Claire de Duras


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Ourika Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 27-page guide for “Ourika” by Claire de Duras includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Alienation and Nature Versus Nurture.

Plot Summary

Written in 1823 by Claire de Duras, Ourika is a French novella based on real events about a Senegalese woman taken as a slave from her native country and raised in French high society. Ourika is one of the first European texts to feature a black protagonist, the psychological depth of whom promotes empathy with the racial “Other” and highlights the importance of nurture (versus nature) in human psychological development.

In the Introduction, a young doctor is summoned to an Ursuline convent to examine the grievously ill nun, Ourika, and is surprised that she is black. Ourika narrates the bulk of the novella, sharing her life story and explaining the circumstances that led to her wasting illness.

Ourika is taken from Senegal as an infant and given to Madame la Maréchale de Beauvau who grooms her to be a perfect aristocratic woman, beloved by Mme de B.’s social circle. Ourika is raised in France alongside Mme de B.’s favorite grandson, Charles, who becomes Ourika’s closest childhood friend.

Ourika’s blackness hardly factors into her life until she turns 15 and overhears a conversation between Mme de B. and the Marquise de ___. The marquise believes Mme de B. has doomed Ourika to a life of solitude: Because Ourika was raised as an aristocrat, she will not be satisfied with an uneducated black man, but no white Frenchman equal of her prowess will marry a black woman. Suddenly realizing what it means to be black in the French Revolution era of racial segregation, Ourika feels isolated and spirals into a depression that worsens after Charles marries his fiancée, Anaïs de Thémines.  The marquise attempts to speak with Ourika to discover the root of her depression. As a black woman, Ourika feels alienated in a society that excludes her from full acceptance. The marquise scoffs at this notion; she tells her it is because Ourika is in love with Charles.

Ourika’s health declines to the point where a priest is brought in to give her final rites. After the priest recommends that she focus on the happiness that God allows in life, Ourika is inspired to join a convent. Though she finds happiness at the convent—a place where she can think of Charles in peace and fulfill roles from which she is barred in normal society—her health continues to decline. The doctor encourages her to continue her story, but Ourika refuses and dies shortly after.

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