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Aphra Behn – The Character of Hellena in The Rover
Hellena’s character in Aphra Behn’s book The Rover can be said to be outspoken, intelligent, and rebellious. This article will focus on the Hellena rebellion and analyze its meaning in depth. We find Hellena rebelling against her brother Pedro’s demands to send her to a convent, against the respectable behavior expected of 17th century women, and against the social roles of women. These three areas will be studied in depth to reveal the causes, and consequences of Hellena’s rebellious culture.
Hellena’s character is revealed almost immediately in the play when she says to Florinda, “Now hang me, if I don’t love you for dear disobedience. I love strange evil…”. Rover creates an image of a male-dominated society, and Hellena is clearly not a woman who wants to be dominated.
In the first scene, we find out that Hellena and Florinda’s fate has already been decided by their father, and their brother Pedro plans to do what he wants. Florinda humbly submits to her brother saying: “Sir, I will try to do what I can to be your sister”. But the outspoken Hellena openly rebels against her sister’s obedience: “Just like her sister! In this way, Florinda is a model for Hellena because she is shown as the “proper” obedient wife while Hellena is a free spirit. It seems that one of the important things much to Hellena as a nun she must be modest, but she wants to express her sexual desires. Pedro criticizes Hellena saying that she “wasn’t made to talk with lovers”. However, it is Hellena’s conversation with Pedro that helps us realize that Florinda wants to marry Belvile. In this way , Florinda is similar to Hellena in that they are both forced, by men, to suppress their desires. Hellena’s rebellion against her brother and the convent is evidently a protest against male domination.
This brings us to our second point about Hellena’s rebellion against the respectable behavior expected of women of her time. Although this is closely related to the first part we have studied, it has special characteristics that should be investigated.
The ideal woman of the 1700s was someone who ate very little, fainted easily and often, and was embarrassed whenever anyone looked at her. Her honor was motivated mainly by her duty to obey men and be chaste. This code is opened in Hellena’s ear and she exemplifies it when she and Willmore first meet. We see that no one is looking for a permanent relationship – they just want to “get it over with”. Again, we see Florinda serving as a foil for Hellena. Although Florinda is portrayed as a virtuous maid, this contrasts sharply with Hellena’s overt sexuality.
Hellena also violates the rules of honor by relying heavily on deception, in particular, by disguising herself as a man. Deception is integrated throughout the play and Hellena’s hiding is a way to hide her identity and, thus, free her from the restrictions imposed by the patriarchal society. A good woman in this era would not break her rules of honor by defying a man’s authority, but Hellena not only breaks the rules, she proves to be equal to the most outspoken man in the game – Willmore.
The third point concerns the role of women. This point combines the first two we’ve seen, but it also serves to put the emphasis on one of the main themes of the game. With Hellena’s Rebellion, Behn challenges the double standard applied to women and the notion of what a “proper” woman should be.
A good place to start would be to say that Angelica Bianca is being introduced as a secondary painting to Hellena. This may be difficult to see at first because, as a prostitute, Angelica certainly falls outside the guidelines of a good or proper woman. But on closer inspection, the difference will become apparent.
Angelica vowed that “nothing but gold will make my heart happy”. By declaring this, she has suppressed her natural desires to sell herself as a prostitute. Romantic love, in the traditional sense, is not possible for a woman known as a prostitute. This is why she must try to give up what he gave her when she falls in love with Willmore. As long as she is trapped in the stigma that goes along with prostitution, she will not be able to pursue her “natural” desires. Likewise, Florinda’s natural desires are also held captive by her ideal childhood. By showing the limits of self-expression and sexuality in women’s identities, the “abnormalities” of these roles are revealed, whether they are girls, maids, or prostitutes.
When Hellena departs from the feminine culture of her day, her differences with the two women worsen. Instead of being jealous that Willmore has another woman, Hellena teaches him a lesson by outsmarting him and beating him at his own game. In this way, he directly contradicts Angelica who, out of jealousy, threatens Willmore’s life. Angelica has the beauty, but Hellena has the same wit and humor as Willmore.
Finally, we have analyzed how Hellena rebelled against her brother and the nuns in order not to allow themselves to be controlled. We have also seen how her rebellion against the common decency expected of women of her time not only frees her from restraints, but ultimately earns her respectability. And finally, we have seen how her disobedience to female roles makes her stand out from other women and brings positive results. When the female characters push the boundaries of the identity assigned to them, we come to see that the nature of a woman is not in the label, whether it is a man, a prostitute, or a servant. However, Behn shows that living “happily ever after” in a patriarchal society is not an easy feat, and it is Hellena’s courage to rebel that makes it possible.
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