as did all of her belongings. With no means to prevent pregnancies, the wife became a baby "machine," producing heirs for the family and very often mourning their early deaths, since child mortality rates were shockingly high. Nevertheless, men expected sexual gratification from their wives (as well as from their mistresses) and required obedience and fidelity. This restrictive state of affairs inspired Mary Wollstonecraft over a hundred years later to quip that for women marriage was little more than ‘‘legalized prostitution.’’
In The Rover, Aphra Behn portrays the typical pattern of options available to women. As the eldest, Florinda is to be married to a man of her father's choosing. Hellena wryly describes the loveless marriage-bed that lies in store for Florinda if she marries the aging Don Vincentio. However, since their father is away, her brother has jurisdiction over her and has chosen his best friend as her mate. Hellena, he has dispatched to a nunnery. She has come home for a brief visit before taking her vows. Neither Florinda nor Hellena wants to obey Pedro's wishes, yet they have no recourse but to try to enjoy a day and night of freedom before their fates are sealed. That they both end up with the man they love and the freedom to marry him is nothing more than a matter of blind luck.
Prostitution For women without a man or a family fortune to keep them, with no education and no money of their own, prostitution was a way to capitalize on their youth to try to gain a measure of independence and to avoid downright poverty. Across Europe, trade in female virtue was tolerated by the public and by the church. In England, Puritan pressure had resulted in parliamentary acts making ‘‘fornication’’ punishable by three-month prison sentences, even in remote villages. Cromwell's moral strictures resulted in a dramatic reduction in prostitution. However, Charles II ended this period of moral restraint by setting a personal example of licentiousness and by expressing permissiveness in his rule. Prostitution was not only reinstated, it was actually embraced as a form of "sophisticated" behavior associated with the court. For women who aspired to a wealthy clientele, the new career of the actress offered the perfect opportunity to display their "wares" and attract new clients.
The social and moral climate of Restoration England explains the centrality of the beautiful Angellica to the plot of The Rover. As a sought-after courtesan who can name her own price, she represents the idealized/romanticized version of prostitution that tempted women of all classes and titillated men's fantasies. At the same time, the moral lesson she receives after having fallen in love with a potential client would have appealed to the Puritan sympathizers in the audience. Also apparent in Behn's play is the clear distinction that was made between ‘‘ladies of quality’’ and "whores." Frederick, who nearly gang-rapes Florinda, along with Blunt, exclaims that he would not want to be "trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality when we only believe we ruffle a harlot.'' The shift in terminology from "rape," which is an act of violence, to ‘‘ruffle,’’ which connotes a harmless trifle, aptly represents the vast difference in social responsibility between the two classes of women. The distinction between women seeking men for marriage and women who sell themselves for money lies at the heart of Behn's play. As Elin Diamond explains in her essay ‘‘Gestus and the Signature in Aphra Behn's The Rover,’’ this play ‘‘thematizes the marketing of women in marriage and prostitution.’’