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Race, Women, and the Sentimental in Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko
Criticism. 40.4 (Fall 1998): p555.
Abstract: 

Imoinda, the "beautiful black Venus" of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688), is one of few representations of dark-skinned women in early modern literature. Thomas Southerne's 1969 is best known for changing Imonida's skin color from black to white. She becomes the invisible and reconstructed black female subject in the America's cultural discourse.

Full Text: 

Imoinda, the "beautiful black Venus" of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688), is probably the most well-known of the few representations of dark-skinned African women in early modern literature.(1) Thomas Southerne's 1696 dramatization of Behn's novella is, in its turn, probably best-known for changing the skin color of its Imoinda from black to white. As her racial and sexual identity are reconstructed in whiteness, Behn's black Imoinda becomes an early example of the enforced invisibility of the black female subject in the Americas' dominant cultural discourse.(2) In turning to Southerne's play as the primal scene of this abduction from representation, I hope to emphasize Oroonoko's cultural vitality after Behn as a site for the deconstruction and reformation of women's racial identities.

For all its audacity--an audacity largely unremarked by his contemporaries--the black Imoinda's disappearance into whiteness is not the only way in which Southerne re-visions women in his Oroonoko.(3) The play is equally taken up with the sexual disguise of its white comic heroine Charlott Welldon, who masquerades as a man for most of the action. Revising Southerne as he revised Behn, the play's later adapters experienced its double plot--one strand dealing with the tragic fates of its newly miscegenous African lovers, the other with Charlott's comic maneuvers aimed at finding rich husbands for herself and her sister Lucy in Surinam--as a structural defect. The Welldon sisters storyline was decried as "preposterous, absurd and pernicious," "loose and contemptible,"(4) "offensive to modesty,(5) the unfortunate result of pandering to the tastes of "the gross and depraved audience"(6) of an earlier era, and is entirely absent from Oroonoko adaptations after Southerne.(7) Although some contemporary feminist critics have focused attention on the implications of Imoinda's whitening,(8) discussions of ways in which this fundamental alteration of Behn's racial materials might be related to, even required by, the inscription of gender in Southerne's Surinam are far rarer. Establishing such a link is my project here, one I take up not primarily to rehabilitate the claims of Southerne's play to formalist tidiness--although this might be an unintended effect of my arguments--but rather to restore the black Imoinda to representational significance.

One kind of link between Imoinda and the Welldon sisters I have no interest in establishing is the proposition that "women, like slaves, are treated as commodities, without regard for their humanity, their needs, or their desires."(9) The equation of the enslaved Africans' situation with that of the husband-hunting Welldon sisters can succeed only if one assumes that being "treated as" a commodity is the same thing as actually being a commodity. This formulation also fails to recognize that both its apparently absolute quantities, "women" and "slaves," are actually multiply constituted in race and status as well as gender,(10) Only after the black Imoinda's disappearance from Oroonoko can the big-city intrigue of the Welldon sisters plot--as vulgar as it was felt to be--begin to negotiate a more explicit, if still limited, authority for white women than that first advanced by Behn's narrator. Southerne's double-plotted play thus images a twinned relationship between white women's social representation and black women's invisibility and loss of agency under colonialism's raced visual regimes.(11) This twinning foreshadows the way in which British women will be constituted within the discourse of sentimentality throughout the literature and politics of eighteenth-century abolitionism, a political cause to whose service the dramatic Oroonokos after Southerne will be increasingly dedicated.(12) White women's emergence in abolitionist discourse as the sentimental agents of antislavery politics occurs in tandem with the representational policing of slaves, perhaps especially female slaves.(13)

The first white woman who possesses enunciative authority in the transmission of Oroonoko--an authority purchased through the denial of the subjectivity of its African characters--is, of course, Behn herself.(14) Studying the racial and sexual objects Englishwomen were permitted and encouraged to see in Southerne's Oroonoko can usefully begin with studying the looks of Behn's narrator at the "Royal Slave."(15) Her description of what she sees in him is acutely physically detailed:

   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 aweful 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, far from those great turned
   lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes.... His hair came
   down to his shoulders, by the aids of art, which was by pulling it out with
   a quill and keeping it combed, of which he took particular care. (12)(16)

