|By Sarah Klein||
Maternity and the Negotiations of Power in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko
In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote, "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" (69). While Behn's significant contributions to the anglophone women's literary tradition have been well documented, and rightly so, at this stage in the critical game Woolf's laudatory statement begs qualification. Much contemporary feminist theorizing seeks to question the very assumptions underlying nominal categories encompassing "all women," deconstructing particular notions about the ways in which power and identity have been gendered. Behn's role in championing anglophone female literary production is one thing. Behn as champion of "all women" may be quite another.
For whatever reasons, Behn's role as "female author" in literary history has, to date, been of more interest to feminist critics than have her female characters or the gender discourses in which the texts themselves take part. For example, with a few notable exceptions, the black female characters of Behn's 1688 Oroonoko, Or the Royal Slave have been relatively sidelined in feminist literary scholarship while critics focus on Behn's biography, her place in literary history, authorial identity, and the text's white female narrator/"heroine." Such approaches are not uncomplicated. As Charlotte Sussman suggests, "although we should see Behn's heroine as a crucial female voice in early modern English literature, we must also recognize the burden of racist discourse she must assume to speak as a white English woman" (255). Indeed, Behn's Oroonoko is a text ripe with possibilities for exploring the author's complex textualization of gender discourses and representation of women, race, and colonial slavery.
More specifically, my argument seeks to respond to and expand upon Charlotte Sussman's important work on reproduction and slave culture in Oroonoko, the only published criticism to date to focus intently on Imoinda's sexuality and reproductive politics in the text. I suggest that there exist still other manifestations of the trope of maternity within this text yet to be explored. Sussman offers one reading of the "possible resistance to slavery within a text otherwise quite concerned with maintaining the status quo," the resistance of self-chosen familial violence, wife-murder and infanticide as an attempt to preserve patriarchal "property relations of family and culture" (Lipking 247). In Sussman's view, resistance around sexuality and reproduction "can only be expressed negatively in Oroonoko" (256). She ends her argument by alluding to other potential configurations of slave resistance and reproduction that might be less "alienable" than the acts that conclude Oroonoko. These very possibilities, alive and well within the text itself and not merely outside it in historical accounts, are those I seek to engage. 1(1)
I argue that a complicated flux of power relations surrounds maternity itself, an inter-textual negotiation of the intersections of gender and race/class privilege with women as primary players fashioned continually in the image of the maternal. In Oroonoko, maternity functions as a site of both disempowerment and resistance, of agency and passivity both moderated by and contributing to a complex of vested interests and conditions.
This novella proves at every turn preoccupied with female sexuality, and consequently with maternity as a correspondent, if at first glance more periphery, thematic. As Sussman too has argued, Imoinda's body is the battleground on which the sexual politics of slavery, as well as particular colonial anxieties, are laid bare. Many of the narrative's conflicts surrounding intersections of race, slavery, and gender are played out on the site of the black female body, and the reproductive outcome of female sexuality haunts Behn's text and its female characters. The maternal trope hovers, seemingly on the sidelines here, ambivalently connected to the other thematic concerns of the narrative, yet ever present, revealing the implications of "woman" in the world of the text. If female sexuality is a ground on which Behn seems to feel comfortable staging this narrative, maternity is that which remains terribly problematic and fearful for her, even in its quiet largesse. It is in her reproductive sexuality that we most recognize the irony of Imoinda as romantic heroine. The hollow, ahistorical absurdity of fleshing out Imoinda's black, enslaved, womanly body as romantic heroine becomes magnified, in fact undeniable, in maternity. While the woman Aphra Behn paves the way for women's literary production and, through writing "escapes some of the limitations imposed on women" (as Jane Spencer puts it), the fictionalized woman Imoinda loses first her liberty and then her life, violently yet sentimentally erased, along with her unborn child. However, this appropriation and erasure does not occur in a vacuum, or in the absence of resistance. Imoinda's circumstances as maternal "other" have everything to do with the enslavement of her black female body, but she is a constant resister. The configuration of Imoinda and other female characters in this text through the trope of maternity gives us a powerful angle from which to examine power negotiations and gender in the narrative.
