A Degenerate Race: English Barbarism in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and The Widow Ranter
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ELH 69.3 (2002) 673-701



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A Degenerate Race:
English Barbarism in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and The Widow Ranter

Elliott Visconsi


For Aphra Behn and other Restoration writers like Dryden and Milton, barbarism was an uncivil taint only recently overcome and still lurking in the English people. More explicitly, Behn's position is that the nation's inability to tolerate the Stuart line (traumatized by one regicide, one forced "abdication," and countless assassination or usurpation plots) is a result of a barbarous national character which prefers violence and personal independence to the mercy and moral prudence of kingly government. Poised on either side of the 1688 revolution, two of Behn's last works, Oroonoko (1688) and The Widow Ranter (performed posthumously in 1689), exploit English anxieties about the nation's racial incapacity to live in a peaceful, civil society—in current parlance we might say Behn sees the English people as possessing a collective genetic predisposition towards violence, greed, and restless disobedience. Her argument invokes a common seventeenth-century narrative of political origins which tracks the emergence of civil society from a primitive and violent pre-political state. But unlike early liberal political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Henry Neville, or John Locke, and much like her contemporary John Dryden, Behn inverts that narrative of political origins to display the dangerous tendencies of the English race.

Behn uses the Americas, traditionally imagined as the site of primitive governments, to demonstrate the barbarous and rapacious qualities of European political society. Yet in her late works, Behn worries over the English national proclivity for lawless violence in a manner that a colleague like Dryden would find both unpalatable and bad for ticket sales. Perhaps finally disillusioned by the repeated rejections of the Stuart line, Behn shares with her political opposite John Milton a deep and hostile antipathy towards the English national character. Neither endorsing a Whig historiography that imagines an ever-improving civil society nor embracing the classical idea of anakuklosis in which governments continuously revolve [End Page 673] between their multiple forms, in Oroonoko and The Widow Ranter, Behn posits a contemporary return to the primitive violence of pre-political society as the result of England's rejection of the Stuart kings in particular and the political philosophy of absolute monarchy in general.

Behn sees her republican and Whig opponents as a pastiche of undesirables incapable of government—they are the mobile vulgus, a subversive, noisome crowd of "ignoramus" Whig politicians, the monstrous mercantile middle class, and a deluded multitude of rabble. 1 For Behn, while English barbarism may be most explicitly manifest in the undisciplined spaces of the American colonies, the real threat is not in colonial corruption per se but in the Whig influenced corruption and destabilization of class and governmental authority in England. The development of a more formal Tory ideology in the eighteenth century is directly related to such fears of backsliding into national barbarism. Stripped of many of the overtly repressive aspects of Stuart absolutism, eighteenth-century Tory ideology construes royal authority as a legitimate and virtuous means of disciplining a volatile populace dangerously susceptible to the influence of demagogues and enthusiasts.

Behn's American settings serve a typically colonial purpose—they are at once allegories of and foils for representations of the metropole. With the term "salvage ethnography," James Clifford describes the process by which colonial cultures become fetishized and precious to a metropolitan nation; the colonizing nation seeks to preserve a vanishing colonial culture in order to cast light on the perceived origins of the metropole. 2 Such a process conserves cherished aspects of an indigenous culture to satisfy the demands of metropolitan nostalgia for similar aspects of its own prehistory. Aphra Behn uses an inversion of such salvage ethnography in her royalist depictions of the American colonies; it is not nostalgia for but anxiety about the primitive origins of the English nation that is at the core of Oroonoko and The Widow Ranter. While she may idealize the honesty and simplicity of indigenous American cultures, Behn sees Virginia and...


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