In all of Aphra Behn’s fourteen fictions there has been a notable absence of an explicitly male narrator, instead having some as definitely female and others left as an ambiguity. The technique of a female narrator is one that was uncommon during the hierarchical restoration era that Oroonoko was written during. Behn’s presence in the literary world was notable as one of the first female authors to make money out of writing in England. It is arguably, therefore, more incredible that she chose to use a female narrator for her novels, and focus on femininity and giving women power, through her writing. By having a female spectator for the novel, she is presenting all the events through the eyes of a woman. It is therefore the case that women are given all the power and the ability to change, create and control the actions of the characters, and how they are presented.
The focus on women allows for an accurate portrayal of women’s lives and how they really are. Furthermore, it allows for a subtle mockery and critiquing of men, while making them consumers of female text. This powershift from women being below men, to men being controlled and mocked by women is revolutionary and makes Behn’s work a necessary and welcome change in literature. Behn’s lenience towards female narrators is a concept that was not common during the period she was writing, however in doing so Behn is able to mock men and, at the same time, empower women. While Behn’s narration in Oroonoko has been criticised as being ‘incessantly apologetic’ and ‘self-deprecating’1, it is in fact very subtly mocking and critiquing the male audience. Behn purposely makes it obvious that she is aiming at a male reader, for example she genders him by saying ‘my Reader, in a world where he finds diversions for every minute’.
It cannot be denied, therefore, that Behn’s writing, is by women for a man. It can easily be assumed that this puts the narrator in a position of obedience to the man, however the images that Behn creates of male power are dependent of a female, with her narrative controlling and creating male behaviour. Further, by having a female as the narrator, more specifically we can assume Behn herself, it allows for a different writing style to a male narrator. For example, the narrator in Oroonoko appreciates and almost lusts after the slave, asserting that there could be ‘nothing in nature more beautiful’.
By having a female narrator this description is not only made more realistic due to the nature of the compliment from a woman, but allows for an appreciation of him without having any controversy over homosexual undertones. It allows Behn to be more expressive in her description of Oroonoko as she is viewing him as a potential partner. Thus, by having a female narrator Behn has a different freedom in her writing, one which allows her to benefit from her femininity. As this novel is read by modern audiences, further implications are discovered as it is studied as a feminist text. Namely the way in which This decision to write from a female perspective alters the way in which the novel is presented. Firstly, the narrator is presumably Behn herself, due to the way the initial letter is signed ‘A Behn’, therefore, more than most she is able to include her own opinions in the writing, allowing an insight into Behn’s mind. For example, we can see a clear bias towards European beauty standards, which leads to a prejudice and racist view of the Africans.
When describing Oroonoko, he is said to have a nose that ‘was rising and roman, instead of African and flat’, here Behn is explicitly attempting to set this man apart from the rest of the Africans, placing him at a higher standing due to his abundance of European traits. This is highlighted when discussing his colour, a fact that Behn cannot deny is African and which she places at a disadvantage for Oroonoko’s beauty. The other Africans are described as being ‘brown, rusty black’, while Oroonoko had the skin of ‘perfect ebony or polished jet’. This places him above the rest of his people in an exaggerated glorified manner. It is important to note that the beauty that ‘struck an awe and reverence’ into the narrator is one of a royalist origin, rather than the natural aspects of him. Oroonoko’s upbringing included both a ‘natural inclination to arms’ and an education in ‘Morals, Language and Science’. This friction between the primitive nature of Oroonoko and the royalist aspects of his nature and birth create a strange paradox, one highlighted in his caption of ‘ a royal slave’. The oxymoronic nature of his title emphasises the unorthodox and novel concept of this African royalty.
Further, while there is no direct comment on the divine right of kings, for the readers of this book that concept would have been very imminent in their minds. Thus the ‘awe and reverence’ that is assigned to Oroonoko implies this concept, and the piety of royalty, emphasised in him being ‘belov’d like a deity’. The value of Oroonoko is highly associated with his birth, ‘for this is the romantic myth of royalty, which endows blood and ancestry with a mysterious potency’. 2 This further exhibits the narrator’s attraction to the character as she discusses him with such overstated adoration, comparing him to a God. The personality of the narrator massively factors into the way the text is received. Furthermore, by using herself as the narrator for this text Behn is creating verisimilitude. This is apparent within the opening of the book as she presents it as a ‘true history’. While this novel is in fact fiction, the realistic description and use of geographical locations furthers the realism in the novel and could convince the reader that it is real.
For example, the country of Surinam is discussed in detail, with comments made about their trading of beans and other such goods. This increases the authority of the narrator and makes her more trustworthy by including truth-like facts about real places. The realism was so convincing that even modern-day critics discuss whether the events described were in fact, truthful. While many are clearly fictitious due to their nature, it is still possible to believe that aspects of the story were based on real life events. This changes the way that the reader experiences the novel as it gives it more importance than a made-up set of events, and makes the story and characters more relatable to the audience. Further, Behn uses her narrator to ‘speak with a consciously ironic voice to reveal the contradictions in the received orthodoxies of gender, or unconsciously reveal themselves as victims of these very contradictions’3.
In Oroonoko it is the role of the narrator to, while telling the story in a conventional way also critique the male audience it is aimed at. This is evident when Oroonoko is kidnapped and forced into slavery, as the female narrator directly addresses the male audience. The narrator comments that ‘some have commended this act, as brave in the Captain; but I will spare my sense of it, and leave it to my reader to judge as he pleases’. This comment subtly attacks the male readership, evident in Behn’s use of ‘he’ when referring to her audience, and suggests a moral objection to the Captains actions, while in turn implying that the male audience are less moral and would judge actions differently and, arguably, in worse way to a female. This subtle undermining and critiquing of men is an advantage of using a female narrator as it allows for a far wider message to be presented within the main story.
Many of Behn’s texts employ the use of female narrators, reversing the relationship of men and women and putting females into a position of power and control. Behn is able to control and create men and their circumstances and thus, how they are perceived. Furthermore, by having this presented as a ‘true history’ the presentation of men is all even more important as it implies that the text is relating to real people, real men and thus real judgement can be made.
Finally, it is undeniable that having a female narrator with such personality and unwavering opinions alters the way in which this text is written and received. The way in which Behn uses the female narrator to subtly undermine men and to tell a story through a female perspective was revolutionary in the patriarchal society that Behn was writing within and changed the literature norm and women’s standing in society allowing them more freedom in writing.