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Exploring Gender Roles and Societal Criticism in Aphra Behn’s “The Rover”

May 21, 2023 | 0 comments

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May 21, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments

Aphra Behn, a controversial and female author is one of the notable literary critics throughout the centuries (Canfield et al, 221). the literary plays she documented during the period of restoration were very popular on the stage. Similarly, her poetry and fiction were successful. Gallagher (97) asserted that “the feminine interest now giving importance to Behn as a pioneer in professionalism in women began to emerge.” Moreover, she used her literary work to address politics, social commentary, money, sex, power, relationships, ideals, and virtue. However, her major writing focus was on gender roles.


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The essay will examine gender roles through the work of Behn of “the rover”. According to Hutner (198), the play “the rover” criticized the arranged marriages through the inclusion of societal criticism. To understand better the play of “the rover,” it is of great importance to understand the relationship of her life to her writing, the society she lived in, and the perception of the women’s roles. The rover provides an oral criticism of the expectations of the society, denounces ideas of forced marriages, and lastly the accompanying authority of the parents.

The rover is about sisters’ Florinda and Hellena who are attempting to escape the fates of their male members of their family have decided for them, in addition to a band of English cavaliers in Naples who are burnished at the carnival time. Link (109) observed that the men are promiscuous and gay; there is the loyal Belville, Wilmore, the rover, blunt, and the negative Fredrick, the low comedian squire of the country. Belvile met and rescued previously Florinda from being attacked by Naples, and eventually fell in love with her. Forinda, on the other hand, is destined for a pre arranged marriage. However, Hellena is destined for a convent. The escape of the sisters to the carnival is where they meet the cavaliers. Furthermore, Florinda loves back Belivele and Hellena and Wilmore fall in love. However, Angelina Bance, the gorgeous courtesan complicates things. She is also in love with Wilmore although she has Pedro, the brother to Hellena, and Florinda and Antonio, one of the potential future husbands of Florinda fighting to get her attention.

The plot of the play has a complicated series of masking, intrigues, and overall character confusion. There is love, rape, sex, anger, betrayal, jealousy, despair, and joy. The play finally ends with the marriages of Wilmore and Hellena and Belvile and Wilmore.

According to Markley (68), the main conflict in the play of the rover originates from the arranged marriage idea. This is attributed to their own experience of Behn and her marriage which was arranged and unhappy.

The sexual discussion and action are completely uninhibited, as was customary in Restoration plays.

As is common with so much of Behn’s work, particularly her plays, one of the central conflicts of The Rover stems from the idea of an arranged marriage, which we can likely attribute to Behn’s own experience; the little information that is known about her marriage has led scholars to believe that it was unhappy, more than likely because it was arranged (Todd). Behn, alone of her contemporaries, took a stand against this practice; her contempt for arranged marriages was a bit of a revolutionary idea, something that went against all accepted ideas of parental authority (Woodcock 51). However, despite her disdain towards this concept, Behn is obviously not encouraging a complete overthrow of society’s expectations of females; even while Florinda and Hellena are “rebelling” against their father’s wishes, they keep themselves firmly within their gender roles. Hellena only escapes a convent by becoming the wife of a philandering libertine who is after her fortune, and Florinda is in no way attempting to eschew the traditional role of a wife.

Just as society places value on women by their possession of certain characteristics, Florinda also uses these traits to judge her own self-worth; as she tells her sister “I understand better what’s due to my beauty, birth, and fortune, and more to my soul than to obey those unjust commands (I. i. 26-28). She continues to argue her point against her brother: “Let him consider my youth, beauty, and fortune, which ought not to be thrown away on his age and jointure” (I. i. 93-95). This passage is important in that it demonstrates why Florinda rebels; the very traits that she believes should allow her to choose her own husband are the same traits her male breast cancer. Ann has been a staunch Christian since childhood just like the rest of her family members exploit to essentially sell her to the wealthiest bidder. As Anita Pacheco explains it in her essay “Rape and the Female Subject in Aphra Behn’s The Rover,” “these exacted and reductive valuations open a space for rebellion and a bid for self-determination, for Florinda’s pride in her self-worth clearly chafes at the exploitation involved in forced marriage.”

