Themes and Meanings
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 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.
(The entire section is 1,361 words.)