The "perfect jet" of Oroonoko's skin and the snowy whiteness of his teeth suggest an almost Petrarchan blazon, with all of that device's interest in fixing a subject-object relationship between the looker and the looked-upon, but one which here reverses Petrarchanism's usual assignation of looking to men and of being watched to women.(17) Recasting this male body as the anatomized object of a female gaze, the passage also fragments Oroonoko's racial identity. His description registers him not as primarily African, but as primarily different from other Africans. His skin is "polished" and "perfect" instead of a "brown, rusty black"; his nose is "Roman, instead of African and flat"; his lips are finely shaped (i.e., presumably narrower than other Africans'); his hair falls into shoulder-length ringlets because he arranges it to do so. Such detail is missing from the description of Imoinda, whose exceptionality matches Oroonoko's and is perhaps most clearly evident in the fact that the narrator has "seen an hundred white men sighing after her and making a thousand vows at her feet" (12).(18)

Behn's Oroonoko perceives the greatness of its African lovers through a thoroughly racialized colonialist gaze which is as available to the white female narrator as it is to the white men of the Surinam colony. This gaze perceives Imoinda's sexual subjection as a slave as a feminine allure these men are powerless to resist. This idealization ensures that not only Imoinda, who is the ideal audience for "all the pretty works" the narrator is "mistress of," but Oroonoko himself becomes the particular social property of "us women" in the novella. The white women of the narrator's acquaintance have "all the liberty of speech with him, especially" the narrator herself, "whom he called his great mistress" (45).(19)

The authority that white women stand to gain from Oroonoko and Imoinda's containment and defeat by the slaveowning order is an integral part of Oroonoko's textual power. This authority is discursive--the female narrator sets the terms of exceptionality and amenability under which the lovers matter--but it is also material. The easy social intercourse their amenability enables is undertaken at the request of Trefry and the other slaveowners, who "feared a mutiny" (45) if their lies about freeing Oroonoko and Imoinda are exposed. The narrator's privilege to speak and be listened to works to identify her as a surrogate enforcer of the slaveowners' authority, and emphasizes the deep connection between gender and race under Oroonoko's colonial politics.

When a pregnant black Imoinda and the white narrator disappear from Oroonoko, so does Behn's imagination of a set of circumstances under which white women could be even this kind of second-order participant in colonial processes. In the place of these circumstances of surrogacy and indirection, dramatic Oroonoko after Southerne dedicates itself to nullifying the contingent kinds of female colonial authority over racial production exercised by Behn's narrator. John Hawkesworth's 1759 adaptation, for example, provides a sexualized performance of the new Imoinda's vulnerability as the villainous lieutenant governor gloatingly anticipates the pleasure of raping her. He believes the assault will actually work to preserve her "Sex's modesty" (53) since she will be spared the indelicacy of having to verbally consent to intercourse. Only the surprise entrance of the virtuous Blandford deters him from his dastardly intention; Hawkesworth teasingly offers, and then snatches away, the voyeuristic pleasure of watching women's passive vulnerability to male sexual aggression. In Francis Gentleman's Oroonoko (1760), the lieutenant governor threatens a rape which he never attempts, while John Ferriar's Imoinda (1788) reports an unsuccessful attempt which happens offstage. In all these cases, the lack of agency of these newly staged white women fills the vacuum created when the white narrator's power of racial naming is displaced from the text.(20) Gender difference is employed to evacuate racial difference from Oroonoko's carefully managed representations of the ugly sexual realities of New World slavery.

With the new Royal Slave a victim of cruel circumstance instead of Behn's defiantly unreconstructed warrior--in Southerne, he sighs that he and his wife "were born to suffer" (174)--and the new Imoinda safely distanced from the sexual objectification which is her lot in Coromantien as well as in the New World, Oroonoko and Imoinda become simpler objects upon which female spectators can discharge the pity and sympathy which are their emotional reserve in Oroonoko's colonialist theater. The fearful spectacle of Oroonoko's and Imoinda's deaths in Behn, an image so disturbing that the narrator can only manage to communicate it to her readers at several removes from the horror she describes, is absent from Southerne's text.(21) For the ritualized desecration of the black bodies in Behn, along with what it may suggest of European difficulty with the task of mastering the implications of Imoinda's black sexual and commercial body in particular (Oroonoko's death is a public spectacle, while hers occurs deep in the forest), Southerne substitutes an extended pathetic spectacle of Oroonoko's imprisonment and forced separation from Imoinda. His Oroonoko is so grateful to be reunited with her that he rejects all thoughts of escape; he is "a Slave," but only "to Love" (170).

