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Aphra Behn – The Character of Hellena in The Rover

The character of Hellena in Aphra Behn’s The Rover could be described as outspoken, witty, and rebellious. This article will focus on Hellena’s rebellious nature and explore the deeper meanings of it. We find Hellena rebelling against her brother Pedro’s wishes to send her to a nunnery, against the conventional system of honor expected of 17th century women, and against the traditional roles of females in society. These three areas will be studied in depth to reveal the reasons for, and the results of, Hellena’s rebellious nature.

Hellena’s personality is set forth almost immediately in the play when she says to Florinda, “Now hang me, if I don’t love thee for that dear disobedience. I love mischief strangely…”. The Rover creates a picture of a society dominated by men, and Hellena is clearly not a woman who wants to be controlled.

In the first scene, we discover that the futures of Hellena and Florinda have already been determined by their father, and their brother Pedro plans to carry out his wishes. Florinda humbly submits to her brother: “Sir, I shall strive to do as shall become your sister”. But the outspoken Hellena openly rebels in the face of her sister’s obedience: “As becomes his sister! That is to be as resolved your way as he is his”. In this way, Florinda is a foil to Hellena because she is portrayed as the “ideal” subservient woman while Hellena is much more of a free spirit. Presumably, one of Hellena’s chief concerns as a prospective nun should be chastity, but she is much more concerned with expressing her sexual desires. Pedro scolds Hellena by remarking that she is “not designed for the conversation of lovers”. However, it is Hellena’s conversation with Pedro that sheds light on Florinda’s desire to marry Belvile. In this way, Florinda is also a parallel to Hellena because they are both being forced, by men, to suppress their desires. Hellena’s rebellion against her brother and against the convent is clearly a stance against being controlled by men.

This brings us to our second point regarding Hellena’s rebellion against the conventional system of honor expected from the women of her time. While this is closely tied to the first area we explored, it has specific qualities that need to be examined.

The ideal 17th century woman was one who ate very little, fainted easily and often, and blushed whenever she was looked at. Her code of honor was primarily influenced by her duty to obey men and to remain chaste. This code is turned on its ear early by Hellena and is exemplified when she and Willmore meet for the first time. We discover that neither is searching for a permanent relationship — they are just looking to “get it on”. Once again, we see Florinda serving as a foil to Hellena. While Florinda has been portrayed as a virtuous maid, this stands in stark contrast to the frank sexuality of Hellena.

Hellena also breaks the code of honor by relying heavily on deception, specifically, by disguising herself as a man. Deception is involved throughout the play and Hellena’s disguise is a means of hiding her identity and, thus, liberating her from the restrictions placed on it by a patriarchal society. The ideal woman of this period would certainly never break her code of honor by defying the authority of a male, but Hellena not only breaks the code, she proves to be an equal wit to the most outspoken man in the play — Willmore.

The third point regards the traditional role of females. This point encompasses the first two that we have looked at, but it also serves to put an exclamation point on one of the main themes of the play. With the rebellion of Hellena, Behn is resisting the double standard applied to women as well as the idealization of what a “proper” woman should be.

A good place to start would be to point out that Angelica Bianca is introduced as a second foil to Hellena. This may be difficult to see at first because, as a prostitute, Angelica certainly falls outside the guidelines of an ideal or a proper woman. But on closer examination, the contrast will come to light.

Angelica has vowed that “nothing but gold shall charm my heart”. In declaring this, she has suppressed her natural desires in order to market herself as a prostitute. Romantic love, in the traditional sense, is not a possibility for a woman whose identity is defined and devalued as a prostitute. This is why she must attempt to cast aside the identity imposed on her when she begins to fall in love with Willmore. As long as she is locked into the stigma that goes along with prostitution, she will never be able to pursue her “natural” desires. Likewise, Florinda’s natural desires are also held captive by her idealized maidenhood. By showing the limits on self-expression and sexuality in the female identities, the “unnaturalness” of these roles are revealed, whether it be nun, maid, or prostitute.

When Hellena steps out of the traditional female stereotype of her day, her contrast with the other two women comes to fruition. Instead of being jealous of finding Willmore with another woman, Hellena teaches him a lesson by matching him in wit and beating him at his own game. In this way, she stands in direct opposition with Angelica who, because of her jealousy, threatens Willmore’s life. Angelica has physical beauty, but Hellena has that plus wit and humor to match Willmore’s.

In conclusion, we have examined how Hellena rebels against her brother and the nunnery in order to avoid being controlled. We have also seen how her rebellion against the conventional honor expected from women of her era not only liberates her from restrictions, but ultimately wins her the title character himself. And finally, we have explored how her rebellion against traditional female roles places her in contrast with the other women and yields a positive result. As the female characters push at the boundaries of identity allotted to them, we come to see that a woman’s nature is not contained within a label, whether it be nun, prostitute, or maid. However, Behn does show that living “happily ever after” in a patriarchal society is not an easy task, and it is only Hellena’s courage to rebel that makes it possible.

Source by Rick L. Huffman

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