the death of the mother in aphra behn’s oroonoko

Oroonoko vs Moll Flanders

Truth is the emblem of the Age of Englightenment. By this criterion, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688: 1969) was dismissed as a lie by critics in the 18th century and has ever since been neglected in British literary history. In her impressive study The Mothers of the Novel (1986), Dale Spender reopens women’s literary history and tells us in relation to Aphra Behn that the writer of Oronooko was not credible as a storyteller (61ff). What did Aphra Behn know about Surinam? Had she ever been there? Those were the questions that occupied literary critics, not Oroonoko‘s literary qualities. It was, in other words, not Aphra Behn’s credibility as a narrator, but primarily her credibility as a an historical person that was being questioned. This seems to me to be an alibi for critics’ reluctance to discuss Oroonoko, not only because it was written by a woman, nor that she criticized colonialism, but because of, which is my contention, its non-conformity with paternal law in its deep structure rather than in the novel’s obvious social criticism.

To make my point clear, I will contrast Oroonoko to Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722: 1987). Although there have been discussions as to Defoe’s credibility as a narrator, this novel must be true by Enlightenment standards since it was canonized within literary history as one of the original novels. Defoe’s social criticism is thus not disconcerting to the extent that it needs to be forgotten. Hence, we can draw the conclusion that it is not social criticism as such that decides whether a novel is “true” or not. In spite of the fact that the difference between Oroonoko and Moll Flanders is, as we will see, manifest at the novel’s discursive level, we will focus on their structural and semiotic content. Psychoanalysis brings the Oedipal pattern to the fore as a structuring device for if not human experience at least Western culture and that is where I will start. But first we have to consider what truth meant to the man of reason and how this truth is related to the Oedipal frame.

Today we usually see the 17th and the 18th centuries as the beginning of the modern era but, at the same time, this is the time when the peculiar mixture of Hellenic and Christian thought about the scale of being reaches its peak in England (Lovejoy, 1964: 83ff). Although the cosmological/theological scale of being is now interpreted in a temporalized form, the scale’s truth is unvaried. Truth continued to be the Good/God, the Father, and the world the emanation of his perfection. Or, to put it in Pope’s words: “All are but parts of one stupendous whole,/ Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.” The idea that One is all thus underlies this doctrine of Nature’s perfection. Differences are a matter of degree rather than kind.

In the chain’s ladder we can see, again in the words of Pope, “worlds on worlds compose one universe, / Observe how system into system runs” which enables us “;all to agree.” Thus, if paternal law is truth, the Mother who cannot be Father and hence is other must be excluded from this truth. This is exactly what Oedipal identification involves, a rejection of (incestuous desire for) the Mother and identification with the imago of the Father. Assuming that such is the case, my discussion provides us with two criteria for a story to be true: a) that One is all and hence disregards differentiation, and b) that the pursuit of the Good remains witihin the ramifications of paternal law, that is, within the imago of the Father and its consensus.

Both Moll and Oroonoko are lawbreakers, but whereas Moll breaks the law of the judicial system, Oroonoko transgresses paternal law and, consequently, his crime cannot be encompassed within rational common consensus. Davis’s account of the criminal tale’s impact on the novel in Factual Fictions (1983) can help us in differentiating between Moll’s and Oroonoko’s crimes. Following Michel Foucault’s argument that the criminal’s body was holy and spoke the truth at the time of execution, Davis argues that the ritual of execution served to “permit paradoxically the lawbreaker to become the law-affirmer, the liar to become the speaker of final truths, and the thief to become the giver of good advice” (126). Resuscitation due to “sloppy” hanging was not unusual and, as Davis points out, the criminal’s body when seen as a “locus of truth and holiness” together with the following resuscitation is analogous to the body of Christ (129). Christ, in his rejection of the Mother and the materiality of desire to the benefit of the Father’s truth, can be seen as maybe the very first instance of Oedipal identification with paternal law.

Structurally, Moll Flanders mimes Christ’s way towards the Father and Moll is the law-affirmer, the speaker of truth and giver of good advice. Admittedly, Moll is never executed. Her death is a symbolic death. As she finally ends up in Newgate, her death sentence is pronounced. Moll when hearing the verdict feels the sentence to be “like death itself” (269). The minister attending to her during her days of symbolic death takes on the therapeutic role of the psychoanalyst to “disburthen” her mind, to free her speech so that Moll can speak the truth (271). “He broke into my very soul,” Moll says, and she is prepared to cast her “soul entirely into the arms of infinite mercy as a penitent” (ibid). Sin and guilt are, as Julia Kristeva argues in Powers of Horror, interiorized taboos of the Mother’s body (120-122). Moll in giving herself up to the “infinite mercy” of God purges herself of the Mother and affirms the validity of paternal law at the time that she speaks the rational truth about her guilt. Once the law is affirmed, she returns “into life again” (273). She is, in other words, resurrected in the sense that the violence of her larceny and promiscuity previous to her conversion is displaced and takes new shape in the form of acceptable violence in the 18th century, that is, in colonialism and slavery.

Unlike Moll, Oroonoko does not provide this necessary reverse to the law’s affirmation. He is never resurrected, nor does he confess any guilt on his part. His death is final and irrevocable as his dismembered body is sent to “several of the chief plantations” (81). Whereas Moll’s quest in life is the pursuit of material acquisitions, Oroonoko’s quest is the fight for freedom. Rather than living in slavery, Oroonoko is prepared to take the lives of both himself and his wife Imoinda. However, overtaken by grief for Imoinda, Oroonoko cannot complete the act and is found by the British colonisers. The despair he experiences in front of them brings him to auto-mutilation. He cuts off “a piece of flesh from his own throat” and rips up “his own belly” (78). Admittedly, this does sound incredible, but what is more important here is that the sin of despair is not compatible with the idea of the Good. Nor is his act rational speech, the truth of God, of logos, but an emotive expression of his body. Furthermore, auto-mutilation is a form of sacrifice and since the performance of sacrifice is the first socially inscribed institution, Oroonoko takes away the right and might and the privilege of the law in performing this sacrificial act himself. He is in this sense asocial.

