I read Ourika originally on January 28th of last year. I randomly picked this book back up and reread it in May. So here are my opinions now.
Based on a true story, Ourika relates the experiences of a Senegalese girl who is rescued from slavery and raised by an aristocratic French family during the French Revolution. Brought up in a household of learning and privilege, she is unaware of her difference until she overhears a conversation that makes her suddenly conscious of her race – and of the prejudice it arouses. From this point on, Ourika lives her life not as a French woman but as a black woman “cut off from the entire human race.” As the Reign of Terror threatens her and her adoptive family, Ourika struggles with her unusual position as an educated African woman in eighteenth-century Europe. A best-seller in the 1820s, Ourika captured the attention of Duras’s peers, including Stendhal, and became the subject of four contemporary plays. The work represents a number of firsts: the first novel set in Europe to have a black heroine, the first French literary work narrated by a black female protagonist, and, as John Fowles points out in the foreword to his translation, “the first serious attempt by a white novelist to enter a black mind.” An inspiration for Fowles’s acclaimed novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Ourika will astonish and haunt modern readers.
Rereading this I can definitely understand why this meant so much to me during the time I read it. Ourika deals with:
- Transracial issues
- White privilege
- People lack of knowledge of mental illness
All these topics are dealt with in 47 pages (my edition). This go around the way it deals with depression really surprised me. It not only dealt with how a person who is going through depressions feels but also people’s reaction to it. We as a society have to educate ourselves on mental illness as a whole. It is very sad to have opinions that characters are saying to Ourika mirror what people say today.
Racism and Sexism
When I first read this I did not catch how much Ourikas caretaker and “brother” Charles kind of treat her like a pet. She is given the best in education but still they seem to not really listen to her. I feel a lot of her problems could have been lessened if she had a nice supportive black network. This second reading makes me completely not ship/want Charles and Ourika together.
I feel Charles fiancé, Anais, is meant to be a foil to Ourika. She is the epitome of European perfect woman standards: innocent, modest, and white. It is understandable if Ourika loved Charles why she felt hurt by her presence. Ourika has the same or similar breeding to her so Ourika could have been easily Charles fiancé but her blackness in terms of society is holding her back. Also, even if she loved him just as a brother Anais is propelling Charles into another phase into his life that Ourika can not enter. She cannot make that entrance into society because of again her blackness.
So I officially could not stand the marquise this go around. From a viewpoint of how you deal with mental illness, race, sexism she as a character got on my nerves. She saw herself as a person who is telling you like it T.I. is but she is hurting people. Sometimes we do this thing (currently and the past) where we excuse people who say hurtful things because that is how they are or they are telling the truth. In the final moment of the novel she gets mad at Ourika because Ourika is dealing with depression. Marquise goes into this rant about how Ourika should pull herself up because she is so privileged not to be a slave. I’m like but she still has to deal with racism and sexism. That you think her entire sadness has to deal with just Charles taps into your white woman privilege. =_=
Her: “All this started with Charles”
Me: No it started when you said she had no future as a black woman in this society.
I can see from way that racism works this would have eventually happened. You can’t raise Ourika up like she is an average (average=white) girl whose sole purpose is to into society but when that wakeup call happens you are shocked. They see her as a sort of pet or something. They never expect for something to happen but it is understandable seeing as they themselves never have to deal personally with race. They neither have or want to have the tools to actually help Ourika.
“…evacuates a politics of race”- Colonialism, Race, and the French Romantic Imagination (found this quote about Ourika, really need to get this book)
When I first read this I was so amazed that Claire Duras deals with a black woman with depression. Now that I have grown in my understanding of not only black issues but also mental illness I can say I feel the ending was a cop-out. For the time period this book was written in this ending was probably normal but from a stand point of black issues and mental illness it was not the best for the main character to die. By doing this she skirted dealing with the racism and depression that the main character faced. Also, she slipped into a very heavy tropes: killing of people with mental illness and black people. It is annoying because this novella could have easily been a 500+ or so novel. From the standpoint of this being by a white author and written in 18th century it is understandable why this ended like it did. Present day authors can barely deal with mental illness and race (not to mention all the other issues brought up in this book) so it’s not surprising how this ended but it is disappointing.
I can see why I found this at my local college library because it would work well for academic study. I wish that more people read and knew about it. I have to agree with past me that this book deals with so many issues that classic novels (or at least the ones I have read) don’t. Sadly, I did leave this novel not loving it as much as when I first read it just because I see all the ways it failed now.
Belle (movie)~ if you want more of a period piece that you usually get but without erasing the issues of the time period
Black Count by Tom Reiss (currently reading) ~more context into black people and the issues they had to deal with during the French revolution time period
[all images and synopsis are from goodreads]