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Relationship Between Realism And Romance In Oroonoko English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2102 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Q: Analyse the relationship between realism and romance in Oroonoko. You should define those terms carefully after consulting at least one dictionary of critical terms. Within the articulation of Oroonoko- Aphra Behn, lies the meticulously entwined relationship of realism and romance. Two paradoxical genres encompassed into one seventeenth century novel allowing Behn to venture into and pervade this controversial experimentation of writing styles. Thus conceiving perhaps a revolutionary allegorical novel of romantic realism. Mary Ann O’Donnell describes Behn’s writing as ‘…folk and fairytale motifs combine with stark realism and ambivalence about the protagonist as the story explores the destructive power of love.’ [1] 

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According to the Dictionary of literary terms and literary theory, realism is defined as ‘…the portrayal of life with fidelity. It is thus not concerned with idealisation; with rendering things beautiful when they are not.’ [2] Conversely romance is ‘…concerned with characters and events who like in a courtly world somewhat remote from the everyday. This suggests elements of fantasy, improbability, extravagance and naivety… love, adventure, the marvellous and the “mythic”.’ [3] Evidently the intense juxtaposing characteristics of both genres cause immense friction channelling the novel to border precariousness, from an analytical perspective. However, it can be argued that Behn’s incorporation and expulsion of particular elements of romance and realism renders the novel profoundly complete. Out of the antithesis between the two voices in the text, the two nationalities, and two species of people, rises the reader’s sublime realisation that Oroonoko is an absolute and culminated novel. A dictionary of modern critical terms argues ‘… on this view of realism, the ideal novel would be a flawless mirror to the world; but since language is never neutral, such a novel is impossible’ [4] . Whereas romance is identified to be ‘…concerned with an avowedly fictive world… an imaginative and psychological projection of the “real” world.’ [5] 

From inception, Behn vows to the reader she will not give ‘the history of this royal slave to entertain my reader with a feigned hero…’ (Oroonoko, penguin classics, p. 75) [6] . By naming her novel ‘Oroonoko, A Royal Slave, A True History’ accumulates a sense of credence in the reader towards her objective and impartial recall of Oroonoko’s story. This claim also has a wider contextual association attached to it; Behn declares that she does not assert or claim her narrative authority as some kings claim their throne. Being a prominent eye witness of the occurring events, sympathy and empathy she conveys to reader moulds and cements their trust in her narration. However she later says ‘…from the mouth of the chief actor in this history…’ (Oroonoko, p. 75) [7] . Behn’s lexical choice of ‘actor’ instantly disembodies the certitude built up in the reader. Connoting ‘actors’, a facade emerges extirpating the realism promised by this deictic narrator undermining her credibility. Factual and documental histories should essentially repel idealised, Herculean and romanticised ‘actors’. Therefore vacillating uncertainty is woven into the first words of Oroonoko bridging proximity yet distance between reader and narrator.

Many critics such as Ian Watt reprimand and denude Behn’s feminocentric novel as “an old fashioned romance” defying the “realism that primarily became the antonym of “idealism” engraved into the enemies of realists’ [8] . He further dictates that a ‘novel’s realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents it’ [9] . What Watt fails to acknowledge is that Behn’s realism is situated within her romantic codes. She is consciously aware of the perilous opposition of promoting the idealistic values of Oroonoko’s aristocracy against the pragmatic social norms of the colonists. Perhaps her motive is to obversely create a harmonious equipoise between realism and romance as a parallel to Oroonoko’s robust masculinity with Imoinda’s effeminate characteristics. Watt, on the other hand, attempts to obtrude his definition of realism as a form of combat against Behn’s dialectic thesis of interlacing both these genres. Myra Reynolds praises Oroonoko claiming ‘…Mrs Behn’s short, simple, vigorous, and affecting story of real life comes with a startling sense of novelty.’ [10] as opposed to Watt’s ‘… Behn’s work of medieval hagiography’ [11] 

Furthermore, the sturdy definition of realism in itself must be scrutinised. It is contradictory to produce a work of “realistic” fiction. By nature prose fiction is nothing more but mere fiction, therefore configuring an authentic portrayal of a lie and claiming it to be true, arguably depicts that realism is as much romanticised as romance is. It is insufficient to proclaim realism is only contrived within the way an experience is retold, but also the content of the experience must be accounted for.