Throughout this play, it becomes apparent that there are several major ways that men in society maintained their gender roles. One of these is through rape. In The Rover, rape is used for several different reasons. For Willmore, it seems to be a sort of seduction or just a diversion, but for Blunt, rape is a means of exacting revenge upon women in general for the actions of one woman in particular. For Robert Markley, in his essay “’ Be Impudent, be Saucy, Forward, Touzing, and Leud:’ The Politics of Masculine Sexuality and Feminine Desire in Behn’s Tory Comedies,” the reason Behn’s “heroes” “violate conventional standards of sexual morality… is to [legitimize] aristocratic notions of birth and worth.” This is sort of a blanket explanation for the sexual behavior of men in this play.

Blunt is a perfect example of someone who uses rape as a means of enforcing gender roles. Though a woman tricked him, allowing her male companion to rob him, his rage seems directed entirely towards women, with no consideration for the man. One can assume this is due to his feelings of emasculation. The way he sees it, the only way he can regain his manhood is to prove that he does in fact have power over women, and rape is the easiest way to do so. Frederick’s immediate acceptance and even assistance in regards to Blunt’s intentions towards Florinda is yet another example of the mentality of that society.

All of this together makes it seem as though both Behn and society perceived rapes to be trivial, just an extension of gender roles. However, Pacheco might not be correct in saying Behn makes Florinda the target of rapes due to her attempt at rebellion. Hellena also tries to “make her own sexual choices,” yet she experiences no negative setbacks as a result (except, one might argue, her eventual marriage to Willmore). Instead, it seems to me that Florinda is the repeated target in attempted rapes because the love she feels towards Belvile makes her a vulnerable object. Theirs is the only love in the play not based entirely upon lust or money, and as a result, they are scorned, in a sense, because that type of love appears to be rare in a society where money, not love, is the focus. However, it must also be noted that these rape scenes were included at least partially for the comedy that they provided. The first scene with Willmore and Florinda is extremely comedic, and may not have been viewed by audiences as a means of enforcing gender roles.

The Rover is an excellent example of the argument that Behn was not necessarily a revolutionary, attempting to overthrow prevailing gender roles. Particularly disdainful of the concept of arranged marriages, she seems to oppose the practice not just as it applies to women, but men as well. Throughout the play, one can certainly detect a sneaking sympathy for the cavaliers, particularly Willmore,  the epitome of the “careless and callous” gallant that characterized Restoration comedy, concerned only with his own pleasure, “not caring greatly at whose expense he [got it]” (Woodcock 124-126). However, Behn’s criticism seems to be less about the cavaliers’ lifestyle (with the possible exception of Blunt) and more about society’s expectations. This play seems to acknowledge that these expectations of arranged marriages were not only harmful to the females being forced into them, but also to the males who didn’t have a say either.

Willmore’s view of marriage throughout the play seems consistent with Behn’s own; when Hellena first suggests marriage, he responds “Hold, hold…no, no, we’ll have now vowed but love, child, nor witness but the lover…love and beauty have their own ceremonies. Marriage is as certain a bane to love, as lending money is to friendship” (Woodcock 124). And though he appears to be a shameless libertine, Behn does not portray him unfavorably, making him witty and shrewd, charming, and attractive, much more so than the well-mannered Belville. His character made libertinage so attractive that “according to Dibdin, the prudish Queen Mary once remarked of Mountford’s acting of the part that “it was dangerous to see him act, he made vice so alluring” (Woodcock 125).  The popularity of the play can certainly be attributed, in part, to his character, and this popularity ensured that The Rover was the highlight of Behn’s career (Woodcock).

During the period of productivity in which Behn produced over fifteen plays, including The Rover, many of these works were political in nature (Woodcock). Though Behn was never a stranger to criticism, nearly all of these plays enjoyed immense success on the stage. However, she eventually overstepped in her expression of her political views when she criticized the Duke of Monmouth, Charles’ illegitimate son in an epilogue. Charles took offense to Behn’s criticism of Monmouth and ordered proceedings begun against her, and she was arrested (Woodcock 161-163). Though she was quickly released, this misstep ended her career as a political dramatist, and many consider it the dividing line between her period of success and prosperity and the “era of ill-fortune which was to endow her last six or seven years with toil, poverty, illness, and continued disappointments” (Woodcock 163).

