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The White Mistress and the Black Slave:

Aphra Behn, Racism and the Beginnings of Novelistic Discourse

© 1995 by Ruth Nestvold

Aphra Behn's short novel Oroonoko (1688), one of the first realistic prose narratives in English literature, contains a number of elements that are new: the chatty narrative style; the narrative authority who is recognizably female; and a plot which takes place in the New World, a slave uprising in the British colony of Surinam. It should hardly be surprising that this accumulation of "novel" elements results in ideological contradictions in the work itself, contradictions that reflect the inconsistency produced by changing social structures in the seventeenth century. Particularly interesting in this respect is the relationship between the two members of disadvantaged groups: the hero of the story, the black male slave, and the white mistress who is his narrator. While this narrator is sympathetic to the plight of her hero, the novel cannot avoid participating in the discourse of racism.(1) Oroonoko is an example of racism in the sense of intrinsic social inequality rather than an individual racist document; in fact, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Oroonoko was considered an anti-slavery novel: "The novella had been recognized as a seminal work in the tradition of antislavery writings from the time of its publication down to our own period."(2)

Despite the narrator's critical treatment of slavery, Oroonoko is an exemplary text for a study of racism at the beginning of novelistic discourse; it cannot easily be dismissed as merely the work of a racist indivual, and as such can be examined for more far-reaching effects of race within culture. The goal of the proposed paper will not be to prove whether Behn was racist or not (as numerous articles have already done on both sides(3)), but to examine the way in which the complex relationship of race and gender informs this early prose narrative, as well as the criticism surrounding it.

A number of the contradictions of Oroonoko are connected to the elements that make it a transitional work in the development of the novel: the combination of the courtly world of the romance (personified ironically in a black slave), and the new world of the contemporary reader--and the narrator. These elements cannot be separated from race. Oroonoko is the story of the royal slave from the point of view of the middle-class colonial mistress: the black male protagonist can only speak through the white female narrator. This situation points out the simplistic nature of the women=colonized metaphor which Laura Donaldson criticizes:

...the woman=colonized, man=colonizer metaphor lacks any awareness of gender--or colonialism for that matter--as a contested field, an overdetermined sociopolitical grid whose identity points are often contradictory. Historical colonialism demonstrates the political as well as theoretical necessity of abandoning the idea of women's (and men's) gender identity as fixed and coherent. Instead ... it makes it impossible to ignore the contradictory social positioning of white, middle-class women as both colonized patriarchal objects and colonizing race-privileged subjects.(4)

The attitude of the narrator in Oroonoko toward slavery is not easy to pinpoint. She never criticizes slavery directly, but the perspective of the victimized hero promotes a critique of slavery nonetheless. On the one hand, the narrator insists that she has a certain amount of authority in the colonial society of Surinam, which would seem to imply participation in the racist-colonialist ideology, but on the other hand, Oroonoko is portrayed more positively than most of the colonists. Despite her claims to social authority, it is precisely the marginal position of the narrator as a woman in patriarchal colonial society that lends her the authority to speak for the hero. And although she maintains that she has authority to save Oroonoko, she is unable to do so.

The paradoxical positioning of the narrator is reflected in the contradictory use of pronouns.(5) When the topic is the abuse of the slaves, the narrator refers to the colonists as "they"; when she is speaking of the peaceful coexistence with the Indians it is "we":

But before I give you the story of this gallant slave, it is fit I tell you the manner of bringing them to these new colonies; those they make use of there, not being natives of the place: for those we live with in perfect amity, without daring to command them...(6)

At times she even refers to "the Christians" as "they," implying that she does not belong in this category either. When there is a threat to the colony, however, then the narrator is part of the "we" of the colonists. This usage seems to imply a "we" that consists of women and children, those who flee when the situation gets dangerous. By allying herself with the powerless members of society, the narrator does not have to take on any responsibilty for the brutality of the colonial leaders. But this only makes her own powerlessnenss apparent, contadicting her statements about her influential position. The main criterium of oppression in Oroonoko is race and not gender, but the only actions open to the female narrator are flight and speech.

The relationship between the oppressed groups in Oroonoko is characterized by sympathy but complicated by the different hierarchies governing behavior. The narrator is a member of colonial society, and that is the side she takes when open conflict breaks out. Oroonoko belongs to the soldier class of a society in which women are little better than property. But within the framework of the novel it is the romantic hero, Oroonoko, who is little better than property, an aristocratic hero of epic proportions trapped in a capitalistic plot. The narrator mediates both world views in her text, but she does not acknowledge Oroonoko's place in the capitalist system. It is not only a "they" consiting of men from which the narrator excludes herself, it is a "they" of trade, specifically of trade with human beings.

It has been frequently noted that Oroonoko produces a much more realistic effect than earlier prose narratives.(7) It is not only the convincing details which contribute to achieving this effect; it is also the contradiction between the narrator's assumed social position and her actual powerlessness as a character within the framework of the plot. Oroonoko is the extraordianry hero of romance or tragedy, but the narrator's failure to save him, her struggle against the social apparatus, is a distinctly novelistic device. And this struggle is ultimately concerned with constraints of race and gender.

Oroonoko is replete with contradictions: perhaps true, perhaps not; perhaps travel account, perhaps novel; from an author who uses a narrator who claims to be the author--a fictionalized author, who claims to have authority which she obviously doesn't. The effect of these contradictions on the reader is to create the impression of a narrative voice deeply disturbed by the events related, and convincing us with the divided loyalty of a narrator who is affected and affecting. The inconsistencies in Behn's short novel are particularly interesting in the context of how literature participates in racist discourse; on the one hand, Oroonoko shows a resistence to facile racial categories, but at the same time it perpetuates categories it seems to reject. It is of particular interest to literary history that such contradictions as these are situated at the beginning of modern novelistic discourse, and that they find their expression in such a seminal work as Behn's Oroonoko.


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1. On Behn's contradictory attitude towards slavery see Moira Ferguson, Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834, Chapter 2, "Oroonoko: Birth of a Paradigm." (New York und London: Routledge, 1992): 27-49.

2. Laura Brown, "The Romance of Empire: Oroonoko and the Trade in Slaves," in: Felicity Nussbaum und Laura Brown, eds. The New Eighteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1987): 42.

3. For examples of attacks on Behn's presumably racist attitude see Ros Ballaster, "New hystericism: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: the body, the text and the feminist critic," in: Isobel Armstrong, ed. New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts (London: Routledge, 1992): 283-95; and Charlotte Sussmann, "The Other Problem with Women: Reproduction and Slave Culture in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," in: Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory and Criticism, Heidi Hutner, ed. (Charlotesville: Universtiy Press of Virginia, 1993): 215.

4. Laura E. Donaldson, Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender and Empire-Building (Chapel Hill: Univ. of N.C. Pr., 1992): 6.

5. See Jacqueline Pearson, "Gender and Narrative in the Fiction of Aphra Behn," Review of English Studies 42, 165 and 166 (1991): 188.

6. Aphra Behn, Oroonoko: Or, the Royal Slave (1688). In: The Novels of Mrs Aphra Behn, Ernest A. Baker, ed. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1969): 1-2.

7. See for example William C. Spengemann, "The Earliest American Novel: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," Nineteenth Century Fiction 38 (1983-84): 409.

Oroonoko and narrative authority (Text of a related paper given at the University of Munich. In German.)

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