Despite the obvious flaw within realistic prose fiction, Behn hyperbolises the romantic characterisations and events in her novel. Firstly the character’s names are fanciful and unrealistic, ‘Oroonoko’ and ‘Imoinda’. However, although these names extricate the characters from reality it gently and gradually teleports the readers imagination to the remotely immaterial and secluded land of Coramantien. Their fanciful names do not necessarily alienate the reader, but urges them to wonder and marvel at a world so withdrawn from their own. Later through the novel Oroonoko is renamed Caesar. This allusion gives the illusion of the rebirth of Oroonoko; a royal prince reborn a salve. Ironically, a slave reborn with perhaps the greatest name in history; reiterating the cyclic evocation of binary opposites running throughout Oroonoko such as black and white, African and European, slavery and colonialism and most imperatively realism and romance.

Also the physical and mental attributes of these high status characters proves that romance supersedes realism ‘ this face was not of that brown rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet.’ [12] (Oroonoko, p. 80-81). From this alone, Oroonoko emerges as compellingly superior to his race. The diction of ‘perfect’ and ‘polished’ infer that Oroonoko is somewhat of a plasticised heroic figurine, epitomising chivalry, virtue and nobility. These romantic attributes correlate to the definition of romance; non-didactic characters of beauty, extravagance and fantasy [13] . The texture of Oroonoko and in turn Imoinda contextually symbolise the British monarchy of the seventeenth century. Behn was a devout royalist, the unequivocal representation of upper-class royal characters echo her high perception of the monarchy ‘he had heard of the late civil wars in England and deplorable death of our great monarch’ (Oroonoko, p. 80). Attempts to describe Oroonoko as realistically as possible in keeping with her initial promise her superfluous romantic syntax and lexis unveils her attitudes and values and thus her political agenda.

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Finally Oroonoko and Imoinda’s persistently impeded love foreshadows their tragically destructive death. Stereotypically, love sheathes the feeling of immortality, safety and unification of mind, body and soul between two people. By Behn encapsulating love in its rawest form within their death, she deconstructs the traditional conventions of romantic novels, with the idealised utopian finale. The paratactic structure of ‘he first resolved… as the relation of it was to me afterwards’ (Oroonoko, p. 135-136) [14] highlights the documentary-like realism of the novel, similar to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. [15] Such as ‘(… tears gushed in spite of him, from his eyes) he told her his design of first killing her, and then his enemies, and next himself, and the impossibility of escaping and therefore he told her the necessity of dying.’ (Oroonoko, p.135) [16] . Moreover, the content of this extract is superlatively romanticised. Oroonoko and Imoinda’s austere death itself becomes their romantic apogee. Their marriage, consummation and child birth are all susceptibly displaced by death. Therefore it is only within their death, that these ‘greatly born, sensible, beautiful, young and fond’ (Oroonoko, p. 135) [17] lovers can they find their perpetual peace and euphoria; thus sealing Oroonoko as a tragic novel, rather than a romantic one. The juxtaposing relationship between the realistic structure of Oroonoko and the romantic content of the synopsis emphatically reinforces the equilibrium of the novel.

Behn notes that ‘wives have a respect for their husbands equal to what any other people pay a deity’ (Oroonoko, p.135-136) [18] . From one lexical choice ‘deity’ derives a cogent religious analogy of Oroonoko’s entire evolution. As a royal prince, Oroonoko personifies an angel-like ‘deity’ of supernatural calibre. He then transcends into a debilitated suicidal slave thus insinuating a fallen angel. Finally ‘to kill this treasure of his soul,’ (Oroonoko, p.135) [19] the fallen angel mutates into the angel of death, conquering and seizing ‘souls’. Pathos instantly grippingly encapsulates the reader and the once deeply venerable Oroonoko poignantly transforms into a misanthropist.

Conclusively, Oroonoko is an irrefutable love story with all the conventions of a romance yet, the stark realism antagonises the fanciful structure. The copulation of two radically opposing genres obliterates the copulation of Oroonoko and Imoinda- an inextricable love that denies difference. Thus romantic realism becomes Oroonoko and Oroonoko’s terminating hamartia.


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