Behn moved away from playwriting altogether for several years and turned her pen to other endeavors. She devoted much of her last few years of life to writing fiction, which allowed her to explore a woman’s experience of love and desire without being confined to the risqué, comedic plot of Restoration comedy. These later works focus less on the subject of male desire, and more on the concept of romantic love, as portrayed through the lens of female desire. Her stories of lost love and love thwarted “give us a glimpse of a woman writer who was deeply dissatisfied with the plot of the conventional love story—as she both wrote and lived this narrative” (Salvaggio 254). Her fiction depicts this process as her heroines become “subjects directing their desires in anything but conventional ways” (Salvaggio 254). Her personal letters from this period also reflect this attempt to make women into desiring subjects, rather than just desirable; she strove to allow these women “to direct their own desire rather than to serve as objects of male desire (Salvaggio 255).

This foray into other literary endeavors is a major part of Behn’s legacy; these novels were not only innovative in the new, realistic style in which they were being written, but in their portrayal of gender roles and the inequalities that women faced during this time. However, there is a lot of conflict between literary critics regarding Behn’s actual contributions to the genre of fiction. Some see her work as undeniably feminist, which others argue that her work often displays a masculine set of values (Pearson 40). It seems that this last argument comes from how she tells her stories. Behn uses demure female narrators in her fiction, and these narrators often seem to be appealing to male readers, though if one looks deeper, their reason for doing so becomes clear.

In her fourteen works of fiction, none of Behn’s narrators are obviously male: six give no clue as to their gender, though they sometimes seem to be female by implication, and the other eight are definitely female (Pearson 41). The focus of nearly all of these novels is the lives and nature of women, so the fact that the narrators are (likely) female seems to offer credibility to their stories, as they would possess a better understanding than a male narrator would. Additionally, in some of her more complex novels the female narrator, like the characters, is depicted as “embedded within patriarchy and limited by it” (Pearson 41). Perhaps more important to notice in terms of Behn’s narrators are their imperfections; what they present as simple narratives, entertaining stories or moral tales, turn out to contain quite different meanings, “more sinister, revealing, and subversive, over which the narrators have less perfect control. [They] are given to Freudian slips, unnoticed and unacknowledged self-contradiction…it is these complex, uncomfortable, flawed, or even duplicitous narrators who are Behn’s most effective tool in her analysis of patriarchy,” something unique to her writing at this time (Pearson 42).

While telling their stories, these narrators resort to frequent self-deprecation, even humility, to comment on their roles in society: “Writing in a world where female authorship was the subject of a vigorous and largely hostile scrutiny by the representatives of the dominant culture, Behn has her female narrators humbly accede” to society’s expected constraints upon women (Pearson 43). Perhaps more telling of women’s role in society is the gendered language Behn frequently employs within her fiction. Some words are shown to have different meanings, depending on when they are applied to men or women; “Sylvia would be ‘undone’ by losing her virginity, while Philander is ‘undone’ by failing to have sex and proving impotent at his first encounter with her” (Pearson 44). Additionally, Behn, unlike other authors of the time, addresses female attitudes towards sex and desire both with explicit statements about the equality of men and women (“they respond to sexual passion with ‘equal fire,’ with ‘equal languishment,’ with ‘equal ravishment”) and by allowing women to appropriate a “sexual vocabulary in which they have previously been the objects of male language” (Pearson 44). Before her writing, love was expressed in terms of male desire, “sharply focused on a man’s longing for a woman—a subject’s desire for an object” (Salvaggio 253). In Behn’s work, the “object” acquired a voice, which essentially reshaped the dynamics of romance and desire, thereby transforming the love story, as well as furthering her critics’ praise for Behn as a feminist. As Jacqueline Pearson says, “almost all women writers between the 1670s and the middle of the eighteenth century are aware of Behn’s example and had probably read some of her works” (45).

