– The Narrative Shifts Essay, Research Paper
A black African is captured and sold into slavery. It?s an unfortunate story, but one with approximately eleven million equivalents. Aphra Behn, however, brings this common piece of history to life in her story Oroonoko, the tale of an African prince tricked into slavery in the West Indies. As the storyteller, Behn makes use of two common forms of narration, the third person and the first person. She recounts what she is present for in the first person, while relying on the words of Oroonoko himself to explain what she did not see. The effectiveness of each of these modes of narration can be judged by two standards, the ability to effectively convey action and by the ability to portray emotion. Examining two separate passages of Oroonoko, each depicting Oroonoko in battle, can best illustrate these standards. The first of these passages, from page 2187-88(?While he was speaking?.wounded him almost to death?), is a third person account of one of Oroonoko?s battles, while the second passage, from page 2199-2200(?sometimes we would go surprising?strong limbs?) is a first person narratative about Oronooko?s encounter with a tiger. Though in Oroonoko, both first and third person narration modes are necessary to complete the story, the third person narration serves only the purpose of exposing relevant details for which Behn was absent, and is less desirable than the first person narration.
The first area of assessment for these passages is their ability to accurately and effectively portray action. The first passage recalls Oroonoko overcoming personal despair, joining his men in battle, and turning an entire battle around to claim victory. An occurrence such as this has virtually unlimited possibilities for description and excitement, if one was there to witness it. Unfortunately, Behn was not, and thus has to rely on Oroonoko?s account of the battle. As a result, the detail is, while attempting to entice excitement, quite vague. Behn writes that Oroonoko was responsible for ?turning the tide of victory?(2188). This line is vague and clich?d and serves only the purpose of omitting much action, action which Behn was not present to observe, and action which Oroonoko was likely too involved to accurately observe.
By contrast, a look at the second of the passages, the one written in the first person, reveals a much more accurate and precise presentation of action. This is because Behn is not required to rely on someone else?s memory to tell her story, but can write from her own first hand observations. This is seen first in Behn?s description of the tiger itself as an ?enraged and ravenous beast?(2200). These are both words that provoke a very graphic and vivid mental picture, quite accurately describing exactly what Behn saw. This intense attention to detail is further shown in her description of Oroonoko?s slaughter of the tiger. She writes ??and putting himself into a very steady and good aiming posture of defense, ran his sword quite though his breast down to his very heart, home to the hilt of the sword?(2200). This sentence makes it very easy to imagine Oroonoko?s exact actions, recalling his stance, the place where the sword entered the tiger, and even detailing how far into the tiger the sword went. By looking at these two passages, one written from a story dictated by Oroonoko, and one written from a personal experience, it is possible to see that the first person narration is much more effective in its description, and thus the third person narration mode in this story only exists to provide necessary information.
The other method of comparison is not to look at the ability to simply portray action, but the ability to portray the emotion of a person. The first passage, written in the third person, lacks in its ability to show the emotion of Oroonoko as he goes into battle. No doubt, his enthusiasm and passion would have been high, but this cannot be fully described by Oroonoko in a way that would be effective when written. Thus, Behn uses the line ?and being animated with despair, fought as if he came on purpose to die(2188)? to best capture Oroonoko?s emotional state. While they do provide the reader with the exact feelings of the hero, they do so in a very direct and uncreative way.
In contrast with this technique of merely stating the emotion, is the much more effective technique of describing it. Behn accomplishes this in her first person narration of Oroonoko killing the tiger. The best of her emotional description is when Oroonoko fixes ?his awful stern eyes full upon those of the beast?(2200). This is very effective because rather than simply explain what he was feeling, Behn describes the look in his face as he fought the tiger. Without explicity stating the emotion, Behn is able to bring the fearlessness of Oroonoko to life because she was actually present to see that look in his eyes. Again, it can be seen by looking at each mode of narration?s ability to effectively portray emotion, that the first person mode is superior, and thus the third person exists only to fill in gaps in the story.
In conclusion, it can be seen that the only purpose that Behn has for using the third person narration technique is its necessity to provide the background to the story. This follows from the conclusion that the first person narration is superior in both its ability to portray action, and its ability to portray emotion. If it were possible for Behn to have been present as all the events described in Oroonoko, the entire story would have been written in the first person.
Works CitedBehn, Aphra. ?Oroonoko.? The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. A.H. Abrams. New York. W.W Norton and Company, Inc 2000. 2170-2215.