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As far as novel writing is concerned, it is arguable that the choice of narrator is significant in order to set a desired tone for the story within a novel. Often, many people confuse the author of a novel with the narrator. The author is the one who writes the story in which the narrator is created by the author as a voice through how the story is told. Occasionally, the author can actually be the narrator at the same time. In this essay, I will discuss the relationship between author and narrator in novels of early modern period which are Oroonoko and Moll Flanders.
Aphra Behn's Oroonoko or The Royal Slave: A True History
Oroonoko is written by Aphra Behn who was an English author and the novel was first published in 1688. It is about an African prince who is truly in love with a beautiful girl by the name of Imoinda. In an unfortunate event, Imoinda is raped by her own grandfather who has a desire for her and eventually, Imoinda is sold as a slave and is later brought to Suriname. At that time, Suriname is under the colonial of British. Oroonoko belongs to the tribe which is involves in slave trade. Until one day, Oroonoko is betrayed by his own Governor and he and his men are made prisoners. They are then sold as slaves to Teffry who is a British and Oronooko's name is changed to Caesar. The renaming practice is often associated with slavery.
When Oroonoko arrives in Suriname, he discovers that Imoinda who is previously pronounced as dead, is still alive and works as a slave in the same plantation that he is stationed to. Naturally, they get together and Oroonoko later finds out that Imoinda is pregnant. Soon, Oroonoko makes an attempt to free himself and his family from the chain of slavery but he is betrayed one more time and suffers the consequences. In a desperate measure, the man decides to kill the love of his life and his unborn child as he prefers to have them killed by his own hands rather than slowly dying because of the grave impact of slavery. Oronooko dies as a tragic hero when his attempt to take revenge on those who deny him freedom fails.
In the novel, Behn indiscreetly expresses her belief towards slavery among the African Americans despite the fact that such action was seen as a taboo in the 17th century (Weatherford, 1996). I think she manages to bring out the character of Oroonoko not just as a mere slave but in fact as a hero. On the whole, the story within the novel also reflects Behn's view about the freedom for women to write.
The story is narrated from the first person view which results in the author to be revolved around other characters in the novel. Behn's familiarity with Ooronoko enables her to write a life journey of a slave. In the introductory lines as follow, she makes it clear to the readers that she is the narrator as she plays a personal role in the story;
"I was myself an eyewitness to a great part of what you will find here set down, and what I could not be witness of, I received from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, who gave us the whole transactions of his youth...." (1997)
In the excerpt, Behn stresses on her encounter with Oroonoko as she herself was the "eyewitness" and she indeed acquires the story of his life to be used as a subject in her writing. Thus, the excerpt obviously shows that Behn, the author of the novel is also the narrator as she acknowledges that the novel is written from her point of view. This type of narrator is known as "homodiegetic" in which the narrator is also a character in the story (Lethbridge and Mildorf, 2003)
Additionally, in the beginning of the novel, it is shown in the following lines that the story which is about to be told is somewhat the truth;
"I DO not pretend, in giving you the history of this Royal Slave, to entertain my reader with adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet's pleasure" (1997)
Although Behn herself is the narrator, she maintains the element of her authorship of the novel by implementing a couple of approaches. First, the frequent use of contractions such as "'em" for 'them' and "'twas" for 'it was' which indicates the informal interaction that she wants to establish with the readers. The novel is written in a way that the readers will feel that they are listening to a story told by a close friend in a leisurely way.
Also, the sense of authorship can be projected by someone telling personal stories even though the person may not be a major character. Behn optimises the second approach by enriching her personal account of experience with considerable amount of details here and there. For instance, the descriptions of Oroonoko's characteristics and life events. Behn perceives Oronooko as an exceptional character and there are not many men in the world who are like him thus making him a worth subject to be told about. There is a particular event in the novel where Oroonoko gains a victory in a battle. He manages to defeat the war captain of the enemy and capture him. Naturally, one would expect that the war captain will be tormented and killed because he is indeed the enemy. Nevertheless, Oronooko has decided to let him live and they become good companions instead.
In another event, Oroonoko faces an unfortunate moment when he is betrayed by the Governor which leads to the capture of him by an English captain, who plans to sell him and his comrades as slaves. After he is sold, he expresses his gratefulness to the Governor, a wicked man who has betrayed him for he has learnt a lot from him. In spite of the betrayal, Oroonoko bears no animosity towards the scoundrel and such quality is definitely rare.
Among great characteristics that Oroonoko possesses, one of them is loyalty to his love, Imoinda which Behn finds to her admiration. In one incident where Imoinda is raped by her own grandfather, Oroonoko does not respond in a negative way in which he still wants to be together and does not see Imoinda as impure. In another incident where Oroonoko receives the news about Imoinda death, he is deeply saddened and continues his life without having a thought of replacing her with any women. As Imoinda is his first love, he just cannot bear the idea of having another woman beside him and his faithfulness is finally rewarded when the two reunited in Suriname as slaves. Oroonoko is also described in the novel as;
"pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied. The most famous statuary could not form the figure.... His face was not of that 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 'em being like snow, as were his teeth. His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen..." (1997)
The extract above clearly shows that Behn does not only admire Oroonoko's inner character traits but also his outer physical characteristics as she describes Oroonoko as a native prince who has European features. At the time the novel was written, it is seen as socially unacceptable for a white woman to complement the attractiveness of a black man openly (Weatherford, 1996) and yet Behn ignores the social nicety in order to provide an accurate account of Oroonoko's life
In short, such clear details that have been mentioned would definitely proves Behn's presence around Oroonoko as it provides a clear image for the readers and validates her position as the author as well as the narrator. Furthermore, Behn ends her novel with a statement as follows;
"â€¦I hope, the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive all the ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful, and the constant Imoinda." (1997)
which brings strong connotation of her authority in the novel and how her personal involvement with Oroonoko himself enables her to write such an epic story with the hope that the story will last forever.