Though far from the female libertine her critics have proclaimed her to be, Behn lived a sexually unconventional life. Widowed at a young age, she never remarried, though every account of her personal appearance unanimously agrees that she was an extremely attractive woman, and always had a wide circle of admirers from whom she could choose. While some of these admirers did in fact become her lovers, she refused to be a “kept” mistress, though this could have kept her from enduring several periods of poverty that marked her eventful life. An obviously independent woman, her work seems to emphasize her repugnance towards sexual relationships based on anything other than genuine feelings (Woodcock 46). For her, love was not a matter of trifling, as so often depicted by Restoration writers as a reflection of the Restoration period in general; “certainly in her plays, there is a more sincere attitude towards the intercourse of the sexes than in those of most of her contemporaries” (Woodcock 47). While she indulged in one long term affair, she lived her later life completely abstaining from sex (Todd).

Her one lengthy affair, with John Hoyle, a lawyer in London, was fraught with problems and disappointment. Though Behn knew it was conquest, not love Hoyle was seeking, she eventually gave in to his advances (Todd 175). She fell deeply in love with him, though he did not return her esteem in full measure—essentially, she became the gender stereotype she so scorned in her writing: she was the loving, fawning female, while he remained the dominant, unattached, self-reliant male. In addition to being the subject of Behn’s poetry, her “novel” Love Letters to a Gentleman is in fact a collection of letters she wrote to Hoyle, which were combined and published as a novel after her death.

For Ruth Salvaggio, Behn’s earlier relationship with John Hoyle had a huge influence on her fiction, particularly her novella The Fair Jilt. She points out that in Behn’s fiction, we continue to see two types of women, the first of which represents the role Behn played in her relationship with Hoyle. This woman has no role in expressing her desire, while the second woman represents Hoyle’s dominant role in the relationship, and can become a “desiring subject by adopting positions of coldness, distance, and power” (Salvaggio 260). We see the latter in Behn’s novel The Fair Jilt in the character of Miranda.

This novella tells Miranda’s story—she is an extremely wealthy and beautiful young orphan who voluntarily lives in a convent with other girls of fortune. It is through Miranda’s character that Behn’s readers get a description of what appears to be Restoration society’s, ideal woman:

“She was tall and admirably shaped; she had bright hair, and hazel eyes, all full of love and sweetness. No art could make a face so fair as hers by Nature, which every feature adorned with a grace that imagination cannot reach: every look, every motion charmed…she had an air, though gay as so much youth could inspire, yet so modest, so nobly reserved, without formality, or stiffness…she had a great deal of wit, read much…she sang delicately, and danced well, and played on the lute to a miracle, she spoke several languages naturally; for, being co-heiress to so great a fortune, she was bred with the nicest care, in all the finest manners of education” (“The Fair Jilt” 32).

Though Miranda is courted by many because of her beauty and is used to constant praise and lavish gifts, she does not return the favor of any of the young men who crave her attention. She first falls in love with a young friar, a prince from Germany escaping a vindictive older brother; when he does not return her ardor, she falsely accuses him of rape, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment. Soon after, she meets another “prince,” who claims to be descended from the last emperor of Rome. She and Prince Tarquin are quickly married, despite the warnings, he receives from the priests who do not believe Miranda’s accusation toward Prince Hendrick. They live an extraordinarily lavish lifestyle, which is funded by her sister’s portion of their inheritance, which she controls until her sister is married. Desperate to maintain her life of extravagance, Miranda orders first a devoted, love-struck page to murder her sister, and when his attempt fails, he is executed. Undaunted, Miranda begs Tarquin to carry out the deed, but when he also fails he is caught and sent to prison. Perhaps surprisingly, the public is sympathetic towards both the page and Tarquin, laying all their blame on Miranda. Despite public support, Tarquin is sentenced to die while Miranda is only banished. However, he survives the executioner’s botched attempt at beheading, and he and Miranda escape to his native Netherlands, where they live a long and happy life.

Miranda is an abhorrent, yet fascinating character. Selfish, vain, manipulative, wicked, and outright evil, she combines the worst possible qualities of a human being with those that are so admired. There is no more favorable description of a female character in any of Behn’s work than she gives to Miranda, yet even the most conniving of other characters do not even begin to compare to her level of destructive vanity. Even as she is falsely accusing Hendrick of rape, she is referring to her looks and position, blaming her “fatal beauty” on the fabricated attack, and claiming that she begged the friar to desist in respect to her “quality,” all while proclaiming her virtue and innocence: “you find me here a wretched, undone, and ravished maid” (“The Fair Jilt” 48).