This new Oroonoko seems in fact to be constructed in the victimized passivity reserved for the sentimental heroine, in a kind of gender-crossing which may be more about the flexible resources of racial performance than about attempts to stabilize the performance of sexual identity. If an African woman would interfere too greatly with white women's identificatory spectatorship of Oroonoko's racial tragedy, an African man, reconstructed within the discourse of feeling, curiously aids it. In this ventriloquization of gender identity, the new Oroonoko comes to embody both victimization and moral delicacy, an African man standing surrogate for the white women toward whom this ever-more-schematically moralized drama was directed. This multiplicity of possible subject positions complicates a simple "active/male and passive/female" model of looking relations by positing a wider and more complex range of spectator responses for Southerne's white female viewers.(22) If these spectators can view both Oroonoko and Imoinda as objects of pity and identification, freely crossing lines of gender identity in order to do so, women in the audience can also have access to the related, but distinct, racial pleasure of watching Oroonoko's surrender and defeat. Because of the unequal distributions of racial privilege, inquiries into women as audience and actors in colonialism cannot be fully satisfied by recourse to theories of female spectatorship based only in an assumption of immutable sexual difference; here, the "racial pleasure" to which I refer is equally--but perhaps differently--available to white women and white men. Moreover, Southerne's Oroonoko has been crucially rearranged in order to secure these new pleasures: the inscrutability of Behn's Oroonoko--there, he coolly smokes a pipe while being tortured-and the passive acquiescence of her Imoinda have both been eliminated from the text. Especially striking is the way in which Southerne's new white Imoinda gains in active heroic stature. When the Lieutenant Governor attempts to rape her, in a sensational scene of Southerne's invention she pulls his own sword on him and drives him off. As she does in Behn, and in no other adaptation I have been able to discover, Southerne's Imoinda fights with a bow and arrow at her husband's side during the slave revolt.(23) When escape becomes impossible, she exercises all her verbal skill in order to persuade him to kill them both and thus vindicate the honor and the innocence of their love. It is she who holds his hands in her own to guide the knife into her body.

This Imoinda, denominated as sexual prey by the slaveholder, averts rape and chooses the manner of her own death. It does not escape me that the first white Imoinda dies anyway despite her physical and moral courage; neither do I mean, by pointing to such evidence of self-willed martyrdom on her part, to deflect attention away from Southerne's racial transformation. The elimination of the figure of a recognizably black African woman from a constellation of texts which will increasingly mystify the institution of New World slavery and the roles of racism and gender difference in maintaining it can hardly be accidental.(24) Rather, I want to emphasize that the white heroine's passivity and subjection that a Hawkesworth will dramatize are not immediately part of Imoinda's new characterization, so that Southerne's play does not fetishize an always-imperiled white womanhood within its colonialist narrative in quite the same way as its successors will.

Securing a place for white womanhood in Southerne's Oroonoko is, then, accomplished by rewriting gender--both male and female--while "unwriting" the blackness of both Oroonoko and Imoinda. In Imoinda's case, this unwriting is literal: she becomes white-skinned. The erasure of Oroonoko's blackness is more involved with revoking the unknowability into which he ultimately retreats in Behn; he becomes far more understandable and familiar in Southerne because he is reproduced within the operations of the sentimental, despite retaining his black skin. The blackness of both characters is erased, divided, subsumed; a representation of an African prince becomes an appropriate vehicle for the representation of patience and resignation in the face of injustice, in a series of increasingly formalized and ritualized performances of subjection. This may be because Oroonoko's blackness makes him not quite fully a man in the theater of European colonialism; but that is a subject for another paper. My point is that Southerne's degraded display of Oroonoko, chained to the floor of a prison cell in his final act, is as unmasculine as much as the sight of an assertive and persuasive Imoinda brandishing a sword or shooting arrows fails to conform with the tender sensitivity demanded of the character later in its theatrical history. Later Oroonokos than Southerne's may more securely close this gap between representations and ideologies of gender's place in the formation of racial identity under colonialism, but in Southerne this gap is where the play's action takes place. Consider the words of Southerne's epilogue, spoken by Mrs. Verbruggen, who played Charlott in the original production:

