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Aphra Behn's Oroonoko As The First Modern Novel

1313 words - 5 pages

    During the seventeenth century, the art of writing was like uncharted waters for women, in which most who ventured were rendered pathetically unsuccessful.  No matter the quality, publications written by women were typically ridiculed by their male contenders.  However, a handful of women defied the common standards and were prosperous; one of these was Aprha Behn.  Virgina Wolf says of Behn, "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."  Although she was a woman of outstanding accomplishments, one of her publications truly glistens.  Oroonoko (1688), the epic tale of a heroic black slave, has often been dubbed the first modern novel in that it displays qualities utterly matchless for the seventeenth century.

 

Although one may not realize it, several aspects work harmoniously in constructing the modern novel.  According to Ian Watt, three of these are particularity, unity of design, and rejection of traditional plots.  A novel must focus on specific characters and has to occur in a distinct time frame.  Furthermore, a novel should have a plot unlike others of the era.  One common idea or theme should also rule the work.  All of these characteristics are vividly expressed in Oroonoko.

 

Particularity, Watt states, is "the amount of attention it [the novel] habitually accords to both the individualism of its characters and to the detailed presentation of their environment."  Behn puts an emphasis on only a few main characters; these being Oroonoko (Caesar), the narrator who is a white mistress, and Imoinda, Oroonoko's love.  The writer goes to great lengths to brilliantly paint a picture of Oroonoko for the readers, describing him in lucid detail:

 

He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied.   His face was not that of brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet.  His eyes were the most awful that could be seen, and very piercing; the white of them being like snow, as were his teeth.  His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat.  His mouth, the finest shape that could be seen; far from those great turned lips that were natural to most Negroes. (Behn 80-81)

 

Furthermore, the female narrator present is yet another uncanny character in Oroonoko because influencial women were not typically presented in literature in the seventeenth century.  Janet Todd describes the narrator as, "a watcher and a listener, a recipient of gossip and news, commonsensical in her comments, but not omniscient and not able to deliver poetic justice in a place of real life-happening or to provide a simple and single version of people and events" (19).  Likewise, great care is taken to focus on a specific location in which the tale takes place.  It is clearly stated that the novel takes place "in a colony in America, called Surinam, in the West Indies" (Behn...

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