A Theoretics & Contextualizing of Female Sexuality & Maternity in Oroonoko
My argument relies on an important underlying assumption about the nature of female sexuality and maternity: Both are rooted in the material, biological, sexed body, yet ultimately are historically/culturally/socially determined, constructed, and "discoursed about." These constructions of "female sexuality" and "motherhood" are discursive sites in which power fluctuates constantly and is appropriated and negotiated. Drawing on Chris Weedon's feminist poststructuralist theory (building on theories of Michael Fouccault) may be appropriate for my discussion here to the extent that such theorizing is useful for examining issues of power and identity that surround race, class, and gender, without losing sight of historical specificity. Wheedon suggests that "from the poststructuralist position, fiction offers access to the discourses which constituted gender and the meaning of women's lives at the time of writing . . . Where texts are read as sites for the discursive construction of the meanings of gender, as in feminist poststructuralist readings, their meanings will relate both to the original historical context of production, understood through the discourses which constitute present-day conceptions of history, gender, and meaning, and to the concerns of the present" (133-34). When I address female sexuality and maternity here, then, I see them in their contingent meanings, as "discourses," and I draw on the fact that, as Wheedon argues, "feminist poststructuralism is able, in historically-specific analysis, to explain the workings of power on behalf o specific interests and to analyze opportunities for resistance to it" (40). According to theorist Michael Foucault, where there is power, there is resistance, or, as historian Barbara Bush puts it, "to be more precise, a plurality of resistances" (204). Even the most oppressed may find their way to subversion, in any number of forms, complicating our notions of history and of the textualization of power.
I draw too on Ros Ballaster's theories of feminist new historicism, which suggest that we may recognize the author as a category of investigation in literary criticism and may examine authorial intention, but without "positing him or her as the sole and originary source of the text's meaning" (286). Such a stance prevents the erasure of Behn's voice as author, while at the same time allowing for an interpretation that recognizes the multiplicity of meaning-making forces in discourse, played out through and within texts. Ballaster rightly argues that Behn's Oroonoko is "a text which opens up a series of questions that are crucial to contemporary criticism to do with the means by which gender, race, and class differences are historically generated, articulated, and put into conflict in the literary text" (288).
The theoretical approaches I draw from in framing my argument consequently call for an attention to historical specificity and require some grounding in the particular discursive dynamics of late seventeenth century England, the cultural-historical context in which Oroonoko was originally written and published. Historian Patricia Crawford, writing on maternity in seventeenth century England, notes that "because of women's potential maternal function, society has an interest in attempting to regulate female lives; that it, a woman's social existence is influenced by her maternal potential, irrespective of whether or not she actually gives birth," suggesting that motherhood is both biologically located in the sexual, female body, as well as in social contingency (3). Crawford notes seventeenth century England's obsession with motherhood, documenting the predominance of the subject in countless male-authored texts (including medical treatises, sermons, domestic advice books, and handbooks for court justices). As Crawford suggests, "while the focus of their attention was on motherhood, the underlying issue was female sexuality. Divines and medical practitioners all shared the same assumptions: women were the disorderly sex, and their sexuality was to be controlled so that they bore children only within marriage, and then only to their lawful husbands" (6). Thus, a considerable amount of socio-cultural anxiety about female sexuality and its regulation within traditional, patriarchal constraints marked the period -- and in fact persisted in these particular manifestations until it began to mutate into slightly modified, new discursive forms in the nineteenth century.
Protestant Christian sects of the period also played a powerful role in the discourses of maternity and female sexuality, with a particular political edge. As Crawford discusses,
The discourses surrounding motherhood and women's sexuality remained deeply engaged with patriarchally-dominant economic and political interests. Historian Keith Thomas, in writing on the subject, suggests that double standards of sexual morality in seventeenth century England "were not entirely due to men's preoccupation with legitimate children, [but] this was undoubtedly a factor. Furthermore, the double standard was part of the means by which men controlled women's sexuality" (10). Bonds between mothers and infants were assumed to be purely biological and natural, and "the mother who could not love her children was diagnosed as insane" (11-12). Indeed, "a powerful ideology of the good mother as caring for children under patriarchal direction existed in early-modern England" (13). Thus, the period fashions maternity as both a site of "special" power for women, as well as a site of patriarchal control and regulation of female sexuality and agency.
Our biographical knowledge of Behn's life supports the notion that her experience was indelibly embedded in the discourses of her time. Jane Spencer documents the ways in which Behn's profitable "bawdy writing" and sexual libertarianism embroiled her in contemporary debates paralleling women who write for money with "punks" (prostitutes). As a female writer, Behn's "unchaste" sexual lifestyle apparently figured prominently in anxious discourse about patriarchal control, the female body, and women's identities. As Spencer notes, "In her 'loose' life and bawdy writing, Behn differed crucially from recent famous women writers . . . So Behn was a problematic model for the aspiring woman writer, and because of her professional success, much harder to ignore" (211). We have some evidence, then, of Behn's acute awareness of and involvement in discourses surrounding women's sexuality in late seventeenth century England.