   Men show their valor and women their discretion;
   To Lands of Monsters, and fierce Beasts they go:
   Wee, to those Islands, where Rich Husbands grow.
   ....
   Then bless your Stars, you happy London Wives,
   Who love at large, each day, yet keep your lives:
   Nor envy poor Imoinda's doating blindness,
   Who thought her Husband kill'd her out of kindness.
   Death with a Husband ne'er had shewn such Charms,
   Had she once dy'd within a Lover's Arms.
   Her error was from ignorance proceeding:
   Poor Soul! She wanted some of our Town Breeding.(25)

Southerne's epilogue might be taken as a critique of the results of "Town Breeding," through whose aid Imoinda "might have learn'd to Cuckold, Jilt, and Sham / Had Covent-Garden been in Surinam" (180)--if, that is, she in her primeval innocence had had the benefit of the spectacle of the Welldon sisters' brazen city-bred misbehavior to guide her. Still, the worldliness of the address to women in the audience--who are assumed to be happily adulterous and undeceived by husbands' claims to know best--markedly deviates from the pious salutes to women's supposedly superior home- and hearth-centered morality which mark later Oroonokos. The women of Southerne's audience are specifically urban, bourgeois or better, as capable of and interested in sexual speculation as their men might be in the adventure and hope of economic gain which drew them to unknown "Lands of Monsters."

The bodies of Southerne's women are objects of economic, as well as sexual, exchange. Everything in his play is for sale, beginning with the bodies which the free Englishwomen as well as the enslaved white African are recognized as possessing. Charlott, Lucy, and the Widow are buyers as well as sellers, as eager for pleasure as for security, enthusiastic (and, in Charlott's case, gifted) impresarios of their own sexual commodification. The play stages the operations of the mercantile capitalism whose fluidly evolving methods of operation in the early modern metropolis were not always legibly apparent.(26) Specifically, it feminizes these operations, representing women in a variety of relations towards money: as speculators (Charlott has persuaded Lucy to "bring [her] Person for a Venture to the Indies"), as property (the enslaved Imoinda), and as successful, if unscrupulous, capitalists (Stanmore, whom the undisguised Charlott will eventually marry, warns her that the rich Widow Lackitt will "cheat you if she can"; she has no heir other than her "boobily Son" Daniel, whom she stands ready to deprive of his inheritance if his money can help her win a lively new husband).(27) The Widow complains about the unfair advantage male reproductive biology has over female, in a literalization of the play's equation between the bodily and the financial: "Here have I six Slaves in my Lot, and not a Man among 'em; all Women and Children; what can I do with 'em, Captain? Pray consider, I am a Woman my sell and can't get my own Slaves, as some of my Neighbours do" (9).

In Southerne and after, the whitening of Imoinda will facilitate the white female spectator's positioning as an approving witness to her own execution and her compensatory achievement of a moral delicacy which will operate to cement her discursive segregation from the arena in which slaves are traded and empires built. In this first dramatic Oroonoko, however, the Welldon sisters offer female spectators an alternative compensation for their acceptance of bourgeois standards of womanhood and the assumption of ineradicable gender difference on which they were based. Instead of emerging as creatures of supreme feminine feeling, they get to act like men. Charlott, who will spend most of her scenes passing for a man, is initially puzzled by the difference between men, who seem born to "a trading Estate, that lives upon credit, and increases by removing it out of one Bank into another," and "poor Women," who "must keep our stocks dead by us, at home, to be ready for a purchase, when it comes" (50-51). Yet she learns and puts into action the arcane rules of acquisition which seem to differentiate men's estate from women's, and is ultimately rewarded by marriage to the senior Stanhope, who is attracted to her and impressed by her wit and nerve. That this disguise plot ends in marriage (as it is consciously intended by Charlott to do from the beginning of the play) performs the same kind of disciplined reproduction of womanhood as Imoinda.'s racial transformation does of her blackness: a "man" becomes a woman, a black woman becomes white, so that dominant constructions of male and female can emerge, seeming all the more inevitable and necessary after the masquerade. Just as Southerne's Imoinda is less delicate and submissive than the character will become in later revisions, his Welldon sisters wildly contradict every aspect of the sentimental heroine who will come to dominate the play later in the eighteenth century. Lucy Welldon is frank about her need for and enjoyment of sex, seeking the security of marriage--under whose respectable guise she can seek as many lovers as she'd like--because she is beginning to find her good reputation "impossible to preserve" (122). Charlott observes, and Lucy agrees, that the younger sister could "never arrive at the Trust and Credit of a Guinea-Bawd: You wou'd have too much Business of your own, ever to mind other Peoples" (108).

