Duras, Claire de. Ourika. Trans. John Fowles. New York: The Modern Languages Association of America, 1994. Print. (ISBN: 0-87352-780-1)
Original language: French
Synopsis from the Back Cover:
“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.”
Initially, the true story of a Senegalese girl living as a noble was part of a conversation that took place at Madame Duras’ house. The real Ourika was purchased by the governor of Senegal, the Chevalier de Boufflers in 1786, and he gave her as a gift to his aunt Mme la Maréchale who raised her as her own child in France, but, in contrast to the character of the novel, Ourika died at age 16 of tuberculosis in 1799 (Rouillard 19). This story raised interest among Madame Dura’s friends, and she felt encouraged to publish it. She incorporated the then-controversial (and in vogue) theme of interracial relationships, and made a few copies of the story anonymously in 1823 but reprinted several editions in 1824. Ourika became the best-seller of its time (DeJean viii). This success was resented by male writers such as Stendhal and Latouche who wrote anonymous provocative novels they passed as works of hers, and after that scandal she decided never to publish another book (Waller xiv).
At the time Ourika was published (1823), slavery was in practice and the Code Noir, the laws governing slaves, had been revised several times in order to avoid any loophole that might grant rights or freedom to slaves. Topics such as freeing slaves or interracial marriage were of great interest to those who defended slavery and those who opposed it. Although the French Revolution’s (1789-1799) motif: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Liberty, equality, fraternity) looked for the resolution of inequalities in society and abolitionist struggled to end slavery, the massacre of French people in Santo Domingo slowed the abolitionists’ momentum. It was not until 1848 that slavery was abolished in all French territories.
Watch the following documentary about the French Revolution and take notes. There is a quiz on this video, and afterward we are going to discuss this material on this page of the blog.