Slavery: More Than Forced Labor
Enslavement in Visions of the Daughters of Albion is depicted in William Blake’s progressive text. Oothoon, the female protagonist, is bound by society’s standpoint on purity. She is further bound when raped by Bromion. The text also compares Oothoon to America, which implies hope but also despair. Hope because the country revolted against Britain’s tyranny, and despair because slavery was still practiced. Blake uses a poem to depict subjugation within society’s expectations, which reveals the reality of slavery. Slavery is not only shackling a people group for forced labor but also sexual oppression. Therefore, sexual oppression encompasses degrading a person for having sex, forcing a person to have sex, and devaluing a person because of their sex.
Eighteenth century society claims chastity is essential, a belief that is liable to bind Oothoon. The poem begins with “The Argument,” which is Oothoon’s relation of herself before she is raped. She says that she is a virgin, but she is not reluctant to give up her virginity. Oothoon states, “I plucked Leutha’s flower,” (Plate iii. 7). The plucking of a flower symbolizes a sexual encounter. She states she is not ashamed of her love for Theotormon; therefore, why would she not “pluck her flower?” Loosing one’s virginity before marriage is a form of sexual oppression because society’s perspective of unchaste women is negative. An unchaste woman is equated to a prostitute. Therefore, women with progressive ideas on sex are bound by society, and Oothoon is exposed to the bondage when tempted by the nymph. The nymph in the “Visions” tells Oothoon that even when one’s flower is plucked, “…the soul of sweet delight/ Can never pass away” (Plate 1. 10-11). Oothoon is convinced; she realizes that her innermost being, her soul, will remain constant whether a virgin or not. Like plucking a flower is insignificant, Oothoon believes losing one’s virginity is not as significant as society deems. James E. Swearingen’s, The Enigma of Identity in Blake’s “Visions of the Daughters of Albion,” supports the argument. Swearingen states, “As she [Oothoon] is not a thing, she cannot be tainted by an event” (212). Oothoon is a person, and society nor Theotormon nor Bromion can deem her tainted. Oothoon believes that her soul will not change after sex; she does not believe it is capable of changing from solely a sensory experience.
Her viewpoint is radical, implying the progressive concept that women own their bodies. If Oothoon listens to the nymph and makes the decisions for her body, she will give up her virginity to Theotormon. The bondage caused by impurity is not only societal because Oothoon would not be respected, but also intellectual. People would deem Oothoon unintelligent, viewing her as foolish for not listening to “God’s commandments” to wait till marriage. The question becomes, is Oothoon enslaving herself by questioning traditional ideas? If she chooses to go against the norm, will the scorn of society be worth the liberation? But before Oothoon can act upon her newfound ideas, she is raped.
The rape forces enslavement on Oothoon. As she is traveling to Theotormon, the text states, “Bromion rent her with his thunders. on his stormy bed” (Plate 1. 17). The footnote describes that Bromion’s actions are rape. Bromion calls Oothoon a harlot, even though the loss of her purity was not her choice. Society believed raped women equally tainted to women who lose their virginity voluntarily. Oothoon is enslaved because she is equated to a prostitute. The text affirms that Theotormon agrees with society because he physically binds the hands of Oothoon and Bromion together out of anger. At first Oothoon’s response to Theotormon is how society expects a violated woman to respond; she howls and writhes at the shame. Swearingen argues that Oothoon is at first upset because her reactions are torn between how she feels and how she “ought” to feel (206). Theotormon’s rage makes Oothoon think she needs to be ashamed, but then she remembers that she decides what is significant to her body. She tries to convince Theotormon stating, “…I am pure. / Because the night is gone that clos’d me in its deadly black” (Plate 2. 29-30). Oothoon argues that the rape is over; the sensory experience of having sex is not carried with her. Swearingen furthers the argument stating, “[The] argument seeks to formulate her sense that she is not a mere accumulation of sensory experience without capacity for renewal” (208). Oothoon is like a new day that follows night. She is not attached to the rape but instead is renewed. Despite her arguments, Theotormon does not listen. She is bound because Theotormon is blinded by what society has engraved in his mind. He will not take her after she had a sexual encounter with another man.
Oothoon’s enslavement is similar to an African’s enslavement. Like an African slave, Oothoon and all sexually oppressed women cannot advance out of their present situation. At first the comparison between Oothoon and America appears positive. Americans revolted against their oppression; the analogy implies Oothoon will also revolt against her sexual oppression. But, after Oothoon is raped, Bromion states, “Thy soft American plains are mine, and mine thy north and south:/ Stampt with my signet are the swarthy [dark-skinned] children of the sun (Plate 1. 21-23). Bromion alludes to the practice of slavery in America. Bromion owns Oothoon’s body; he is like the slave master and Oothoon the slave. Slaves were branded to depict ownership; similarly Bromion wants to stamp Oothoon with his identity to show his possession. Swearingen reiterates the argument, “According to Bromion’s conception of knowledge and his morality of master and slave, she, like all victims, is property” (205). Bromion has an authoritative “conception of knowledge” partly because he is male and Oothoon is female. Bromion does not think women are equal; hence, women can be his property. Connecting slavery to Oothoon’s situation and largely women’s rights, reiterates that Blake is radical. While Blake’s comparison is logical, it is also problematic because African enslavement was on a different level then Oothoon’s enslavement. A female African slave was subjected to sexual oppression plus forced labor and physical violence, which women in England did not typically experience.
Through depicting different forms of slavery evident in The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake writes a social critique. Oothoon’s character largely represents the issue of human rights. From the nymph’s temptation, to Oothoon’s rape, to her rapist’s desire to own her body, to comparing Oothoon to an African slave, Blake critiques what he views as wrong conditions in society. Blake suggests women are to be treated and viewed differently and slavery should not be practiced. By expanding the definition of slavery, Blake reveals that Africans and women are enslaved and both groups’ human rights need to be discussed and evaluated.
Blake, William. “Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. 5 Vol. 2A. Susan Wolfson and Peter Manning. New York: Pearson Education, 2012. 218-224. Print.
Getty. Photograph. Huffpost Lifestyle. The Huffington Post, 14 Oct 2013. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Swearingen, James E. “The Enigma of Identity in Blake’s ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology Vol. 91, No. 2. (1992) : 203-215. Print.