Moreover, after having been patched up, Oroonoko is dismembered in a beastly manner by the Governor’s man. The Governor’s violence is the only “truth” Oroonoko has heard from the white man (80). Thus, what he says is that colonialism’s truth is dismemberment and beastliness, that is, chaos. A truth that is hardly compatible with the idea of rational and civilized man. Since there is no penitence on behalf of Oroonoko, nor a structural resurrection, this truth must be a lie. Oroonoko’s testimony to posterity is the dismembered body, disparate images that lacks the unity of the Father’s mediation. Since Oroonoko cannot be rationalized and incorporated within paternal law and the idea that One is all, the reader or critic who is firmly rooted in that idea cannot accept that Oroonoko’s experience of colonialism differs from the colonisers’. The narrator who tells such a story must be a liar.

This structural difference between Moll Flanders‘s truth and Oroonoko‘s lie, or between Defoe’s credibility and Behn’s non-credibility as narrator, is further reinforced by their handling and application of marriage rules. Since marriage rules are basic to society’s structure, it is no coincidence that marriage plots come to the fore in the realist novelistic canon. Marriage rules are there to ensure that the pursuit of the Good remains within the ramifications of paternal law. Obeisance to these rules means that the subject’s designated place in the scale of being is not transgressed, neither metaphysically, nor socially.

The one-way incest taboo, that is, the son’s desire for the mother, is as Freud shows in his Totem and Taboo (1960) a prohibition on the sons’ competing with their father in their choice of women. Although Moll marries her brother unwittingly, she is an accomplice to incest and to incestuous desire that brings her indirectly back to her mother. Once the truth is revealed, she is terrified of her deviation from the path towards the Father. Despite her being “not much touched with the crime of it,... the action had something in it shocking to nature” and her husband becomes “nauseous” to her (102). The ‘natural’ incest taboo is obviously not natural but a social taboo and by repudiating the crime she has committed unknowingly to her, Moll remains within the ramifications of paternal law.

Oroonoko, on the other hand, is a constant transgressor. He does not only rebel against the to him alien law of colonialism, but also against the law of his own society. Having fallen in love with Imoinda, Oroonoko decides to fight for her even after his grandfather, the king, has taken Imoinda as one of his wives. One night Oroonoko steals into Imoinda’s apartment and is, of course, discovered (25). Oroonoko runs away to the army and Imoinda is sold off. Even though Imoinda is not blood-related to Oroonoko, his crime is here of the incestuous kind in that he competes with the law, the authority of his grandfather, the king.

Long before the Romantic age, Aphra Behn was sensitive to the violence rational man inflicted on himself and his fellow beings. She definitely recognizes Oroonoko’s right to his own raison d’etre and the injustice and violence he is exposed to. But such a recognition is an excess in the scale of being. It is precisely in this transgression that Aphra Behn exceeds consensus. On the discursive level she defends the right of the people of Surinam to their own existence,

those people represented an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin: And ‘tis most evident and plain, that nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and virtuous mistress. It is she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world, than all inventions of man: religion would here but destroy the tranquility they possess by ignorance; and laws would but teach them to know offences, of which they have no notion. (77)

If we look closer at the quote above, we find a few interesting observations. Nature is here not defined in term’s of God’s perfection. Nature is a “she” and above that a “virtuous mistress,” that is, nature is associated to the Mother yet without its usual connotations of impurity, evil and chaos that is found among contemporaries such as Bacon and Hobbes. Law and religion are man-made, Behn claims as well, but not emanations of Reason. To her, there is no divine reason underlying social institutions but she criticizes the very reason and intention constitutive to them.

Lovejoy tells us that the belief in the scale’s perfection led to a “rationalistic antiintellectualism” in the 18th century (202). Whereas Oroonoko‘s narrator reasons about causes and effects, questioning their validity, Defoe never lets Moll do so. Moll’s discourse is rational and anti-intellectual as she presents the evidence of her case. As she says, the “moral, indeed, of all my history is left to be gathered by the senses and judgment of the reader” (254). Good as that may be as a reading strategy, Moll remains in the dark about her lot. On the few occasions that she reasons about her life, she reverts to Providence and the devil. She is a “creature completely wicked” (254). At one of her thefts, she proclaims that the “devil lay the snare,” but this devil has earlier been defined as a “she-devil in [her] bosom” (189, 148). This she-devil is later overcome as she turns penitent in her Oedipal identification with the Father.

To sum up, where Defoe participates in the making of a bourgeois ethics and a patriarchal society, Behn resists, or fails, depending on the reader’s point of view, to contribute to the making of patriarchy. Hence she is a liar.

© yvonne martinsson 1988


Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Translated by James Strachey. Routledge, 1960.

Spender, Dale. The Mothers of the Novel. Pandora, 1986.

Lovejoy, A.O. The Chain of Being. Harvard UP, 1964.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia UP, 1982.

Behn, Aphra. "Oronooko." The Novels of Mrs Aphra Behn, Greenwood, 1969.

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Penguin Classics, 1987.

Davis, Lennard. Factual Fictions. Columbia UP, 1983.

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Keywords: patriarchy