That these women's "stock" is their sexuality, as the Widow's complaint about her inability to profit from her reproductive capacity makes abundantly clear, is a given in the materialistic terms of the comic plot. This frank acknowledgment of the comic women's ownership of sexual and financial drives does not, however, disqualify them from sympathy with the plight of Oroonoko and Imoinda. In an astonishing moment, they leave the humorous plot and cross into the pathetic tragedy to enter Oroonoko's prison cell and free him from his chains. Again, I emphasize that I am not interested in drawing any crude equivalence between Imoinda's status as a fighting Amazon and Charlott Welldon's disguise as a man in order to compete on equal terms with men in an unscrupulous sexual marketplace.(28) I would, however, remark that this transition from profit-taking to nurturing sympathy marks Charlott's return to the reservation of socially-approved feminine behavior just as does the powerful new performance of Imoinda's submission to the cause of monogamous love: one fights to gain a husband while the other literally fights in order to defend her marriage. The slave economy of Southerne's Oroonoko appropriates these images of female aggressiveness to its own need to naturalize its foundation in the sexual and racial traffic in human flesh. The marketplace, and not the privatized realm of feeling, reigns supreme.

It is the will to make comic, pathetic spectacle of the consequences and processes of the acquisition of bodies which unites the plot lines of Southerne's play. This play with the bodily is probably most visible in the comic plot, which flirts with the proposition that strict constructions of gender identity are in fact varieties of performance before settling down to live under their dispensation.(29) As I noted earlier, once Lucy Welldon is safely and respectably married, she drops her ladylike facade: her sexual compulsiveness is the truth about her, a truth which her husband (and the city husbands of Mrs. Verbruggen's epilogue) had best accept. If Lucy acts like a lady, Charlott acts like a gentleman, right up until the moment when, marital quest satisfied, she reveals herself to be a woman and retires into wifehood with the elder Stanmore. Both women disguise themselves in order to secure the marriages which, despite the comic plot's metropolitan knowingness about the inconvenience of it all, remain the only ways of securing their goals. (Stanmore tells Charlott after she reveals herself that he likes her "so well, that I'm afraid you won't think Marriage a proof on't," 162.) Their husbands' money, and Stanmore's cool sophistication, are compensations for yielding to the social necessity for marriage which drove the sisters out of London--where "The Young Fellows ... had forsaken" (107) them--and which stands unchallenged at the end of the play.

Sexual satisfaction is the goal in the comic plot, and marriage the only means by which the Welldons can legitimately secure it. In the tragedy, however, where Behn's black African bodies are racially and culturally transformed so as to be made more readily available to the play's firm reinscription of gender difference into Behn's racial materials, Southerne alters this equation. Here, the rare spectacle of Oroonoko and Imoinda's married love is threatened by the crude values of the marketplace. Lucy can pretend to be someone she is not, and Charlott can even "change" genders, but Imoinda and the child she carries can only be property. She and her husband--because of the enslavement which the increasingly sentimental plots of the new Oroonokos will take pains to keep at a distance from their audiences--are unable to negotiate any breathing room under a set of inflexible social circumstances, so that the honorable deaths they choose in Behn and Southerne become their only escapes. Even the white women are balked by limits to the powers of negotiation or improvisation to change what Southerne's Oroonoko regards as the immutable realities of marriage for women or, presumably, slavery for Africans. Despite freeing Oroonoko from his chains, and however adept at deception Charlott becomes, she and the kind-hearted Stanmore and Blanford fail to convince the corrupt governor to let Imoinda rejoin her husband. For all the witty pyrotechnics of the disguise plot, the Africans are fated to remain in the control of others, a bondage from which they can be freed only by death.

Southerne's play, then, offers a complex acting-out of the (limited) range of possibilities available to women in the newly race- and money-conscious climate of its colonialist moment. One of the possibilities released by the potential of mercantile capital is Charlott Welldon's achievement of financial reward through the successful assumption of her transvestite disguise. But in choosing to highlight the links between sexual bodies and money, Southerne also chooses to obscure the link between racial bodies and money. The sentimentalized Oroonoko and his white Imoinda make it all the more difficult to see the full scale of the horror the original Oroonoko rejects outright: he would rather kill himself, his wife, and his unborn child than see them live as slaves.

