When considering changes that steered legal reform in history, most do not think of the leading actions from works of fiction. In the movements surrounding the publications of the novels Oroonoko and Amelia, we can see that fiction has a greater foundation in civil development than nonfiction, which most readers do not see. This is important because it allows works of fiction to more easily influence and suggest to its readers a different perspective. Newspapers, articles, journals, and documentation all are necessary for providing facts that can lead to political reform. However, they all have one thing in common that proves to be one of the biggest struggles for their cause, the lack of personal connection with their readers. No matter the century, nonfiction documents that regard legal issues: abortion, immigration, jail reform, etc. all do not connect with most of the readers on a personal level and are judged before the title is even read. But if these matters are laced with a valiant hero, or veteran, who is faced with struggles at home, then these key concepts are not seen as a threat to the reader’s beliefs, only another struggle for the protagonist to overcome.
When Aphra Behn wrote Oroonoko, the air was thick with political turmoil in Europe. There was much scandal surrounding the king and during the 1600s and it was deemed unwise for the lower class to speak against law and rule. A person could find himself or herself hanged for treason if the wrong person overheard any protests. Slavery was a well-known debate during the era and few found the courage to speak out against it. Behn used a sympathizing protagonist that can be labeled as the “Hero Figure” of the story. Oroonoko is described as, “pretty tall, but of a Shape the most exact that can be fansy’d: The most famous Statuary con’d not form the Figure of a Man more admirably turn’d from Head to Foot. His face was not of that brown, rusty Black which most of that Nation are, but of a perfect Ebony, or polish’d Jett…The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so noble, and exactly form’d” (Behn 21). By the description alone, the reader can tell that this is the hero in the narrative and, due to his high sympathy, competence, and morality, this places him on the level of Superman or Jesus Christ. This was also noted by another author, Richard Kroll: “the narrator briefly introduces her mother and sister at the end as they witness Caesar dying, a scene that reproduces the Passion, when the crucified Christ is accompanied by three women including his own mother and Mary Magdelene” (Kroll 576).
Thus, against most ideals and notions of the world at the time, Behn gives her readers a slave that they grow to understand and sympathize with through his struggles. She did not have to come out and speak radically against slavery or human rights. Behn merely had to show the world the hardships of being a person of color during that time by linking him with concepts known by most people. Love, marriage, loss, heartbreak, and starting a family are all pivotal points in a person’s life and are what bind us together as human beings. Her fiction allowed her to get away with murder, so to speak, and still retain her life free from punishment. Granted, there people who could speak out in distaste for the book, but as a whole, she can argue that the views expressed in the book as the views of the narrator and not the writer. This technique of skimming the line has been used for centuries and even used by other famous authors before Behn’s time, such as Chaucer. However, Behn knows that she brushes up against the line of safety and treason. This is evident from her Dedicatory as she writes, “My Lord, the Obligations I have to some of the Great Men of your Nation, particularly to your Lordship, gives me an Ambition of making my Acknowledgements, by all the Opportunities I can; and such humble Fruits, as my Industry produces, I lay at your Lordships Feet…If there be anything that seems Romantick, I beseech your Lordship to consider, these Countries do, in all things, so far differ from ours, that they produce unconceivable Wonders…What I have mention’d I have taken care shou’d be Truth, let the Critical Reader judge as he pleases” (Behn Dedicatory: 9-11). If she had used this approach in a public document, any negative reaction would be placed solely on her as the author. However, in a way, the author is not responsible for the narrator or the protagonist. The author is merely relaying a story and it is up to reader what he or she takes away from the story. Thus, granting the author the ability to give the main character a radical point of view without suffering the harsh consequences that could follow.
Amelia is a perfect example of this, in that it is a story based around the justice behind debtor’s prison. In addition, the author himself had personal experience with debtors’ prisons that may have added to his knowledge and to the effect on the readers. This protagonist too is portrayed as a hero character, though less glorified than Oroonoko with his apparent flaws. Giving a character flaws creates an air of humanity and Fielding wanted his character, Booth, to create a high connection with his readers. Booth is first described to be in a hearing for fighting in the street. However, he is wrongfully accused with assaulting an officer. This circumstance creates an air of doubt and curiosity into the situation. Fielding could have been hoping for this as the situation revolves around the current laws at the time and heavily implies false accusations and wrongful imprisonment. Again, these are accusations that could get him sentenced to prison if heard by the wrong person. Fielding continues to add to character sympathy with the story of how Booth got mixed up in a fight: “he was walking home to his Lodging, he saw two Men in the Street cruelly beating a third, upon which he had stopt and endeavoured to assist the Person who was so unequally attacked; that the Watch came up during the Affray, and took them all four into Custody” (Fielding 63). Thus, we have a character that the reader will spend multiple hours with and through their trials will come to understand. This places Fielding’s experience in prison as an advantage to the book, instead of at a disadvantage when trying to gain a sympathetic ear through word-of-mouth. In using the character Booth, any prejudice associated with claims of foul play in the prisons, is almost nonexistent.