This cultural-historical and biographical backdrop also demands parallel discussion of black women's sexuality and maternity under colonial slavery. Historian Barbara Bush documents the "high premium placed on female fertility in traditional [West] African cultures" and the "terrible stigma" of infertility in West African Cultures for whom "social identity for women comes solely through motherhood" and where "prolific childbearing is honored" (204). These norms, shaped culturally and historically themselves, clash with a colonial system of slavery which seeks to co-opt, divest of its original cultural value, commodify, and systematically control black female sexuality and maternity, as a byproduct undercutting and subverting English gender discourses surrounding "womanhood," demonstrating the irrelevance of white standards of femininity for the enslaved and objectified black female.
Bush notes that "where sexuality and reproduction were concerned, slave women were quadruply burdened, by both black and white patriarchy and by both gender and racial oppression" (210). Historian Hilary Beckles argues that Caribbean slaveholders wielded "extreme power" with respect to "their right to intervene and manipulate the social world of the enslaved, especially its bio-social reproductive capacity" (22). As a result, Beckles notes,
Beckles documents the ways in which "neither colonial statutes nor slave codes invested slaves with any rights over their own bodies, but rather transferred and consolidated such rights within the legal person of slaveowners" (23). The result of the convergence of the racial, sexual, and class domination of slave women exemplified a "judicial patriarchy supporting and buttressing the ideological representation of white mastery, and illuminating the hegemonic maleness of the colonial enterprise" itself (23).
Sussman, in discussing the economics of reproduction in slave culture, points out that "these problems eventually became a central battleground in the English imperial struggle to maintain a slave culture" (247). She also suggests that the notion of the slave woman's potential "rebellious womb," a "gynecological revolt" powerful in its capacity to elude reproduction if so chosen, loomed large and horrific in the minds of white colonists (253, 256). She writes, "in this scenario, even the reproductive capacity of the womb -- long thought to be the part of woman held in the strictest captivity by patriarchy -- falls under suspicion for resistance" (251). Just over a century after Behn published Oroonoko and on the heels of the 1807 ruling to end the slave trade, the sexual and reproductive conditions of female slaves featured prominently in English discourses surrounding abolitionist movements. Here, abolitionists made strong rhetorical use of accounts of sexual exploitation of black women and the destruction of slaves' family life (Beckles 24). Sussman suggests that English anxieties surrounding slave women's sexuality and maternity long predated the nineteenth century abolition movement.
Aligned with the argument I seek to make here, historian Barbara Bush makes note of Foucault's theoretics of power and resistance in her discussion of slave women's sexuality and reproduction: "Women's control over their bodies was arguably a major area of struggle involving power relations at a most basic level . . . Power over women was exercised through control of their sexuality, a form of oppression rarely experienced to the same degree by slave men" (204). Thus in the state of colonial slavery, discourses of maternity and their relative power dynamics mutate. Women's power through maternity is distorted, co-opted by the slaveholder for economic capital and debased outside its original cultural context. The way in which the enslaved woman locates power in her reproduction then, might take two forms. She may attempt to preserve familial constancy within the unstable world of enslavement, or she may resist participation in a reproduction that has been maligned. The white, English female colonist (Behn's narrator, Behn as author) brings to the table her own cultural contexts and privilege, takes part in the flux of ideologies surrounding meanings of female sexuality and maternity too. The way in which these perspectives engage each other through the trope of maternity needs to be further considered. Thus I, like other critics of this text, remain interested in how Behn's narrative "is complicit with and resists the weight of old oppressions" (Lipking xii).
Ballaster points out a "general tendency in studies of Oroonoko, and in white bourgeois feminist criticism in general, to suppress the problem of a conflictual relationship between the white and black woman in favor of exploring the relationship between the black man and white woman as a mutual interchange of marginalities that willfully produces a myth of interssexual and interracial harmony" (288). And, as Ballaster points out, the complex and persuasive critical readings of both Laura Brown and Jane Spencer "operate only by ignoring the question of racial differences within gender" in their focuses on the similarities between racial and gender oppression (290). Like Ballaster, I implicitly question Brown's view of Imoinda "as purely an extension of the function of the female narrator in Oroonoko," as primarily a "witness" to Oroonoko and the events of the plot (289-90). I diverge from her particular thread of argument in that I focus on maternity, but my discussion remains foundationally aligned with Ballaster's suggestion that "Behn's white female narrator has the twentieth-century white feminist critic's fascination with the black woman as embodying material otherness. She inspects and puts on show the black woman's suffering but ultimately refuses to 'comprehend' it," (293). At the same time, I take issue with Ballaster's assertion that then "the figure of the black woman becomes purely iconic, the mute bearer of female suffering" (293). Recognizing Imoinda's more complex involvement in a web of power and powerlessness located around the maternal trope may undercut straightforward arguments that she represents a simplistic, utterly passive and disempowered female icon -- a stance that ultimately tends to dehistoricize the experience of the black woman in colonial slavery.
