The English major applied theories of biopower to Aphra Behn’s 17th century novel Oroonoko.

Aphra Behn was one of the first professional female writers in England, and her 1688 novel Oroonoko is considered a crucial text in the development of the English novel. In her senior thesis, English major Jane Shen ’17 drew from theories of biopower (which concerns the control and subjugation of human lives and bodies) to critique the famous author’s treatment of race, slavery, and colonialism.

Her thesis, “Long Live Life: A Biopolitical Examination of Aphra Behn’s Royalism in Oroonoko,” emerged after she heard a talk by University of Illinois-Chicago Professor of English Peter Coviello, who introduced Shen to the theory of biopower, a term originally coined by French scholar Michel Foucault. Shen was left with questions about Oroonoko, which chronicles the tragic life of an eponymous African prince sold into slavery, and decided to critique the book through a biopolitical lense.

Shen appreciated help from her advisor, Visiting Assistant Professor of English Benjamin Parris, who was “very knowledgeable about the subject of biopower.” Shen was on a pre-health track, but after enjoying the thesis process and considering biopower in the context of healthcare, she is considering pursuing a graduate degree in English.

“Working on my thesis opened up some potential career pathways that I hadn’t previously given much consideration,” she said.


What did you learn working on your thesis?

The thesis project was the first long-term project that I’d worked on in my academic career. Working on one project throughout the course of a year allowed for me to foster a deeper sense of passion about my essay topic that I hadn’t tapped in my previous, short-term projects––even the ones that I’d immensely enjoyed! I also hadn’t taken any prior coursework that involved biopower, so having a year to immerse myself in biopolitical theory was a great introduction to some of the nuances of biopower.

What are the implications for your thesis research?

The field of biopower is a rapidly expanding field in academia, and I was very excited to work on a project involving biopower during a time of its rapidly growing interest in the academic community. The questions that I examine in my thesis––questions about biopower in slavery, and the emergence of dynamic racism in the economization of life within slavery––were by no means previously unexplored by some astounding minds. However, I wasn’t able to find any prior explorations of biopower within the context of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.

-Michael Weber ’19

Images: A painting of Aphra Behn by Peter Lely (ca. 1670) and a handout of a 1776 performance of Oroonoko.
“What They Learned”is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.