Southerne's white Imoinda thus functions to suppress one social relationship--the intraracial love between the original Oroonoko and Imoinda--in order to excavate another from a colonialist matrix, that between white women and sexual and racial authority. The first dramatic Oroonoko produces white women as beneficiaries of and participants in these racial and social struggles. These outcomes are first suggested by Charlott Welldon's manipulation of gender and social class; the play experiences no difficulty in accepting the proposition that colonial Surinam is a white man's world. Only after Southerne's Oroonoko will it seem necessary to manage the ideological inclusion of white women in an expanding imperial culture in such a way as to celebrate--rather than lampoon--their domestic devotion and strict segregation from the grittier realities of maintaining empire. The sentimental operations of the later adaptations will bar European women from even a provisional seat at the levers of power by reason of their sex, while employing their race to admit them to a privileged vantage point on the eroticized celebration of their lack of recourse. In this way, the white Imoinda does not only erase the black one, but also, and paradoxically, voices the compensated social erasure of her white female audience.

University of Kentucky

Notes

(1.) I cite Paul Salzman's edition of `Oroonoko' and Other Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 12. All subsequent references will be provided parenthetically in the text.

(2.) On this unrepresentation of black women in and after slavery, see Michele Wallace, "Modernism, Postmodernism and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture," in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson et al. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 39-50.

(3.) One reference to the racial change by Southerne's contemporaries was made by the anonymous author of "The Tryal of Skill," in Poems on Affairs of State: Augustan Satirical Verse, 1660-1714, ed. George deF. Lord et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963-75), 6:708, who invokes it as evidence of Southerne's disloyalty (starting out as a strong Tory and Jacobite sympathizer, he lost his army post after 1688 and eventually informed against six Irish Catholic officers) rather than of his ideas about racial identity. Anthony Barthelemy, Black Face Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 174-81, offers one of the few modern discussions of Southerne's racial transformation, but considers its effects on the presentation of Oroonoko rather than that of Imoinda, where it takes place.

(4.) John Hawkesworth, Oroonoko, A Tragedy, As it is now Acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane ... By Thomas Southern. With Alterations (Dublin, 1760), A2.

(5.) Francis Gentleman, Oroonoko: or the Royal Slave. A Tragedy. Altered from Southerne, by Francis Gentleman (Glasgow, 1760), "Advertisement" (n.p.)

(6.) John Ferriar, The Prince of Angola, A Tragedy, Altered from the Play of Oroonoko, and Adapted to the Circumstances of the Present Times (Manchester, 1788), ii.

(7.) Besides Ferriar, Hawkesworth, and Gentleman, the adaptations also include the anonymous The Royal Captive (1767). For discussions of Oroonoko's stage history, see Maximilian Novak and David Rodes, eds., Oroonoko (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976), xvi-xx; and Robert Jordan and Harold Love, eds., The Works of Thomas Southerne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 2:89-92.

(8.) E.g., Margaret Ferguson, "Juggling the Categories of Race, Class, and Gender: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," in Women, `Race,' and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (London: Routledge, 1994), esp. 218-24; Stephanie Athey and Daniel Cooper Alarcon, "Oroonoko's Gendered Economies of Honor / Horror: Reframing Colonial Discourse Studies in the Americas," American Literature 65 (1993): 415-43; and Ros Ballaster, "New Hystericism: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: The Body, the Text, and the Feminist Critic," in New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts, ed. Isobel Armstrong (London: Routledge, 1992), esp. 288-90.

(9.) Novak and Rodes, xxiii.

(10.) A more recent discussion by Jacqueline Pearson, "Blacker Than Hell Creates: Mary Pix Rewrites Othello," in Broken Boundaries: Women and Feminism in Restoration Drama, ed. Katherine Quinsey (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996), 13-30, seems to me to repeat Novak and Rodes's assumption that the social experience of white women offers a direct index to others experiences of oppression. Pearson contends that Behn and other early modern women writers identified with black people because of the oppressed social status they presumably shared, and that these "writers, in producing more sensitive representations of black characters, were also subtextually presenting more positive representations of themselves" (19). Two rebuttals of this assumption of universality that focus an early modern drama are Ania Loomba, "The Color of Patriarchy: Critical Difference, Cultural Difference, and Renaissance Drama," in Women, `Race,' and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (New York: Routledge, 1994), 17-34; and Jyotsna Singh, "Othello's Identity, Postcolonial Theory, and Contemporary African Rewritings of Othello," in Women, `Race' and Writing, esp. 287-92.

