- Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and the “Blank Spaces” of Colonial Fictions
Near the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow confides to his listeners that “when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there.” Fortunate enough to have been born in nineteenth-century England, the grown man has lived out the little chap’s dreams of exploration “in every sort of latitude all over the two hemispheres.” But, as Marlow ruefully confesses, the hankerings of nineteenth-century European explorers must be tempered by the recognition that, what was once virgin territory inviting European possession has, at least since his boyhood, “ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It [has] become a place of darkness.” 1 The little chap’s seemingly commendable “passion for maps” and “dreams” of glorious exploration have become the grown man’s colonizing lust transformed into imperialistic nightmare.
I have been begun this essay on Oroonoko with a brief excursion into Heart of Darkness because, though written two hundred years apart, these stories show remarkable points of convergence. Both stories, for example, are told by an eyewitness narrator (“Mrs. A. Behn,” Marlow) who both collaborates with and criticizes the colonial enterprise; both feature a protagonist (Oroonoko, Kurtz) who, beginning as civilized, goes spectacularly native; both delineate an uncanny identification or collusion between [End Page 443] narrator and protagonist. Though in Behn’s novella this identification is complicated by race and gender differences, in Conrad’s the interpretation of Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz is perplexed by the presence of a framing narrator. It seems that there is one story and one story only of colonialism, whose typicality and repetition figure forth what Abdul R. JanMohamed has called a “Manichean Allegory,” in which “the putative superiority of the European and the supposed inferiority of the native” are represented over and over. 2 These representations depict events reputed to have occurred in what Mary Louise Pratt has labeled “contact zones”: “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.” 3 Complicating the nature of the exchanges occurring in these “‘in-between’ spaces,” Homi K. Bhabha has argued that the “liminal space,” the “interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy.” 4 Bhabha’s model, as his book brilliantly demonstrates, works better in the postmodern world, in which hierarchies, because more fluid, might be more easily subverted—or at least tamed into what is perhaps the illusory consolation of their disappearance. Such is not the case with the colonial societies represented by both Behn and Conrad. While there might be much apparent boundary crossing in Oroonoko and Heart of Darkness, many acts of commerce between colonizer and colonized, both stories are governed by hierarchical ideologies. In both, “cultural hybridity” is a recipe for disaster, leading to the transformation of highly educated men (one of them of royal blood) into savage monsters who must be destroyed to repair the fragile and porous boundaries between civilization and barbarity.
Oroonoko and Heart of Darkness, then, attempt to preserve, by acts of rhetorical violence, hierarchies of class and race, while representing the virtual impossibility of doing so in those chaotic, carnivalesque colonial spaces. Both are divided fictions, duplicitous representations riven by the contradictions lying at the heart of the colonial project—both written, moreover, by “outsiders,” by a woman marginalized because of her gender and by an Anglo-Pole writing about a society and in a language not his own. 5 This is why Heart of Darkness has occupied such a double place in recent discussions of colonial fictions and why...