Setting the Stage: Maternity in Behn's Fictionalized Africa
Roughly the first third of Behn's Oroonoko pivots directly around female sexuality and its implications in a patriarchally - framed culture where women's bodies and their reproductive potentials are regulated and exchanged in a pattern of male privilege, family order, and lineage ; where Oroonoko's grandfather as Monarch signifies and reifies the cultural-historical power of the male parent, the Father. Behn spends a great deal of time and narrative detail in this portion of the text "fleshing out" a study of patriarchal order within her fictionalized Africa, prominently situating the sexual female body in plot and thematic development. Here we first see the flux of power and resistance surrounding the sexual female body and the trope of maternity that almost seems to "lurk" on the sidelines throughout Behn's narrative.
Behn frames an African world in which the paternal holds visible power while the power of the maternal hovers as a hushed presence, related to and shrouded by "seductive" female sexuality (presented a la "romantic heroine" in the case of Imoinda). The heroic Oroonoko's own mother is absent from the narrative, and he is parented by males into a culture of violence and dominance through warfare. We're told that "as soon as he cou'd bear a Bow in his Hand, and a Quiver at his Back, [he] was sent into the Field, to be trained up by one of the oldest Generals, to War" (12). In this world of men, Oroonoko becomes "the darling of the Soldiers" (12). The closest Oroonoko comes to being "mothered" is through his relationship with his male, European tutor. Here Behn foreshadows the trope of the false, substitute mother that will later be fully configured in the text's prominent white, female narrator. Here, Behn attributes the French tutor, pseudo-mother with a benevolence cloaked in culturally and historically feminized qualities which purportedly humanize (and consequently whitewash for English consumption) the rough and "barbaric" Oroonoko:
The feminization and maternalizing of such "education" acts as a guise deeply invested in "colonizing" aims, putting the maternal to good use and appropriating its language and imagery for larger political/economic/cultural interests. Behn renders Oroonoko palatable to English readers through this substitute mothering, indeed as a the romantic hero who later, we are told, charms the white colonial women. This version of "mothering" and the identity he is socialized into by it, engages the discourses of maternity and gender in late seventeenth-century England to the extent that they play out anxieties about gendered power and identity. The cultural-historical power of the maternal female is here displaced onto the white, male European who "civilizes" the African male, readying him to dazzle the colonists with his whitefaced charms. The French tutor, and Behn, "get away with it" in the text precisely because the tutor is feminized as Oroonoko's "good mother."
As later in the narrative, the Family is the stage on which this portion of the narrative unfolds, its conflicts defining the trouble with Imoinda and her sexuality. The importance of the regulation and appropriation of Imoinda's sexuality in this setting has everything to do with patriarchal order and reproductive, familial control, subsuming reproduction under the agenda of male lineage. A complex angling for position and power plays out between the King and Oroonoko over sexual "right" to possession of Imoinda, and by obvious extension to possession of her future reproduction (16, 17-19). In the descriptions of Imoinda's veiling for sexual presentation to the King, Behn exoticizes and "others" those very patriarchal codes that dominate her own cultural-historical realities of sexual/reproductive power (16). Yet, as a sexual being Imoinda here moves in and out of power and disempowerment, taking agency where she can. Behn recognizes the potential implications for a resistant Imoinda, who, claimed by the King but longing for her self-chosen lover Oroonoko, takes part in a game of power. "Though her life were, by custom, forfeited by owning her passion," within the text Imoinda actually strategizes and mobilizes her own agency at every possible opportunity (19). She resists, asserting sexual agency as a desiring subject. Imoinda chooses Oroonoko out of her own desire. Her resistances are not isolated from the outcomes of her fate and are not lost on the King: "He found that, however she was forc'd to expose her lovely Person to his wither'd Arms, she cou'd only sigh and weep there, and think of Oroonoko; and oftentimes cou'd not forbear speaking of him" (19). We're told that Imoinda's resistance is conscious ; She takes "satisfaction of speaking of him so very often" (19). When it is the only vestige of power available to her, Imoinda "speaks" to her self-chosen lover with her eyes and her body, undermining the illusion of her total sexual disempowerment (20, 23). When Imoinda, with the aid of her "mother" Onahal, finally, in secret, consummates her love with Oroonoko, Behn writes her agency and choice in choosing a partner: "'Tis not to be imagin'd the Satisfaction of these two young Lovers, nor the Vows she made him, that she remain'd a spotless Maid, till that Night . . . the Gods, in Mercy and Justice, having reserv'd that for her plighted Lord, to whom of Right it belong'd" (24). What complicates lines that on one level seem to illustrate the appropriation of the female body as patriarchal chattel is Behn's implication that Imoinda herself has resisted at every possible moment such appropriations, asserting her own will rather than merely being appropriated by one man or the other. It is, then, less important here to note that Oroonoko himself (at many points in this narrative) acts as appropriating patriarch, and more significant to my discussion to locate the spaces in which Imoinda herself claims power and self-determination. To the extent that she chooses her own mate, Imoinda seeks to control the meaning and experience of her future reproduction and maternity in rejection of the particular script she's expected to follow.