(11.) See Peter Erickson, "Representations of Blacks and Blackness in the Renaissance," Criticism 35 (1993): 499-527. Two discussions of this issue based on film spectatorship are Tania Modleski, "Cinema and the Dark Continent: Race and Gender in Popular Film," in Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a `Postfeminist' Age (New York: Routledge, 1991), 115-34; and James Snead, "Angel, Venus, Jezebel: Race and the Female Star in Three Thirties Films," in White Screens, Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side, ed. Colin MacCabe and Cornel West (New York: Routledge, 1994), 67-80.

(12.) See especially Moira Ferguson, Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834 (London: Routledge, 1992), 27-49. Margaret M. R. McKellow, "The Divided Mind of Antislavery Feminism: Lydia Maria Child and the Construction of African American Womanhood," in Discovering the Women in Slavery: Emancipating Perspectives on the American Past, ed. Patricia Morton (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 107-26, offers a complementary discussion of white women's ideological productions of black female slaves in the U.S. antislavery movement. On Oroonoko plays and abolition, see J. R. Oldfield, "`The Ties of Soft Humanity': Slavery and Race in British Drama," HLQ 56 (1993): 1-14.

(13.) Moira Ferguson's introduction to her edition of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993) notes that the slave narrative's "strategies for encoding the truth" about slaves' sexual experiences in particular are necessary in a document like Prince's, sponsored by an antislavery society whose propaganda aims demanded that the female slaves whose life stories they published "not ... be seen to be involved in any situation (even if the women were forcibly coerced) that smacked of sin and moral corruption" (3, 4). On this erasure and suppression of female slaves' sexual histories, processes I see as integral to the whitening of Imoinda after Behn, also see Jenny Sharpe, "`Something Akin to Freedom': The Case of Mary Prince," Differences 8 (1996): 31-56; and Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 14-18.

(14.) Jacqueline Pearson, "Slave Princes and Lady Monsters: Gender and Ethnic Difference in the Work of Aphra Behn," in Aphra Behn Studies, ed. Janet Todd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 219-34, alternatively insists that Behn's Oroonoko reverses racial stereotypes, undermines binary oppositions in race and gender, and calls on "a range of ethnically different viewpoints which work to unsettle the apparently self-evident assumption of white authority" (231). Such a formulation seems not to recognize that Behn and / or her narrator possess and are enabled by "white authority."

(15.) Anne Fogarty, "Looks that Kill: Violence and Representation in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko," in The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison, ed. Carl Plasa and Betty J. Ring (London: Routledge, 1994), discusses the narrator's looks at Oroonoko and Imoinda, 10-13. Catherine Gallagher, "Oroonoko's Blackness," in Aphra Behn Studies, 235-58, formulates this racialized visual relationship in terms of Behn's authorship: "Oroonoko's [color] radiates a light that illuminates the narrator's identity.... The lustrous quality of the hero's blackness ... requires the eye-witness reporting of a known author; Aphra Behn, therefore, must emerge from her obscurity and explain the circumstances of her witnessing" (238). That Behn's narrator--and in this formulation, Behn herself --possesses the greatest enunciative authority when she speaks of an African man would support my contention of a proportional relationship between white women's social redefinition and Africans' suppression.

(16.) David Richards, Masks of Difference: Cultural Representations in Literature, Anthropology and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), cites this passage in the course of an argument about the racial consciousness of Behn's Oroonoko: "Behn's text does not espouse a doctrine of racial supremacy or of racial hatred, but the text could not exist without the acceptance of the cultural significance of `race'" (77). Richards's assertion that "Oroonoko's singularity as an extraordinary individual is achieved by reinforcing the degraded nature of the typical" African from whom he is being distinguished (78) contrasts with such evaluations as that of Pearson, above.

(17.) On the possibility that Petrarchan lyric tropes race as well as gender in its coded use of color, see Kim F. Hall Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 62-123.

(18.) Wallace, "Modernism, Postmodernism and the Problem of the Visual," characterizes "black women's bodies" as "the site upon which blackness was conceptualized as an aspect of the white personality and white Euro-American achievement" (45).

(19.) Laura Doyle, "The Folk, the Nobles, and the Novel: The Racial Subtext of Sentimentality," Narrative 3 (1995), argues that "the ideology of feminine modesty, virtue, and sensibility was an enabling mythology for a whole race-class, for its men as well as its women. Or perhaps for its men through its women" (169). She sees the sentimentalized hero in Behn's Oroonoko as linked to the narrator through their mutual possession of "more refined habits and sensibilities" (172).

