Spoken by Virginia Wolfe, this quote immaculately captures the overall importance of Aphra Behn to women everywhere. A British playwright, poet and novelist, Aphra Behn was a woman amongst men. Though there has been no shortage of speculation regarding the facts surrounding her birth and parents, it is widely accepted that she was born to Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Denham on July 10, 1640 just outside of Canterbury, UK. The first of many strides towards breaking down the walls of gender stereotyping occurred when Behn took on a job as a spy for King Charles II—a job previously uncharacteristic for a woman to have.
She was also known to be the first woman to ever be able to support herself finically solely from the earnings of her writings. Though these were indeed strides in the right direction for women, they cowers to the impact Behn was able to make directly through her writings. In 1680, one of Behn’s most prolific works, “The Disappointment”, was published. She initially did not receive credit for the work because it was published in the Earl of Rochester’s Poems on Several Occasions.
Four years later, after being published in her own “Poems on Several Occasions” Behn was able to be recognized for her work. Though I had already been familiar with Behn, mainly because of the studying I’ve done on her short novel, Oroonoko, about an African prince who was captured and enslaved by the British, I had not been previously exposed to “The Disappointment” prior to enrolling in this course. The poem has been the subject of speculation for as long as it has been published. Depending on the perspective of the reader, the meaning of the poem and significance of the title will vary.
I have read and discussed both sides of the argument, and while both sides present strong arguments, I quickly learned that how this story is interpreted lies completely within the perspective of the reader. The poem is built around Lysander, a man that is seemingly attempting to rape Cloris, a woman who ultimately gives in to his sexual advances. After all of his persistent advances, Lysander ultimately was not able to perform intercourse with Cloris, which has led to the question of which of the two was Behn titling the “disappointed”? The poem begins with Lysander and Cloris together in the woods.
Lysander begins to make sexual advances towards Cloris, and although she is in love with him, Cloris is a virgin and she informs him that death will arrive before her losing her honor, so she adamantly resists. After persistent advances, he succeeds in undressing her. Lysander then prematurely ejaculates, thus is unable to get an erection to engage in intercourse that he so desired. At this point, after finally submitting to his seduction and anticipating what she thought was the inevitable, Cloris is left confused, unsatisfied, and… disappointed?
The very first perspective I encountered was one in which Lysander was thought to be the disappointed. The first and most obvious reason that Lysander could be named as the disappointed is in his inability to perform. One’s first impression is that Lysander was attempting to rape Cloris. If that were the case and Lysander was indeed the “disappointed”, then that would mean that the disappointment would have ultimately been that he was unable to rape Cloris, which is quite unsettling to me.
I can’t bring myself to think that it would be considered a “disappointment” for a man to attempt, but fail at something as horrendous as raping a woman. While reading the poem, I was able to get a sense of Lysander being a villain. His continuous attempts to get her to bed could be viewed as a spoil of their relationship, which, in turn, could mean that his ultimate disappointment was not only the fact that he could not perform when it was time for consummation, but also that he allowed his sexual drive to become so out of control that she showed poor taste to the woman that he loved.
Although Lysander felt confident in his physical strength and sexual abilities, his lack of performance sent him fleeing into the woods in embarrassment. The second, and in my opinion, more logical perspective is the one in which Cloris is thought to be the disappointed. In a time where women were limited in what was acceptable for them to write about, it was a virtual impossibility for a woman to express herself as a sexual being.
Seeing the story through the eyes of Cloris allow me to see just how diligently Behn worked to go against the typical and accepted conventions. Men, with their strength and bravado were normally always seen as the ones in charge of sexual situations. Here you see Behn subtly change that. Though it appears that Lysander is indeed in charge, Behn found a way to give Cloris an otherwise unconsidered role of leadership. Cloris initially rejects Lysander’s attempts, but after a while, she accepts, and deems herself “ready to taste a thousand joys” (Behn, line 71).
It was in this newfound acceptance of her sexuality that made Lysander uneasy, and this transfer in sexual power is what ultimately made Lysander unable to perform. Lysander’s impotence leaves Cloris disappointed, not only in him, but in the fact that she was not able to experience the satisfaction of the newfound feelings that were awakened in her. When considering both perspectives, a new question is birthed: Did Behn write this poem as a sexual attack on men, or was it intended to be received as a message of sexual empowerment for women?
From the perspective of Lysander, Behn’s poem could be considered as a sexual attack on men. Lysander’s persistence is presented in the form of rape. Rape is a horrendous crime that is normally committed by men who crave the need for control. Behn presented this man, who is initially thought to be in control, but couldn’t perform when it was time to carry out his ultimate goal. Behn could have very well been delivering the ultimate slap in the face to men by the hands of the one thing men fear the most—sexual impotence.
However, it could just as easily be viewed as a message of sexual empowerment for women. Behn placed Cloris in a situation to where she not only became awakened to her sexual spirit, she embraced it. She displayed a woman showing comfort in her sexuality, which wasn’t socially abundant at that time. By taking the traditional roles of sexuality between a man and a woman and reversing them, Behn wanted to express that not only men could be in tune with their sexual desires, and that it shouldn’t make a woman any less desirable to be in tune with hers.
The French motif of “imperfect enjoyment”, places blame on the woman for the man’s inability to perform, however, in The Disappointment, Lysander’s inability to perform is the cause of Cloris’ sexual frustration or her “disappointment”. This daring twist that Behn made reverses what was considered the norm, and holds man accountable for his shortcomings or deficiencies. Although I was able to understand and appreciate both arguments, I read the poem more so from the perspective of Cloris being the “disappointed.
Coming from Aphra Behn and the messages that she chose to deliver, I see this as more sensible direction for her to choose to take her poem. I do not believe she would have entertained the thought of defacing man as much as she would have encouraging women. “The Disappointment” highlights the sexual inequalities of women caused by the constraints socially placed on them. Though double standards and socially accepted behavior for women is still a topic of conversation today, one could very well say that Aphra Behn helped start the conversation.