Ourika Summary

Claire de Duras


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Ourika Summary

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French author Claire de Duras’s novel Ourika (1823), originally published anonymously, centers around the true story of a woman who was purchased as a slave as a child by the colonial administrator of Senegal. She was given as a gift to the rich de Beauvau family and raised as a daughter. The story follows her struggles to fit into French society until her early death. She is an educated young woman who despairs that despite her knowledge, her race means she will have no future. The book is considered noteworthy for being the first French text to feature a black female narrator and to give her a complex psychology. Taking place around the era of the French Revolution, Ourika explores themes of race, nationality, exile and diaspora, interracial romance, and the psychological and physical toll of slavery. It is considered an important stepping-stone towards the modern understanding of race and has been praised as a startlingly modern commentary on race relations. The story has been retold multiple times, although Claire de Duras’s version remains the most prominent and has been adapted into poems, plays, and novels in its native France. It is still studied widely in classes on French literature and history. It is considered the basis for the famous John Fowles novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

A young Parisian doctor is called to tend a young, sick black nun in  a convent in Faubourg Saint Jacques. Although she has not been diagnosed with any official illness, it is said she suffers from prolonged melancholia. The doctor tells the young woman, Ourika, that the only way she can cure her illness is to cure her past. The nun reluctantly agrees to share her life story with the doctor after coming to trust her. As a child of two, Ourika was captured by a slaver from her native Senegal. She  was purchased by the Chevalier de Boufflers, the colonial administrator. He believed he was saving the girl from a far worse fate, and gave her as a gift to his aunt, Madame de Beauvau when he returned to France. Madame de Beauvau was a kind woman, who raised Ourika like a daughter and gave her a proper French education. She befriended Madame de Beauvau’s grandson, Charles, who was about the same age as she was, and grew into an educated, skilled young woman who loved dancing, singing, and drawing. Then, one day, she overheard a conversation between Madame de Beauvau and her friend the marquise, where she realized that she would always be viewed as less because of her race. She fell into despair, and her health suffered. This became worse when Charles left France to travel abroad.

France was soon thrown into chaos by the French Revolution, and Ourikabegan to hope that she might find herself more accepted when the chaos settled. However, she found it hard to hold out for a brighter tomorrow when her present was bleak. She became an activist for emancipating black people, but was horrified when she heard about the massacres in Santo Domingo. As the post-revolutionary government took power, elites like Madame de Beauvau found themselves persecuted and either hid or escaped France. The government moved to confiscate the property of those abroad, so Charles was summoned home. Madame, Charles, Ourika, and an old priest who was a friend of the family moved to the country in Saint-Germain to hide,This period was among the happiest of Ourika’s life. As the Terror ended, they were joined by some of Madame’s friends, and Ourika found herself scrutinized and disrespected, as many of them wondered why Madame would take this black girl into her confidence and treat her as a daughter.

Charles soon fell in love with a young woman named Anais de Themines, which sent Ourika into a deep despair. This was only made worse when he told her that he wanted the relationship between himself and his new bride to be as close and filled with trust as the one he had with Ourika. Ourika took ill around the time of the wedding, and when Madame left to attend her grandson’s wedding in Paris, Ourika was left alone in Saint-Germain, consumed by thoughts of dying abandoned. Although Charles remained close with Ourika after his wedding, Ourika continued to grieve the loss of the future she would never have. When Anais became pregnant and Charles welcomed a son, Ourika realized that she would never be a wife and mother. The marquise speculated that Ourika’s illness was the result of a doomed love for Charles, and Ourika realized she was right. She withdrew to a convent and became a nun, where the parish priest assured her that she was not guilty of improperly loving Charles. Rather, her sin was choosing to be unhappy and not recognizing God’s purpose for her life. This is where Ourika finishes her story.The doctor continues to visit her,however, her remedies prove ineffective, and Ourika dies at sixteen.

Claire de Duras was a French writer who wrote three novels during her life, with an additional book published posthumously and two remaining unfinished. She primarily wrote about the French Revolution, which happened during her lifetime, and focused much of her writing on oppressed and marginalized characters. Although she was not widely read during her lifetime, she is considered to be ahead of her time and a pioneer in exploring themes of racial prejudice and class struggle.