Interestingly enough, Behn frames an African world plagued by real ambivalence and anxiety about the obvious interconnectedness between female sexuality and maternity, projecting European gender conflict onto an African script. Her framing of an identity "split" takes part in late seventeenth-century English discourses about women's sexuality and maternity, mirroring and contributing to deeply conflicted and fragmented understandings of the female body and women's identity formations. In the African portion of Behn's narrative, she fragments, and struggles with the intersections of, female sexuality and maternity at every turn. Here we have seductresses, wives and mistresses - and then we have mothers. The sexualized context in which Imoinda encounters the King is bounded within the world of the Otan, the place in which no men other than the King enter, and in which the monarch "went to entertain himself with . . . his Wives, or Mistresses" (18). We are privy to scenes in which the King "commanded Musick to be brought, and several of his young Wives and Mistresses came all together by his command, to dance before him; where Imoinda perform'd her Part with an Air and Grace so passing all the rest, as her Beauty was above 'em" (21). Behn makes these sexualized, seductive, beautiful women the most visible in the text, but the reproductive outcome of their sexual alliances are present only as an implicit subtext, even as invested and crucial as it is in the "meanings" of this patriarchal world. The narrator cuts off their identities and experiences as "mothers" from her consciousness ; that is, until she brings Onahal into the narrative.
Behn plays with the odd dis-alignment of female sexuality and maternity through a rather interesting characterization of Onahal. Literary critics have played surprisingly sparse attention to the figure of Onahal as she functions in the narrative, yet her configuration is crucial to an examination of sexuality and the maternal trope in this text. If Imoinda is configured in this patriarchally-invested context, via her sexual allure, as goddess, as "black Venus" (14), her procreative potentials are magnified in importance even as they are submerged textually. Onahal, on the other hand, will be configured as "mother," as both inside and outside the world of maternalized female identity proscriptions, the particular "other":
Onahal figures prominently in the text not only in that she undercuts the mythology of de-sexed maternity, or that she acts as socializing "mother" to Imoinda, but in that she, through these acts, models maternal resistance. Onahal's station, within her patriarchally-defined world, is to socialize her young charges into playing their seductress roles to the King's desires, training them into an order in which their sexuality is other-focused and practically devoid of agency. In the extent to which Onahal is a resister to gendered disempowerment and the co-optation of both her own sexuality and that of her young charge, she preconfigures the resistant, maternal Imoinda who evolves later in the narrative. Onahal makes use of her appropriated power as "mother" ; Aboan, for instance, recognizes that "to make his Court to these She-Favourites, was the way to be great; these being the Persons that do all Affairs and Business at Court" ; and she does so for her own subversive ends (21). Behn makes it clear that Onahal, despite the constraints of the world in which she is shaped, still harbors interest in sexual expression and love, and we see her flirtations with the young and attractive Alboan. Ultimately, Onahal manages to aid Imoinda in her subversion of patriarchal sexual control, by fascilitationg the unsanctioned liaison with Oroonoko. She simultaneously co-opts the influence allotted to her by a de-sexed maternal role to get the object of her sexual desire, the young Aboan, into bed (22-24). Thus she socializes and "mothers" her "daughter" Imoinda into a recognition of the powers of resistance, located in the sexual, female, maternal body ; a resistance available, as Foucault argues, even to the oppressed.
Behn's fashioning of Onahal takes a significant turn. We hear the echoes of Behn's on cultural-historical context surrounding female sexuality and paternal control of reproductive potentials as the plot unfolds. As a result of the resistant agency taken by she and Imoinda, both are sold into slavery by the duped King:
Both Imoinda and Onahal are enslaved for their subversions of sexual and familial order, but the maternal Onahal is effectively erased. Her black, maternal body disappears abruptly from the narrative, never to be heard of again. However, she has foreshadowed the characterizations, the struggles, and the thematics of the rest of the text.
