Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Arms and the Woman: Narrative, Imperialism, and Virgilian Memoria in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Arms and the Woman: Narrative, Imperialism, and Virgilian Memoria in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

Article excerpt

 
   Happy pair! If aught my verse avail, no day shall ever blot you from the 
   memory of time, so long as the house of Aeneas shall dwell on the Capitol's 
   unshaken rock, and the Father of Rome hold sovereign sway. 
 
   --Virgil, Aeneid IX 
 
   I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to make his 
   Glorious Name to survive to all Ages ... 
 
   --Aphra Behn, Oroonoko 

The attempt to memorialize, which Behn's narrator stages at various moments in Oroonoko, lies at the heart of epic's ideology and formal structure in the Aeneid. Yet, as David Quint has successfully shown, the power to construct a nomen memorabile within a narrative mode that is sanctioned, or even tolerated, by imperialism comes at a price. Namely, imperialist narrative, even when it is employed satirically by empire's detractors (as in Lucan's Pharsalia) or apologetically by a female narrator (as in Oroonoko), ultimately preserves its names, or memoria, on terms that uphold rather than undermine empire's predominance. (1) Virgil makes this relationship between narrative and imperialism explicit by associating the permanence of his verse with the Roman empire itself. Behn's narrator, somewhat more elliptically, also connects her hero's "Name" to empire's longevity: "Mr. Trefry gave Oroonoko [the name] of Caesar; which Name will live in that Country as long as that (scarce more) glorious one of the great Roman" (36). The parenthetical remark here betrays a sense of competition, absent in the Virgilian passage, between empire's legitimizing power and Behn's own memorializing project. While criticism of Oroonoko has often discussed the narrator's ambivalence toward her hero, this paper suggests that Behn's narrator elucidates an ambivalence toward narration itself and its ability to memorialize. In particular, I argue that Behn's narrator engages an anxiety about the claims made upon narrative by historicity, integrity, and multi-vocality on the one hand, and by imperialism on the other. (2) It is indicative of Behn's anxiousness toward imperialism's claims, I will further show, that she exercises a strongly Virgilian model of empire while simultaneously interrogating its effects.

Throughout the novel, Behn suggests connections between generic form and certain political or imperial structures. In the middle of Oroonoko, for example, after Oroonoko and Imoinda are reunited on the colonial island of Surinam, the narrator remarks that Trefry, the overseer of the plantation, "was infinitely pleas'd with this Novel" (40). The mood here is putatively nostalgic, as the scene continues the love-affair between Oroonoko and Imoinda in Africa. At the same time, the appellation of Oroonoko's reunion as a "Novel" elides suggestively (and uncomfortably, perhaps, for a modern audience) with the overseer's desire to maintain a plantation of contented slaves. Happy slaves, the narrator seems to suggest, make for good reading. The term "Novel," with both its early modern meanings of "new" and of something to be read, registers an uneasy relationship between the efficaciousness of colonialism and the appeal of a certain type of narrative. In this respect, Behn's repeated conflations of form and effect, as in her suggestive use of "Novel," are strikingly emblematic of the "far from accidental convergence" that Edward Said finds between empire-building and novel-writing: "Without empire, I would go so far as saying, there is no European novel as we know it, and indeed if we study the impulses giving rise to it, we shall see the far from accidental convergence between the patterns of narrative authority constitutive of the novel on the one hand, and, on the other, a complex ideological configuration underlying the tendency to imperialism" (69-70).

From another perspective, however, to the extent that Behn exposes this latent relationship between novel-writing and imperialism, she suggests a way of reading against empire. …

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