Friday, July 4, 2014

Race, desire and reason in 'Ourika' by Claire de Duras

"Ourika" was based on the true story of a Senegalese girl raised by nobility in France before the Revolution. In the novel, Ourika believes herself in love with her brother by adoption.

Originally posted to Helium Network circa 2012.

The story "Ourika," based on the true story of a Senegalese girl raised by the Princess of Beauvau before the French Revolution, was extremely popular in France in the early nineteenth century. Initially, a few dozen copies were privately printed in 1823. The next year, thousands of copies were printed. The story inspired four plays, two poems and a work of art by the king’s court painter, and it was lauded by Goethe. It was embraced by a growing abolitionist movement. The French colonies outlawed slavery 25 years after its publication.

The author was Claire de Duras. Born in 1777, she spent her early life in several countries after her aristocratic father was executed in the French Revolution. She married the future Duke of Duras, and eventually they returned to France, where she hosted an intellectual salon in their palace. Duras was so well known as a storyteller that she did not have to put her name on the first copies of "Ourika"; everyone knew who had written it.


An introduction by Joan DeJean says that, until "Ourika," French literature employed African characters “to provoke reflection on the plight of slaves: they are not seen as individuals with psychological depth.” The character of Ourika is different.

The story opens with a doctor who is called to the convent bedside of a melancholy young nun and has a “strange shock” (in John Fowles’ translation) upon seeing that she is a “negress.” The bulk of the story is then told by Ourika in the first person voice from her current perspective as she looks back upon her childhood. When the story closes, it is bookended by the doctor’s voice again, saying that Ourika has died.

Growing up in a wealthy household, raised by a white woman called Mme. de B., Ourika judges that “everything prolonged my mistaken view of existence and made my blindness natural.” At the age of fifteen, she overhears Mme. de B. discuss her nonexistent marriage prospects. The only educated, wealthy, high-class men in their 18th-century France are white, and none are likely to marry a black woman. Thus Mme. de B. says: “I see her alone, always alone in the world.” Ourika suddenly realizes the import of her black skin. The overheard conversation is the moment that “ended my childhood.”

She is plunged into self-pity and despair. She believes she will never be able to find an appropriate match anywhere: not in France because of her Senegalese skin color, and not in Senegal because of her French education and culture. Therefore, she says, “I exaggerated my ugliness to myself,” and she declares “I was cut off from the entire human race.” She hides her skin as much as possible by wearing gloves. She withdraws from company. This inner wrestling is an example of the psychological depth mentioned by DeJean.


On a matter less tangible than her skin color, Ourika also comes to be tormented by the question of whether she is in love with Charles, her adoptive white brother. When he returns from school, Ourika feels that he is perfectly open and intimate with her, and she reveres him – yet she cannot share her “secrets” with him. Her secret, of course, is “the extent to which the irremediable stain of my color had made me miserable.”

At the outset of the story, she says, “I believe I felt for Charles exactly as a sister,” contrasting it with a feeling for Mme. de B. that is “more religious than emotional.” Yet her comment about the sisterly feeling may be also be contrasted with the possibility that she feels romantically toward Charles. This foreshadows what is to come.

Charles becomes betrothed to another girl, and Ourika withers further. Mme. de B., in a moment of annoyance, informs Ourika that she suffers from “an insane and doomed passion for Charles.” Ourika has never considered this before, and wonders if Mme. de B. is right. “Had what had canceled my heart really been no more than a forbidden love?” She believes she loves Charles “innocently,” yet a “mysterious voice cried deep in my heart” that Mme. de B. was right. She resolves to become a nun, telling Charles that the convent is “the one place where I may still think of you day and night.”

The author never firmly resolves the question of whether Ourika is in love with Charles. Ourika seems puzzled over it herself, and even as she muses in retrospect, her words are ambiguous. Ourika’s depression may stem from considerations of race, unrequited love, or other aspects of her personality – or all of these things. She acknowledges: “Unspoken desires have a kind of modesty – if they are not guessed, they can’t be satisfied. It’s as if they need two people to exist.”


A third concern in the story, and the least tangible of all, is the role of reason. Ourika observes that people become less dogmatic as they get older. As she puts it: “Youth cannot qualify. For it, everything is either good or bad, whereas the rock upon which old age founders is usually the discovery that nothing is altogether one thing or the other.” This attitude naturally varies between individuals, too. In one of her discussions with Charles, Ourika finds herself less dogmatic than he: “For him all suffering had to have some rational foundation. But who can say what is or isn’t rational? Is reason the same for everyone?” Indeed, even as dogmatism may decline with age, reason may increase, as reflected in her comment: “There is something striking about great suffering in the old, since it has the authority of reason.”

Lastly, Mme. de B.’s friend, a marquise, comments that reason is anyway “powerless against evils that arise from deliberately upsetting the natural order of things.” In other words, individuals cannot escape the trap of social hierarchies using mere wishes and plans. Some social institutions wield more powerful than the reasoning powers of individuals who would abolish those institutions.

A work that had great impact

These three themes – race, forbidden love and philosophical generalizations – make the story a good candidate for literary analysis, all the more so because they are expressed by a character who may be a so-called “unreliable narrator” due to her own depression. "Ourika" had a large impact on the French abolitionist movement and on French literature, and this places it among those rare works that succeed at their political and artistic goals alike.

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