Playing Out Power: Maternity in Behn's Fictionalized Surinam
If Imoinda's sexual libertarianism (her subversive will as a desiring subject) essentially leads her into a state of slavery rendering her experiences "quadruply burdened" by both patriarchal and racialized/classed constructs, her resistances continue and are played out once again through her sexuality and maternity. She's been "undone in love," as the white colonist Trefry puts it, but her potential and eventual maternity continue to loom as large as does her resistance (38). This time, Imoinda will be shadowed by the white, female narrator whom Behn also configures in the trope of maternity. The portion of the narrative set in Surinam keeps women's sexuality and reproduction in the forefront of its development and thematics, and maternity becomes even more complicated when it faces colonial, racialized and classed power dynamics head-on.
Imoinda's sexual quandary in slavery directly parallels that of her former reality, yet is fortified and compounded by her condition as a slave. She is objectified by the white, male colonists as an object of sexual seduction (as well as a rather hollow and ridiculous projection of the romantic heroine, as several critics have argued). Trefry describes Imoinda and her condition, as seen through the lens of his relative privilege, to the newly-arrived, enslaved, and unknowing Oroonoko:
The potential dangers of sexual violence against slave women is only magnified by the language and ideological exchange between Trefry and Oroonoko himself about the ever-present disruption of female sexual choice and agency through rape. (The reality of which Imoinda is spared here only because Behn attempts to write her into the romantic script). Of course, we know that Imoinda marries and gives herself sexually to Oroonoko upon their reunion. Imoinda's previously staunch, cold as "Ice" sexual refusal and assertion once again of her own choice in desire may be read as part-and-parcel of her configuration as the chaste and virtuous (read, sexless) romance heroine, but it may also be read as a primary site of her resistance as woman, and as slave. As well as demonstrating the ways in which other axes of power may modify gendered oppressions in different contexts, the "treble respect" payed Imoinda by the white colonists upon learning of her aristocratic lineage sets up a totally ahistorical illusion of white respect and benevolence toward the African slave family. This illusion is rendered even more absurd in Behn's depiction of Oroonoko's marriage to Imoinda, a wedding lavished with "as much magnificence as the Country would afford" (40).
Immediately after the wedding (in fact encapsulated textually within the same sentence), the obvious potential outcome of Imoinda's sexuality, her maternity, enters the narrative. Imoinda, and Oroonoko, understand fully the implications of her maternity within the state of enslavement: "In a very short time after she conceiv'd with Child; which made Caesar [Oroonoko] even adore her, knowing he was the last of his Great Race" (40). Imoinda is invested with a gender-appropriated power in maternity, but this power is distorted under slavery and the instability of meaning and power located in motherhood is here enlarged as it is written upon the black, enslaved woman's body. Reproduction here becomes primarily an issue of racial continuation and investment, a cultural survival with implications encompassing but surpassing the immediate familial lineage. Sussman argues that the ensuing violence springs "not from a conflict between freedom and slavery, but rather from Oroonoko's and Imoinda's need to preserve the property relations of family and culture in a situation that all but destroys them," but I suggest that the two cannot be separated (256).
Until the moment of Imoinda's pregnancy, the romantic formula thinly holds up. But Imoinda's maternity sparks in Oroonoko a concerted focus on gaining freedom ; It acts to suddenly ignite his realization of the meaning of his own enslavement:
However, Oroonoko is not the only resister of the appropriation of Imoinda's maternity for slavers' interests. Her own consciousness of her maternal predicament is made clear: "Now Imoinda began to shew she was with Child, and did nothing but Sight and Weep for the Captivity of her Lord, her Self, and the Infant yet Unborn; and believ'd, if it were so hard to gain the Liberty of Two, 'twou'd be more difficult to get that for Three" (51). The most powerful imagery of the maternal Imoinda as resister comes when she directly takes arms against the colonists "Grown big as she was, [Imoinda] did nevertheless press near her Lord, having a Bow, and a Quiver full of pyson'd Arrows, which she manag'd with such dexterity, that she wounded several, and shot the Governor into the Shoulder" (55). We're told that Imoinda "would not be Taken" (55). We aren't somehow required to interpret these acts solely through the heroic romance conventions at play, but may also recognize Behn's ability within such depictions to enscript windows of subversion and resistance for Imoinda's character. And, authorial intention aside, such readings may enhance our own discourses about the play of power within this text, and within the culture out of which it came to be written.
Significantly, within the moment in which Imoinda directly fights her colonial oppressors, the colonists seek again and again to reassert their appropriation of meanings and control over and through Imoinda's maternity, luring in Oroonoko with empty promises appealing to his concerns about both freedom and family: "If you will be pleas'd to surrender yourself, all imaginable Respect shall be paid you; and your Self, your Wife, and Child, if it be here born, shall depart free out of our Land" (56). The colonists continue to appeal to him that "he ought to have regard to his Wife, whose Condition required ease, and not the fatigues of tedious Travel; where she cou'd not be secur'd from being devoured" (56). Behn suggests that ultimately Oroonoko consents, and is duped, "in consideration of Imoinda" (56). Oroonoko is captured and Behn reveals, in spite of her ahistorical, romantic formulaic pretensions, the historicity of Imoinda's maternity: "They spar'd Imoinda, and did not let her see this Barbarity committed towards her Lord, but carry'd her down to Parham, and shut her up; which was not in kindness to her, but for fear she shou'd Dye with the Sight, or Miscarry; and then they shou'd lose a young Slave, and perhaps the Mother" (57).
