The Reviews

By  S. H. Pearson


      This critique was course-work that I submitted for graded credit in a required class.  Keep in mind that I was courting academic credit.  I nearly blew a gasket on this one.  What mediocre drivel.

    Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko is a yarn that reads like juvenilia. The story seems like the author needed to entertain herself.  It suggests that she had, perhaps, a fixation on some comely slave during her days in Suriname and this novella is the outgrowth and outlet for her panting fantasies about him.  Perhaps her protagonist embodied some of the slave’s attributes with a huge load of Behn’s embellishments.  Her physical description of Oroonoko is hokey and unrealistic.  I say – good grief.  There is little true-to-form about him from a scientist’s standpoint.  The turn of his character is out of character for a man of his origin.

     It reads like Behn needed to create for herself an imaginary lover.  In Oroonoko she could celebrate him publicly and feel smug about it.  To the educated, worldly reader, this story is a not just a laugh, it’s an embarrassment.  Aphra Behn has written herself this man’s cheerleader.  She’s a giddy, panting fan on the side-lines watching him shoot tigers in the eye and be cruel to animals.  Hoo-raa!  Let’s go sneak up on a tigress’ den and raid the peaceful slumber of her cubs.  What creeps.

     Behn’s writing in this piece not only annoyed me, it nauseated me.  She used too many modifiers.  In a circle of masculine, literary minds they would say “she writes like a girl.”  They would not say this, however, of Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Simone De Beauvoir or Annie Besant.  They command universal respect as writers, whether they are women or not.  They are free thinkers and not out to showcase how many words they know (a penchant of Camille Paglia and Anne Rice).  Mark Twain pointed out that he got paid just as much to write city as metropolis.

     In writing, one’s gender should not be apparent, but rather, transparent – unless one wishes to write specifically about his or her gender.  There is a clear-cut difference in good writers and those who “just write.”  Good writers make us want to read them.  We turn pages rapidly, drawn in by the writer’s voice.  We are smitten by their quill.  Oroonoko felt effete.  To me it lacked literary power.

     What was she trying to prove by the exaggerated, ridiculous descriptions of this Gold Coast “royalty?”  It was corny and puerile from a woman of 48.  Her annoying way of writing the pronoun “them” was a particular peeve.  It peppered the text and was glaringly out of place.  It occurred almost as much as the word “sigh.”  Oh sigh!  The story read like somebody had gone through and re-written the whole thing from Behn’s original text into some sort of fabricated, modernized English.  Indeed, they had created a Frankenstein of verbiage.  It does not read like English hailing from King James II’s day.  There is a mutant weirdness about it. 

     Behn’s lurid descriptions are crude and vulgar owing to her lack of finesse at setting such imagery to a more polished literary form.  She is not what I would call adroit at novel writing. 

     Her obsessive focus on sex, sex and more sex made her seem rather “sex-starved” in herself.  Perhaps this kind of writing is how she got her jollies.  Perhaps this kind of writing was her outlet for sexual fantasies about men she could not have.  Hearty fare for thought.

     Just because a writer is a woman does not mean that what she wrote should be slapped into a book and get called literature.  This story was an embarrassment not only to read but also to womankind for having it thus represent them.  Literature?  It lends credence to how this author died in poverty. 

     One understands the motive of apologetic, post-modern academe to unearth “women’s literature” from the obscure depths and force-feed it to scholars.  We may have to read it but we don’t have to like it.  I see by the evidence, that the reading public of Behn’s day didn’t like it either.

     A salient point is how Oroonoko does not read like it sprang from the same pen who wrote “The Willing Mistress” nor “The Disappointment.”  Is it possible that there is no way to prove who really wrote this stuff owing to its obscurity and the passage of time?  History does not even have a birth date for Aphra Behn.  Is it plausible thereby to infer that they might be lacking other pertinent information?  I present this for further investigation.   

     In Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, there is no doubt, for example, who wrote the author’s works.  Whether it was a ghost-writer or a man actually named William Shakespeare is not the point.  The point is that his works of literature all have a consistent, brilliant “signature voice.”  It is how we scholars of Shakespeare can agree that it was written by the “him” whom we celebrate.  In the case of Aphra Behn, I cannot say that her writer’s voice is consistent.  It would be interesting to see some of her plays acted upon the London stage.  I notice that our text does not provide her plays.


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