This is an essay I wrote for a class called Literature and Culture 1660-1750

The role and definition of history in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub

Both Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub are declared by their authors as “histories.” While Behn uses the historical tradition of the tragic hero to reaffirm England’s imperialist drive, Swift writes an allegorical history of the schism in the Roman Catholic Church as his contribution to the classic side in the ancients versus moderns debate.

Behn begins by asserting the accuracy of her “true history” of Oroonoko but proceeds to compromise its verisimilitude for the sake of the reader’s entertainment in the very next paragraph. She writes:

I do not pretend, in giving you the history of this royal slave, to entertain my reader with the adventures of a feigned hero, whose life and fortunes fancy may manage at the poet’s pleasure; nor in relating the truth, design to adorn it with any accidents, but such as arrived in earnest to him […].

though I shall omit, for brevity’s sake, a thousand little accidents of his life, which however pleasant to us,[…] yet might prove tedious and heavy to my reader […] (Damrosch 2152)

It is evident that Behn prefers to romanticize Oroonoko by retelling the many big accidents that add to his legend or lead to his destruction rather than wallow in the aforementioned little accidents that do not contribute to those twin purposes. Thus, when she follows these statements with an extended tangent about Surinam’s natives, rather than the slaves of the colony, of whom the titular hero is one, it does not serve the latter’s story but instead follows a convention which the author uses copiously in the narrative: the expression of the “other” culture in European terms. Its intention is to entertain contemporary readers by reassuring them that Europeans are far more advanced than the people in question, and “in writing fiction […] Aphra Behn’s primary purpose was to entertain” (Metzger xiii).

Of course, the author’s dilemma comes in reconciling her ultimate rationalization of European colonialism with the exaltation, in his status as the tragic hero, of Oroonoko’s values. This reconciliation is compromised throughout the account on both sides, in several ways. From her introduction of Oroonoko Behn wastes little time in romanticizing his life story and establishing his heroic credentials, while attributing many of those latter qualities to his education by Europeans. She begins:

He had scarce arrived at his seventeenth year when, fighting by his side, the general was killed with an arrow in his eye, which the Prince Oroonoko […] very narrowly avoided; nor had he, if the general, who saw the arrow shot, and perceiving it aimed at the Prince, had not bowed his head between, on purpose to receive it in his own body rather than it should touch that of the Prince, and so saved him. ‘Twas then, afflicted as Oroonoko was, that he was proclaimed general in the old man’s place[…] ’twas amazing to imagine where it was he learned so much humanity […] where ’twas he got that real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honor, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry, whose objects were almost continually fighting men, or those mangled or dead; who heard no sounds but those of war and groans. Some part of it we may attribute to the care of a Frenchman of wit and learning, who […] took a great pleasure to teach him morals, languange, and science […] Another reason was, he loved, when he came from war, to see all the English gentlemen that traded thither, and did not only learn their language but that of the Spaniards also, with whom he traded afterwards for slaves. (Damrosch 2155)

This passage serves the multi-sided objective of, entertainment through the romantically over-exaggerated depiction of Oroonoko’s performance on the battlefield and subsequent military promotion, his establishment as an archetypal noble savage not yet due to his own savagery but rather to the constantly combative engagement of the society that begets him, and, finally, in comparison to the previous form of civilization, the triumphant trumpeting of English values as inherently superior. The closing acknowledgement of Oroonoko’s eventual status as a slave trader diminishes his heroic virtues, as his actions are sometimes no better than those of his enslavers, ergo elevating the Europeans even further by comparison. If the view until the 1850s of Oroonoko as the foremost abolitionist chronicle (2151) is accurate, what did critics of that time make of the previous segment, as well as the narrator’s status in the plot as the daughter of a slave-owning imperialist? They would have said that Oroonoko is the first antislavery text because it was the first one to portray a black man, no matter how European his qualities, as a worthy hero in the canonic tradition of tragedy. It is in this light that Oroonoko succeeds as a “history,” in the complicit, compromised, and condescending attitudes of its time, rather than in the documentary-like, multi-perspective, honest yet complicated “history” of present days.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Swift, unlike Behn’s preface-like opening, used to convince readers of her “true history’s” veracity, writes his preface in a much less serious, satiric style, poking fun at John Dryden’s long, overwritten introductions, as well as his employ by King Charles II to publish rhetoric criticizing those who would oppose the Crown, in works such as “Absalom and Achitophel” and “To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on His Coronation.” Swift writes of his hiring by high-ranking statesmen to throw a tub at the “whales,” the writers who would dare to denounce church and state in “pamphlets, and other offensive weapons,” to distract them from attacking the good ship “Commonwealth” (Swift 1). Of course, in true Swiftian fashion, even after humbly accepting the task of deflecting the institution of religion from criticism, the author produces a satirical yet quite serious allegory chronicling the split in the Royal Catholic Church and decrying his society’s forgetfulness of history’s lessons in favor of contemporary thought.