Although it renders the scene no less horrific, nor does it erase the gendered implications of the representation, Oroonoko's killing of his wife and unborn child then represent an almost-final attempt at his own resistance. Sussman has argued well the significance of this act of voice as it comes to be written on the body of a woman. At the same time, Imoinda's own stance as active subject in relation to the gesture of violence means it may be read not just as a romanticizing of the act, but alternately for its highly resistant potentials by the gesture of Imoinda herself. Having resisted sexual appropriation all along the way, Imoinda attempts to take the last available act of power over her body and her child: "he found the Heroick Wife faster pleading for Death than he was to propose it, when she found his fix'd Resolution; and on her knees besought him, not to leave her a Prey to his Enemies" (60). Her rebellion is a visible motion of defiance against colonial slavery's appropriation and distortion of her sexual agency and her reproduction. Behn's maneuverings surrounding this act, as she attempts to narrate them through a sentimentalized, romanticized rhetoric, tend to dim and distort, but not totally obscure or unravel, Imoinda's own agency in and through the insurrection.
Ultimately, Imoinda and her unborn child are both erased and romantically mythologized through death, parallel to the more silent, less exalted textual erasure of the maternal Onahal by Behn and/or the white, female narrator. Without making a positivist moral interpretation of the violent act itself, I've sought only to address a "gap" in the criticism on this issue to date. This gap, I believe, is the dismissal or underestimation of active agency and resistance on Imoinda's part. In looking at her sexuality and her potential -- and realized-maternity in its various appropriations, I've sought to address the spaces in which she is subject rather than object in a complicated text in which neither Behn nor the white, female narrator can come down on one side or the other in any stable or ultimately definable way ; a fact which is, itself, historically specific and notable when we consider the context in which Behn experienced, wrote, and published.
The shadow that hangs over any "interpretations" of maternity in this text is the white, female narrator. Her configuration in the trope of maternity contrasts directly with the position of the black, enslaved maternal woman, inherently deconstructing any illusion of stable gender identification between the narrator and Imoinda. The maternal discursive site elicits our realization that their experiences as women are not parallel but moderated by other axes of identity, and that multiple discourses of power remain at play under colonial slavery (or any other racialized/classed playing field). The erasure of the pregnant, black female body is contingent upon the narrator's own adoption of the maternal trope in the interests of white, colonial slaveholders' interests. Only because she is female, and white, does she "get away with" her ambivalent stance. The colonial slaveholders, and the narrator, capitalize on the female, maternal trope. Thus, maternity maintains its political edge ; In this case, it upholds the status quo of colonial order with a woman as its best possible, and most effective, bearer. The white woman is saved by her maternity, although her redemption is thinly-guided complicity at best. For Imoinda, her maternity, in its condition in slavery, means her death.
At precisely the point in the narrative where the lovers marry and Imoinda becomes pregnant, the white, female narrator actively intervenes in Oroonoko's situation, ultimately in protection of her own European privilege and the interests of slaveholding colonists. Maternity is framed here in the interest of dominant discourses. She may be seen as yet another configuration (dis-figurement, to be more precise) of maternity, a substitute "mother" to Oroonoko and Imoinda. In this way, she may be paralleled with the French-tutor-as-pseudo-mother from the earlier portion of Oroonoko's experience. Like him, she plays out an inverted maternal role in that she "mothers" her charges ultimately against their own interests and under the illusion of alliance, identification, community, or mutual interest. This "false mother" contrasts the maternal figure of Onahal, who managed to satisfy her own subjectivity (read: sexual desire) while simultaneously aiding the agency of Imoinda and Oroonoko for their own sexual and familial self-determination.