Through her celebrated beauty, Miranda wields great power: “thousands of people were dying by her eyes, while she was vain enough to glory in her conquests, and make it her business to wound” (“The Fair Jilt” 33). She uses this power to enchant the unsuspecting, charm people into believing her, and even to tempt a weak young man into committing murder. Following Hendrick’s imprisonment, Miranda, “cured of her love, was triumphing in her revenge, expecting and daily giving new conquests” (39).

Despite the disgust a reader inevitably feels towards Miranda, Tarquin remains loyal, unperturbed by all her despicable actions. Through his unwavering love, she is able, to an extent, to overcome her vain, murderous, manipulative tendencies; faced with his imminent execution that is entirely her fault, her “griefs daily increased, with a languishment that brought her very near her grave, [and she] at last confessed all her life” (“The Fair Jilt” 66). Even when he is about to die, Tarquin “could [not] be brought to wish that he had never seen [Miranda]. But on the contrary, as a man yet vainly proud…he said all the satisfaction this short moment of life could afford him was, that he died in endeavoring to serve Miranda, his adorable princess” (“The Fair Jilt” 67). When they said their goodbyes, “a thousand times she asked his pardon for being the occasion of that fatal separation; a thousand times assuring him, she would follow him, for she could not live without him” (68).

Miranda seems a unique Restoration character in that she, not the male is the conqueror. When it was typical for a female’s story to end with her marriage, Behn allowed Miranda’s narrative to continue past that traditional and conventional conclusion. Though it seems odd, considering the twists and turns the novel takes, all of the characters (except the executed page) eventually get their “happy ending.” Miranda gives her sister enough of her inheritance that she can marry, and Hendrick is released from human behavior. In her quote, “…the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Tarquin survives his “execution” and gains the pardon of both the state and Miranda’s sister, and Miranda, also having received pardons, can leave Antwerp with her still-devoted husband to retire to a quiet life in the country with his wealthy and accepting family. The conclusion of the novella tells us that Tarquin “lived as a private gentleman, in all the tranquility of a man of good fortune,” and that Miranda was “very penitent for her life past,” and now lives in a “perfect state of happiness” (“The Fair Jilt” 72).

Essentially, The Fair Jilt shows us a completely different woman than Behn portrays in her plays. For the first time, we see a female character with almost complete control over her life; all of the setbacks she encountered were overcome in one way or another. Miranda, often like the men of Behn’s plays, gets her way and her “happy ending.” Given the way that Behn usually portrays her female characters, Miranda certainly is best explained if Salvaggio’s theory is true, and that Miranda is a manifestation of the way Behn wishes she had acted towards John Hoyle. She certainly manages to carry out her evil plots yet end up with a happy ending by becoming a “desiring subject [who adopted] positions of coldness, distance, and power” (Salvaggio 260).

From unconventional characters like Miranda to the more quietly rebellious Hellena and Florinda to her own unique lifestyle, Aphra Behn paved the way for both future female authors and the genres in which they would write. In both her fiction and drama Behn achieved important advances in technology since her novels show the “beginning of the realist technique which was afterward to be developed more fully by Defoe and his successors,” and in her plays, we can see the “first signs of the transition from the Restoration comedy of manners to the drama of sensibility which flourished in 18th-century theater” (Woodcock 9).

Though her last few years of life were not marked by the same success she enjoyed early in her career, enough is known about the wide variety of her circle of acquaintance to realize that she was an extremely popular woman, “whose generosity awoke the affection and whose spirit and talent demanded the admiration of men and women from many walks of life, among them some of the most talented people of her time. With her rich and ample character, she had persuaded her age to accept her, not merely as the first pioneer of the great succession of professional women writers, but also as one of its most vital personalities” (Woodcock 101). Upon her death in 1689, Behn was buried in Westminster Abbey, a mark of respect for all that she contributed to England’s literary traditions. Her tombstone reads “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be/ Defence enough against Mortality” (Link).

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