In terms of reliability, it can be considered that Behn's story is reliable because of the respect that she has for Oroonoko on one hand while on the other hand, Oroonoko himself trusts Behn as his acquaintance. Since Behn makes it clear that she was present in many significant events in Oroonoko's life, it is pretty unlikely for the readers to question the reliability if the story as she assures that "â€¦the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind, a judgement more solid, a wit more quick, and a conversation more sweet and diverting." (1997)
Daniel Defoe's The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders
The novel, as hinted by the title is about the ups and downs in a life journey of a woman named Moll Flanders. It is written by Daniel Defoe in 1721. Moll's mother is a convicted felon and as soon as she is born, her mother is transferred to America. Moll grows up under a widow's care to become a beautiful young lady. Until a certain moment in her life, she is forced to marry her ex-boyfriend brother but her husband passes away after several years of marriage life. After that, she decides to marry a merchant who then escapes to France because of financial problems, leaving her all alone. For the third time, she gets married with a plantation owner under the deception that she is a very rich woman until she finds out that the man is actually her half brother and leaves him straight away. In England, she becomes a mistress for a married man who has a mad woman as her wife. After six years, the man returns to his senses and because of religious awareness, he makes a decision to leave Moll. Before long, she meets Jemy from Lanchasire and for the last time she marries the man whom she truly love. Interestingly, they both get married under mutual deception and soon, they parted ways. For several years, she lives in poverty and starts to steal until she gets caught and is sentenced to death. In Newgate, she reunites with her Lancashire husband and both of them manage to get their sentences reduced. After serving sometimes in prison, Moll with her husband starts a new life in America and they return to England when Moll reaches seventy years old.
Moll Flanders is another novel which contains a perfect example of a homodiegetic narrator. This is the case in which Defoe who is a "male author, can create a female narrator without necessarily putting his own gender up for question" (Lethbridge and Mildorf, 2003). Although it is clear that the author and the narrator of the novel are two different entities, there is a close relation between those two throughout the story. Defoe's expertise to successfully narrate a story through a female voice is to the extent where the character of Moll Flanders appears real and compelling, enriched with experiences and emotions. Defoe's manages to do so by utilising his own experiences of living in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. In other words, Moll Flanders life journey embodies Defoe's personal experience, told from a female point of view. According to Sexton, "Defoe's identification with Moll Flanders was so complete that, despite a few feminine traits, he created a personality that was in essence his own" (2006)
Just like many writers in the early modern period, Defoe belongs to a lower class of society in which he grew up (Ellison, 2007). Since his education level was not something to be proud of, he had hoped to achieve a higher position in the society. In a similar way, Moll Flanders, the narrator of the novel also grows up in a lower class within the society in which her mother is a convicted felon and Moll relies on public charity to lead her life. In return, this leads to the situation where she shares the same aspiration as Defoe's to be a respected figure among members of society. This is shown in the following extract from the novel when Moll is asked by her caretaker;
"What would you be âˆ’âˆ’ a gentlewoman?' 'Yes,' says I, and cried heartily till I roard out again.This set the old gentlewoman aâˆ’laughing at me, as you may be sure it would. 'Well, madam, forsooth,' says she, gibing at me, 'you would be a gentlewoman; and pray how will you come to be a gentlewoman? What! will you do it by your fingers' end?' 'Yes,' says I again, very innocently." (2004)
Born in the lower class of the society and the aspiration to be in a high position in the society are two key factors in the development of Moll Flanders character.
Aside from integrating personal elements into the character of Moll Flanders, Defoe takes advantage of his experience to depict certain events that Moll has to follow through in the novel thus making the events seem realistic. For example, there is one significant event in the novel that is worth mentioning in which Moll becomes a notorious criminal and has to be sent to the Newgate. The jail is mentioned repeatedly in the novel. It is the place where Moll was born and she almost ends her life there since she is sentenced to death for her crimes but fortunately, her sentence is reduced. The place is also where the turning point in Moll's life occurs as she takes time to look back and repent which is evident in the following extract from the novel;
"It was now that, for the first time, I felt any real signs of repentance. I now began to look back upon my past life with abhorrence, and having a kind of view into the other side of time, and things of life, as I believe they do with everybody at such a time, began to look with a different aspect, and quite another shape, than they did before." (2004)
As a matter of fact, Defoe had spent some time in Newgate as a prisoner because of a political related crime. In July 1703, Defoe was accused of seditious libel because of his publication, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters and was sentenced to serve his time in Newgate (Cavendish, 2003). Probably, Moll's description of Newgate as shown below also represents Defoe's thought about the place;
"I looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place. I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it." (2004)
Apart from that, it is possible that the characteristics of Moll who is overly attached to material possession and always being calculative when it comes to money has something to do with Defoe's history of his involvement in trading and business activities (Ellison, 2007). In the novel, Moll acknowledges that "being wellâˆ’bred, handsome, witty, modest, and agreeable; all which I had allowed to my characterâˆ’âˆ’whether justly or no is not the purposeâˆ’âˆ’I say, all these would not do without the dross, which way now become more valuable than virtue itself. In short, the widow, they said, had no money (2004). In my opinion, Defoe wants to portray the situation in his era through the character of Moll who is the narrator of the story that life is a marketplace back then. Everything has value that can be traded with one another and even dignity and self respect are included.
I have discussed the relationship between author and narrator in two novels of early modern periods and it is not far fetched to say that it depends entirely on the author to choose the right narrator to be used in the novel in order to set the desired tone for the story.