He interrupts this discourse with digressions, which at first reading seem to ebb his critical flow, yet eventually add small but key details to his argument. For example, in his post-preface introduction, Swift begins by using the very effective technique of writing his satire in the guise of someone he’s poking fun at, in this case the writers of ephemeral entertainments commonly named Grub Street, exposing their texts as inferior to Swift’s timeless attack on his community’s ignorance of the past and the lessons it teaches. He writes:

Under the stage itinerant are couched those productions designed for the pleasure and delight of mortal man; such as, Six-penny-worth of Wit, Westminster Drolleries, Delightful Tales, Complete Jesters, and the like; by which the writers of and for Grub-street have in these latter ages so nobly triumphed over Time; have clipped his wings, pared his nails, filed his teeth, turned back his hour-glass, blunted his scythe, and drawn the hobnails out of his shoes. It is under this class I have presumed to list my present treatise, being just come from having the honour conferred upon me to be adopted a member of that illustrious fraternity. (9)

The previous quote brilliantly illuminates not only how sarcastic Swift is but how scathing his wit can be, as he personifies time and illustrates graphically how brutal modern society has been to it. Swift’s story is ostensibly about Peter, Martin, and Jack, three brothers symbolizing Catholicism, Protestantism, and Calvinism respectively, their corruption of their lives, represented by the coats their heavenly father gives them to wear and keep in pristine condition, and the resulting rupture of their brotherhood under the safe umbrella of the Royal Catholic Church. Swift uses all of these occurrences to show Peter and Jack, and the beliefs they hold, to be catalysts for the break from tradition, which religion brims over with, to newfangled customs such as transfiguration, in one instance pilloried as Peter’s insistence to his brethren that what he serves them for dinner one night is not a plain brown loaf of bread but rather “true, good, natural mutton […]” (51)

In Jack’s case his holy invention is Calvinism, a belief system Swift castrates in this form:

This quintessence is of a catholic use upon all emergencies of life, is improvable into all arts and sciences, and may be wonderfully refined, as well as enlarged, by certain methods in education. This, when blown up to its perfection, ought not to be covetously hoarded up, stifled or hid under a bushel, but freely communicated to mankind. Upon these reasons, and others of equal weight, the wise Aeolists affirm the gift of belching to be the noblest act of a rational creature. (78)

The author’s explication of a complicated faith as a group of windbags who puff themselves up with their zeal is comically indicative of his lack of respect for the affected buffoonery the moderns have turned their denominations into. He ties all of this recent “history” together with a blistering yet disappointed interpretation of his contemporaries’ long-term memory loss:

[…] memory, being an employment of the mind upon things past, is a faculty for which the learned in our illustrious age have no manner of occasion, who deal entirely with invention, and strike all things out of themselves, or at least by collision from each other: upon which account we think it highly reasonable to produce our great forgetfulness as an argument unanswerable for our great wit. (64)

Ergo Swift’s theme has high relevance in today’s world, which, as well as his, can be accused of forgetting the lessons of yesteryear by upholding present ingenuity, both mental and physical.

In conclusion, the “history” written by Aphra Behn in Oroonoko, although clearly exaggerated in many respects to romanticize its eponymous, tragic hero, serves to uphold the European imperialist views of the time, while Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub clearly exaggerates his characters’ actions and beliefs in order to tear down, not praise, a modern institution, in this case not imperialism but religion.

 

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Eds. David Damrosch, et al. Vol. 2. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998. 2150-2193.

Metzger, Lore. Introduction. Oroonoko. By Aphra Behn. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. ix-xv.

Swift, Jonathan. A Tale of a Tub. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

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