(20.) Jean I. Marsden, "Rape, Voyeurism and the Restoration Stage," in Broken Boundaries, 185-200, discusses the representational functions of a set of highly ritualized and violent rape scenes in seventeenth-century plays. Marsden relies on Laura Mulvey's deeply influential reading of women in film narrative, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," rpt. in The Sexual Subject: A `Screen' Reader in Sexuality, ed. John Caughie and Annette Kuhn (London: Routledge, 1992), 22-34. Marsden does not, however, acknowledge the extent to which responses to Mulvey have argued that her original position reproduces a rigidly heterosexual division of experience and identification in its simplistic conceptions of "femininity" and perhaps especially of "masculinity"; her gender essentialism precludes recognition of the degree to which women's gender is constituted in and complicated by race and/or class. On this point, also see Jane Gaines, "White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory," Screen 29 (1988): 12-27; Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, "Imitation(s) of Life: The Black Woman's Double Determination as Troubling `Other'," Literature and Psychology 34.4 (1988): 44-57; and Michele Wallace, "Race, Gender, and Psychoanalysis in Forties Film: Lost Boundaries, Home of the Brave, and The Quiet One," in Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara (New York: Routledge, 1993), 257-71.

(21.) In Behn, Imoinda accedes to being beheaded by her husband, while Oroonoko, after disemboweling himself, is castrated and dismembered before the "rude and wild" (72) crowd gathered to watch his execution.

(22.) Mulvey, 27.

(23.) On the ideological functions of representations of fighting women in the colonial contexts of eighteenth-century culture, see Laura Brown, Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 135-69.

(24.) Recent work on representations of nonwhite women in colonialist texts include Felicity Nussbaum, Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest (New York: Routledge, 1995); and Vron Ware, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History (London: Verso, 1992).

(25.) I cite Jordan and Love's edition; here, p. 180. All subsequent citations will be provided parenthetically in the text. Laura J. Rosenthal, "Owning Oroonoko: Behn, Southerne, and the Contingencies of Property," Rend 23 (1992): 25-38, sees the epilogue's lines on women "dying" in their lovers' arms as a comic citation of the tragic climax of Othello, so as to emphasize "suspicions about the white Imoinda's motives in choosing a black African love object" (47).

(26.) On the establishment of representational links between mercantilism and colonial authority in this period, see David S. Shields, Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics and Commerce in British America, 1690-1750 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 13-20.

(27.) Brown, Ends of Empire, is particularly interested in this "feminization of mercantile capitalist thought" (14). She discusses Behn's Oroonoko (but not Southerne's), 23-63. Rosenthal, "Owning Oroonoko," is also interested in women and commodification in Southerne's play, but formulates the links between race, gender, and ownership so as to focus more on upholding Behn's rights in the discursive property of her novella than on what the transition from Behn to Southerne might suggest about the colonialist acculturation of white Englishwomen; see esp. 47-51. Daniel is the Widow's "boobily Son" on p. 112.

(28.) Gaines, "White Privilege," observes that "The radical feminist nation of absolute patriarchy has ... one-sidedly portrayed the oppression of women through an analogy with slavery," 17.

(29.) Although she is literally concerned with fictional appearances of the eighteenth-century masked ball, Catherine Craft-Fairchild, Masquerade and Gender: Disguise and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Fictions by Women (State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), recognizes the degree to which the notion of disguising oneself, as Charlott Welldon does, lends itself to inquiry into "the creation of an image or spectacle for the benefit of a spectator" (7). I am, of course, interested in this kind of creation here, and would extend Craft-Fairchild's definition of masquerade to include the racial disguise of an African woman that Southerne enacts with his new Imoinda. Judith Butler's assertion of the performativity of gender in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), esp. 128-41, is also relevant, but does not include such acknowledgment of the racial or economic circumstances governing access to "acting like a (white) man" or "acting like a (white) woman" as I pursue here.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
MACDONALD, JOYCE GREEN. "Race, Women, and the Sentimental in Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko." Criticism, vol. 40, no. 4, 1998, p. 555. Academic OneFile, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FA53935167%2FAONE%3Fu%3Dnysl_se_sojotru%26sid%3DAONE%26xid%3D3a299e7e. Accessed 19 Nov. 2018.

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