The white, female narrator infantalizes both Oroonoko and Imoinda, again demonstrating the ways in which power and powerlessness, according to race/class and gender intersected, are mediated by the world of colonial slavery. She becomes the "Great Mistress," not most directly and visibly under male control herself by circumstance of her single state and her father's death, yet ultimately merely the paternal presence which so many historians have prescribed to the white, male colonist (Beckles, Berlin, Bush), within a female body: "I was oblig'd, by some Persons, who fear'd a Mutiny (which is very Fatal sometimes in those colonies, that abound so with Slaves, that they exceed the Whites in vast Numbers) to discourse with Caesar . . . I oblig'd 'em in all things I was capable of" (41). Her status as white woman in the colony allows slaveholders to appropriate the conventions of English maternity through her, for their own interests, and with this she is complicit. The narrator eats with the couple, and "entertains" them with classical mythology and "Stories of Nuns" in unsuccessful attempts to convert them to Christianity (41). She delights in her perverted maternal authority, which allows her an unsurpassed degree of power over Oroonoko and Imoinda: "Indeed my word wou'd go a great way with him" (41). The narrator pushes for promises of accommodation from her "charge." Oroonoko, and reveals, "This Promise he desired me to know was given perfectly in Complaisance to me, in whom he had an intire Confidence. After this, I neither thought it convenient to trust him much out of our View, nor did the Country who fear'd him" (42). Precisely because she is without direct patriarchal supervision herself, she has more agency and autonomy, more power ; and this fact implicates her deeply insofar as she turns her back on Oroonoko, Imoinda, and their unborn child.
The narrator pronounces the slave wives and mothers who beg their husbands to save themselves and thus their individual families during the insurrection as "being of fearful and Cowardly dispositions," underscoring her own detachment from any sincere interest in the state of the slave family or any identification or empathy with women who sought to preserve it through their own desperate means. The mother tiger which Oroonoko kills only after snatching away her young cub for the entertainment of the female narrator and other white colonists signifies the maternal loss of Imoinda and its implications for the wider community of Africans in slavery ; the very implications the narrator chooses to passively sidestep. Like his killing of Imoinda and their unborn child, Oroonoko finds the victory over the wronged mother tiger a hollow one:
When Oroonoko takes the life of his wife and child, "however Horrid it first appear'd" to the narrator, she ultimately cushions and disperses the implications of this violence -- merely celebrating it in the heroic formula but closing off all avenues for her own participation in agency and resistance, and avoiding interpreting any "meaning" or responsibility associated with the deaths. She celebrates "fragmented, disembodied woman" in the last lines of the narrative, the "Brave, the Beautiful, and the Constant Imoinda," attempting to reassert the icon of the martyred romance heroine who has been divested of her body, her sexuality, and its subsequent maternity. The infant, and its place in the broader schema of power relations in the colony, goes unnamed and unnoticed. In the end, the narrator does not protect her "children," but flees into passivity and absence, highlighting yet again the extreme tension and disparity between the condition of Imoinda and the condition of the narrator ; two women who have been molded and positioned by means of their femaleness, through the tropes of sexual identity and maternity, throughout the text but who, under the power of Behn's pen, elide any meaningful identification with one another in the end. The narrator's self-conscious, defensive protestations about her own actions point to this argument:
The narrator is the inconstant, ambivalent maternal figure who appropriates her maternal agency in line with white colonial interests. As Oroonoko is brutally dismembered at the close of the narrative, the narrator's "mother and sister were by him all the while, but not suffered to save him; so rude and wild were the rabble" (64). The maternal signifier remains visible until the end of the action, yet the narrator herself remains entirely absent from this scene, entering it only later, through text, safely at a distance. As "mother," the narrator has negotiated her chosen sites of influence and power, allowing this identity to afford her both agency where she chooses and passivity where she chooses. In all cases, her condition may be usefully compared to that of the now silenced Imoinda.
I've attempted to uncover the ways in which female sexuality and the trope of maternity may function in the text as sites of a more complicated flux of gendered, racialized and "classed" power dynamics than recognized by Sussman's argument. In this reading, women's bodies take part in complex negotiations of power and powerlessness, in which the oppressed, as Foucault suggests, do have a voice and do find resistance. When we don't rely on "final outcomes" to hand stable and finite meanings to us as readers, but rather engage and explore the nuances of power within the text, we come up with additional, supplementary (and not necessarily contradictory) answers to old questions. Behn's Oroonoko, largely through the trope of maternity, ultimately reveals much about the discourses of gender and sexuality, slavery and colonialism, and female authorship in the late seventeenth-century, with implications for our contemporary readings and current discourses.
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1 Sussman makes strategic use of Orlando Patterson's historic account of slave women in eighteenth-century Jamaica who outright refused to reproduce as rebellion against the system of slavery (253). This account may be found in his text, The Sociology of Slavery. In the case Patterson documents, reproductive revolt was staged through the use of abortion and bolstered by conditions fostering prevalent venereal disease and malnutrition. Sussman ends her essay by suggesting that, in contrast to the familial violence visited in Oroonoko, revolts such as those Patterson records "suggest that such control may be less alienable than one would think and that such resistance can be very powerful" (256). I argue, in part, that "less alienable" resistances surround female sexuality and maternity within Oroonoko.