Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Trying to Frame the Unframable: Oroonoko as Discourse in Aphra Behn's 'Oroonoko.'

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Trying to Frame the Unframable: Oroonoko as Discourse in Aphra Behn's 'Oroonoko.'

Article excerpt

Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688), an intensely stirring work, has captivated scholars of Restoration English literature in the last two decades with its obvious preoccupations with race, class, and gender. Behn, an underappreciated writer whose fortunes in the scholarly world are rising, is an experimenter in literary forms that attempt to characterize cultural and national identities. Among her works, Oroonoko is most keenly attentive to this issue. Studies of the "novel" have focused on issues such as the interplay among the writer, the constructed Behn of the narrative and the character Oroonoko, the notion of the noble savage or natural man, reliance on travel and romance narratives, fact versus fiction in the text, and political posturing within the scope of representing Oroonoko and Imoinda. What was seen in the Restoration and throughout the eighteenth century as an important abolitionist text has since the early '80s been investigated with methodologies--especially new historicism and feminist critique--that while not undermining obvious historicist assessments of the text, at least show socio-political ambivalence in Behn's posturing. In her 1981 article, Lucy K. Hayden observes that Behn's overall presentations supports slavery's continuation, and she asks "does she pity Oroonoko because he is a noble chief in captivity rather than because he is an enslaved human being?" (405). In an almost conscious way, William C. Spengemann in 1984, Laura Brown in 1987, Jacqueline Pearson in 1991, and Moira Ferguson in 1992 attempted to answer her question. Ferguson, for example, contends that class may be Behn's greatest concern in representing Oroonoko and that she views him favorably as long as he upholds her clear royalist position. It is certainly true that on some level she is not present at some of the most critical junctures in Oroonoko's life (339-59).

While these studies have provided an important context for examining the work, none has attempted to explain those seemingly irresolvable issues in light of the text's own comments on the power of language and representation. Fissures or gaps in the text that we as late twentieth-century readers perceive as "Anglo-African"--a highlighting of the seeming superiority of European qualities--reflect more on Behn's own crisis in the creation of a discourse to represent a world which most of the time is the "Other" (Moira Ferguson 340). Oroonoko as a character is a construction of a variety of discourses--all of which he speaks or presents in gestures. He exists at the intersection of these voices, and thus as one of these shaping voices shifts and another gains dominance, his construction changes. He can be a talented speaker of European languages, be knowledgeable and sympathetic to some of the dire political events of seventeenth-century England, be a master of rhetoric, be a passionate lover, and even be a barbaric murderer.

This article asserts that Oroonoko as a character represents a different order of discursive model, unlike the typical European discourse, identified by verbal communication only. He represents a literary approximation of universal language theory. Throughout the text Oroonoko communicates by words but more importantly through gestural signs by which Behn attempts to separate him from others, including other African slaves. Much of the nobility that Behn assigns to Oroonoko circulates around this model for characterizing him.

To understand Behn's development of Oroonoko as a discourse, we first need to define this "discourse" in terms of Restoration language theory. Then we can suggest a reading of the text in an historicist/semiotic mode that shows the process by which Behn creates Oroonoko as a discourse that ultimately cannot be contained within traditional frames. At the same time that this treatment forms a significant commentary on English colonialism and exploitation, it increases the worth of the African Oroonoko by allowing him to transcend the national limits of European discourse. …

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