As a culture, a person is judged based on clothing, age, race, and gender whether we like to think otherwise or not. As an author, all of this is washed away and replaced with the description and personality of Booth. Being a relatable hero makes the process of connection much easier and readers are always trying to look for connections in fictional characters instead of seeking out the mal intent of a real person. Arlene Wilner expresses this as “Fielding’s fiction demonstrates a consistent concern with the proper assessment of character. While he is less interested than Richardson in the process of dissecting human motivation, he does suggest how difficult it is to draw proper conclusions about character and motive from human behavior” (181). Though, this may be difficult, he depicts it quite well throughout his story. Overall, a fictional person is not trying to hurt the reader, take their money, or spill their secrets, so any guards that deal with personal connection are not present when associating a character with different points of view.
Struggle and conflict are the tools of an author that bring the full inflection of a character. Struggles can include loss or even as an end result death. A death of the main character can be as impacting as the death of a friend, given the right novel. An excellent example of this is in Oroonoko at the end of the tale. This ending scene combines graphic brutality with the love and strength of the unlikely hero character. It in this scene, after all of the struggles, hardships, loss, and betrays, Behn leaves her readers with the scattered remains of the man she praised and who proved his valor. “My Mother and Sister were by him all the while, but not suffer’d to save him; so rude and wild were the Rabble, and so inhumane were the Justices, who stood by to see the Execution, who after paid dearly enough for their Insolence” (Behn 238). Here we have the harsh reality for our fictional unlikely hero, due to a political law, as he breathes his final breath. The ready can see it all and is powerless to stop it. Thus, at the end of the novel, her readers are left feeling heartache, loss, and confusion over the loss of the “Royal Slave”. This is further shown through the works of Cynthia Richards and her critique of the power of fiction. “As viewed within the key events of the novel, the final scene of Oroonoko’s torture and execution becomes an ‘expression of the power that punishes,’ an example of the ‘spectacle of the scaffold,’ as Michel Foucault famously labels it, and the reproduction of its grisly acts of torture an instance of that ‘imbalance and excess’ that leads to an ‘emphatic affirmation of [the sovereign’s] power and of its intrinsic superiority.’ Oroonoko’s torture and execution restore order in Surinam and, at least temporarily, reinstate the sovereign’s power. Thus contextualized, the scene plainly operates as an example of retributive justice and political warning” (Richards 649), which still rings true even today. Therefore, the death of the hero character proved to be longer lasting than most of the political documentation surrounding this political reform.
The strong connection with the work also suggests that the reader will be more likely to share this story with their social network. Something of interested is commonly shared with friends, family, and neighbors. This would create a higher volume of readers and help spread the point of view without appearing as argumentative as a newspaper or political review. However, in the beginning, Fielding received many mixed reviews. “In fact, some of the public reviews, and some views expressed in private correspondence, praised the novel. However, readers anticipating another Tom Jones were inevitably puzzled to find something so entirely different…It is impossible to miss the tone of jeering delight in many of the responses that survived” (Fielding: Bree 27). Thus, the initial reviews were circulated with mixed feelings about the novel, but this was more due to the genre associated with the author than the piece itself. Nonetheless, in most cases publicity, whether good or bad, still entices readers to take notice of the work, or find out the truth for themselves. This is continues to be truth with each generation. Thus, unlike facts or legal documents, novels are not often altered or condensed from their original state, perhaps translated, but still holds close to the same effect as the original intent. This gives the same intentions to each reader on a consistent basis.
Overall, works of fiction are able to present a less biased representation of political views, which do not force change upon the reader. Fiction surrounds the cold facts with a blanket of connection between the reader and protagonist. Thus allowing for the points of view to be shown in a light that in non-hostile and unthreatening of the readers own interests and beliefs. This can also impact generations to come and not just during the time of the political reform. The fiction published around these times of turmoil, keep the nonfiction documentation alive in support and inquiry of the truth behind the changes to our society. It is stories like The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, Oroonoko, Amelia, and The Lord of the Rings that bring the greatest changes through their power over words and compassion for humanity.
Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko: Or, the Royal Slave.” London, England. (1688)
Kroll, Richard. “Tales of Love and Gallantry: The Politics of Oroonoko.” Huntington Library Quarterly 67.4 (2004): 573-605. University of California Press. Web. 28 Aug. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hlq.2004.67.4.573>.
Fielding, Henry. “Amelia.” Edited by Linda Bree. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, (2010)
Howard, John. “The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary observations, and an account of some Foreign Prisons and Hospitals.” Printed by William Evres. London, England. (1777)
Arlene Fish Wilner. “Making and Rethinking the Canon: The Eighteenth Century.” Modern Language Studies. (1988): Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 181-194.
Cynthia Richards. “Interrogating Oroonoko: Torture in a New World and a New Fiction of Power.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 25.4 (2013): 647-676. Project MUSE. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.