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In almost every piece of writing there is reference to some sort of pain, whether it be physical pain or emotional pain. In a story like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, the physical pain stands out above any other grief or misery. However, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus exhibits just as much pain, but in an emotional sense. This poses an interesting question: Is one pain worse than the other? Can pain be measured?
Pain, whether it be physical or emotional, is an unpleasant sensation. However, something like being poked with a safety pin or feeling sad would not be considered true pain. Physical pain is sent to the brain from other parts of the body, and when the brain recognizes the pain, the body feels it as well.
There is no scientific evidence on where emotional pain comes from, but most people agree with Stanley Schachter’s analysis of emotions in the late 1950’s. Schachter said that emotional pain "begins when a person encounters an important event or thought. The person then interprets the meaning of the encounter, and the interpretation determines the feeling that is likely to follow. (Black 22)"
Throughout history, people have documented their encounters with physical and emotional pain in works such as stories or poems. Neither pain was extensively researched until the late 19th century, so neither Marlowe nor Behn had any documentation on the causes and effects of physical and emotional pain. But both were able to take painful elements from their environment and put them into their texts.
Marlowe wrote Dr. Faustus in 1592, in the middle of the Elizabethian era. The story revolves around a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for several years of "forbidden knowledge." Dr. Faustus is written in theatrical form (to be staged), a genre popularized during Elizabeth’s reign by writers such as Marlowe and Shakespeare. This form allowed authors to develop characters and experiment with emotion through dialogue, something authors were unable to do in poetry and had yet to do in stories. Dr. Faustus reads like a commentary on religion intended for the more affluent members of society: Don’t ask for things outside of your means or status. The story could also be a warning to monarchs who believe they are superhuman or divine.
Because of the nature of the story, the pain expressed in Dr.
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Oroonoko deals with both physical and emotional pain, but by working with a new genre (the novel), Behn was able to go into more detail describing the physical torture Oroonoko and Imoinda endured while searching for happiness. Though Behn’s interpretation of the novel is not as complex as today’s novel, it describes physical pain unlike any story or poem previously had in written history.
Oroonoko is a story about an African prince and his bride, and their struggle to get married and live together. They are never able to achieve the happiness they wish for, which is an example of emotional pain. On the other hand, the agony they go through trying to reach happiness is vividly described for the reader. In the final pages, when Oroonoko is to be executed, Behn describes the situation for the reader.
He had learned to take tobacco, and when he was assured he should die, he desired they would give him a pipe in his mouth, ready lighted, which they did; and the executioner came, and first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire; after that, with an ill-favored knife, they cut his ears, and his nose, and burned them; he still smoked on, as if nothing had touched him. Then they hacked off one of his arms, and still he bore up, and held his pipe; but at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk, and his pipe dropped, and he gave up the ghost, without a groan or a reproach. (Behn 1910)
Oroonoko himself never lets anyone know he is in pain, but Behn does a wonderful job describing the sheer brutality of his execution.
Can one of these pains be worse? Is Faustus’ eternal torment worse than Oroonoko’s physical strife? Or is the brutality Oroonoko faces while alive worse than that of Faustus’ afterlife?
To compare the two stories, one must take out all uncommon threads. For example, modern Christian doctrine would mark the eternal pain of Faustus worse than the physical pain of Oroonoko as long as Oroonoko was saved, for the time Oroonoko’s body was in pain would be minute compared to the time Oroonoko was rejuvenated in Heaven. But since Oroonoko is not a Christian, eternity does not have the same meaning for him as it does for Faustus. There is no afterlife, as Behn points out when Oroonoko kills Imoinda. "But when he found she was dead and past all retrieve, never more to bless him with her eyes and soft language…(Behn 1908)." The only way to compare the two is to say that Faustus’ "eternal time" is equal to Oroonoko’s "time on Earth," thus focusing on the amount of pain instead of the time frame the pain is administered.
Debating these pains is like debating whether Jesus’ physical pain of crucifixion is worse than the emotional pain those who loved him went through. Both were excruciating, but there is no measuring device for pain; therefore, one cannot judge one type of pain worse than another. We cannot say that the pain of crucifixion is worse than the pain of those who love the victim.
Behn tells about a time when Oroonoko is whipped "1,000 times" and his wounds smeared in Indian pepper. The feeling the reader receives from that passage is one of great suffering. So it would be easy to say that physical pain is more obvious to a reader, and the more obvious the pain the worse off it is for the victim, therefore physical pain is worse than emotional pain. But just because Faustus’ pain is not graphically presented to us does not mean he is better off. In Faustus’ last monologue, he keeps looking at the clock, waiting for his eternal torment to begin. The psychological power of this passage is unreal; through his dialogue we get an overwhelming sense of fear and hurt from Faustus. Just because there is no author to tell us that Faust was "doubled over in pain" does not mean his pain was of a lesser magnitude than that of Oroonoko.
Pain is a feeling of great distress upon one person. It has been written about throughout all literature. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Behn’s Oroonoko are examples of the two main types of pain, physical and emotional, respectively. We may not be able to measure the amount of pain these characters felt and come to a conclusion as to which felt more, but these stories are evidence that pain was a predominant theme in British Literature. It is something almost every writer documents, trying to express the true scope of pain. But since we cannot measure pain, writers will probably never be able to fully explain the feeling.
Behn, Aphra. "Oroonoko." The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1993. 1864-1910.
The Bible, New International Version. New Jersey: Zondervan, 1973.
Black, Richard. "Pain." World Book Encyclopedia Volume XV. Chicago: World Book Inc., 1990.
Marlowe, Christopher. "Dr. Faustus." The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1993. 768-801.
Schachter, Stanley. The Psychology of affiliation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, #9;1961.