In this post, instructors who teach Claire de Duras’s Ourika (Modern Language Association, 2009) discuss why the novel, published in 1823, continues to be a popular text in classrooms today and recommend resources for teaching it.
Students seem more interested in Ourika now than they did when the MLA editions in the Texts and Translations series appeared in 1995. I attribute this to the consciousness raising performed by the text, which presents Ourika’s identity from her own perspective twice: first through her eyes as a member of upper-class white society and then after she sees her subordination. When the narrative disrupts Ourika’s identity, it makes visible the arbitrariness of social categorizations based on skin color. This dramatic revelation of her status thus also reveals the cruel mechanics of racism. Today the inequities and injustice of racism called out by the Black Lives Matter and antiracist movements make visible the same problematics and make the text relevant to students.
Students also find interesting the imbrication of gender, race, and class in the text, as well as the fact that it is based on a real African child brought to France. Finally, the role of a woman author presenting this life story also sparks interest, particularly when compared with Chateaubriand’s René.
I still use Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus as a theoretical basis for the construction of social identity in Ourika. His ideas can also highlight the roles of race and marriage in the inheritance of wealth as it is linked with culture, when Ourika is contrasted with Anaïs.
Student interest in the real Ourika can be served by Madame de Beauvau’s Souvenirs. Additionally, the “fictional” nature of the first-person narrative needs discussion. What does it mean that we do not have the real Ourika’s voice? At the graduate level, Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes” is useful, although it applies only partially to the text. Ourika read alongside Fatou Diome’s “Le Visage de l’emploi” presents a fruitful comparison with a Black woman immigrant in France, here as the text’s author.
Beauvau, Marie-Charlotte de. Souvenirs de la Maréchale princesse de Beauvau, née Rohan-Chabot suivis des Mémoires du Maréchal Prince de Beauvau, recueillis et mis en ordre par Madame Standish, née Noailles, son-arrière-petite-fille. Léon Techener, 1872. Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k467303/f170.item
Diome, Fatou. “Le Visage de l’emploi.” La Préférence nationale, Présence africaine, 2001, pp. 57–72.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives, edited by Anne McClintock et al., U of Minnesota P, 1997, pp. 255–77.
Adrianna M. Paliyenko
Ourika offers a poignant reflection on the social construction of race and class. Readers today are as struck by its cultural currency as by the attempt of a white noble woman to give voice to a Black heroine rescued from slavery. Questions recently fielded from a French AP class in Moorestown, New Jersey, echo those of my students at Colby College: How was Ourika received by its first readers in the early nineteenth century and why? To what extent can Ourika’s adoptive mother, Madame de B., identify with her plight? What is the novella’s main theme? To address the first of these questions, I draw on historical context to tease from the backdrop of the French Revolution and its aftermath the appeal of the novel to Madame de Duras’s elite readers for whom being persecuted and forced into exile as a member of the upper class resonated deeply. A literary frame is instructive for considering questions two and three. When placed in its original context, the epigraph on Ourika’s title page, from the second canto of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, locates in society’s rebuff the source of the profound alienation with which Madame de B. can identify but nonetheless recover as a white woman:
But midst the crowd, the hum, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone . . .
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude! (52)
However, as a Black woman raised with aristocratic privilege but alienated by both her color and her culture, Ourika considers herself estranged from the entire human race. Various editions of Ourika, like poetic and dramatic glosses on the text from the nineteenth century, illuminate how the meaning of the text shifts from its original context. Iconography, too, as in Roger Little’s modern edition of Duras’s Ourika (U of Exeter P, 1993), as well as representations of Blacks in art from the period, elucidate the negative self-image that haunted Ourika and contributed to her tragic demise.1
1. Compare, for example, the critical apparatus of Little’s edition of Ourika and Joan DeJean’s edition of Ourika (Modern Language Association, 1994). For resources, see Approaches to Teaching Duras’s Ourika, edited by Mary Ellen Birkett and Christopher Rivers (Modern Language Association, 2009).
Byron, Lord George Gordon. Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works. Edited by Jerome J. McGann, vol. 2, Clarendon Press, 1980.
I teach Ourika frequently, both in my interdisciplinary course on nineteenth-century Europe and in a course called Outsiders in European Literature. As the first French novel to represent a Black, female protagonist, Ourika brings to light changing perceptions of race, gender, and freedom in the aftermath of the French and Haitian Revolutions. For context, I often assign brief historical readings on the revolutions and how they shaped ideas of nationhood. The novel pits two contradictory attitudes toward Frenchness against each other: a universalist or assimilationist view that anyone can be French with the right education and upbringing—the view realized by Ourika as nurtured by Mme de B.—and a biological and racist view that deems Ourika necessarily an outsider whose desires to be part of a French household and marriage are transgressively “upsetting the natural order” (14). Such is the view represented by the Marquise, who ultimately reveals to Ourika the “real” meaning of her skin color, a view that is exacerbated by references to the Haitians as “a race of barbarous murderers” (21). One of the most powerful reasons for teaching the novel is that it is not always clear which side the author is on. To what extent is the novel seeking to expose and condemn the racism inherent in French society, and to what extent is it complicit with that racism? This question of exposure or complicity is critical and one that demands close attention to both the language and the structure of the novel, including the medical doctor’s frame narrative and the roles that science and religion can or cannot play in diagnosing and responding to the causes of Ourika’s suffering. These are crucial but open questions that make the novel a rich one to think with.
Further Resources and Discussion Sections
I often assign the introduction and sections from Lynn Hunt’s The French Revolution and Human Rights (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016), especially chapter 26 on Saint Domingue. One of the questions that is helpful to discuss in class is how the idea of revolution changes over the course of the novel, and, consequently, how the slave revolution in Saint Domingue made clear that “natural rights” were clearly inflected by notions of gender and race. To this end, it is significant to note that the French Revolution first “gives hope” (19) to Ourika but then brings her to understand “the false notion of fraternity” (20) it inspired and which is exacerbated by the revolution in Saint Domingue.