Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a book that changed your opinion, a book that taught you something new, and a book that flat-out amazed you with its uniqueness. You must forgive me if I allow these definitions to blend.
Regardless of your thoughts, if any, on women authors and racial prejudices in early nineteenth century France, you will be surprised by Claire de Duras’ Ourika.
It was published by a woman, de Duras, in 1828, and tells the story of an African girl who is rescued from slavery by an aristocratic French family and raised as part of their family. She grows up unaware of any difference between her and the white society around her; her education is the best money can buy, her clothes and manners are aristocratic, and she is even given a débutante ball to introduce her to society. It is at this point that her problems begin, for only now do other people begin to remark on her exotic looks and consider her something apart. The revelation is devastating to her self-esteem and future plans. And in the midst of all this comes the French Revolution.
Is the fact that an aristocratic French woman in 1828 wrote a story with a black heroine exploring racial prejudice not surprising enough for you? How about the fact that the book is in first person? In snobby-sounding literary analytical terms, this book is “the first earnest attempt by a white author to situate herself within a different racial psyche.” Because Ourika narrates so emotionally and perceptively, we feel all her joy at being a débutante, her horror at the realization that others consider her different, and her heartbreak while coming to terms with the fact that the nice white man she loves is incapable of seeing her as more than a friend, in large part because of her skin color. As Ourika overhears one sympathetic-but-practical lady remark, “What kind of man would marry a negress?” The implication is that no high-born man would consider it appropriate to marry a black woman, and that Ourika is too well-educated and well-raised to marry a low-born man. It is a bizarre and cruel quandary.
The aristocratic Mme de B., who acts as an adopted mother to Ourika, tried very hard for years to hide this aspect of society from her, to preserve Ourika’s happiness and sense of normality. But as another aristocratic woman explains, their society believes that “Ourika has flouted her natural destiny. She has entered society without its permission. It will have its revenge.”
But actually, what surprised me most about this book was how little discrimination Ourika encounters, compared to what I thought would be the case in that place and time. It is nothing like the American South of the same time, which is described so graphically by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography. When Ourika is a child, there is little more than grumblings from outsiders, while most of the people she meets accept her well enough. She doesn’t “regret being black” because “there [is] nothing to warn [her] that the color of [her] skin might be a disadvantage.” She has white friends, and the young man Charles becomes her closest confidant. It is only when she falls in love with him that she realizes he is oblivious to the idea that she could have romantic feelings. Sometimes prejudice can be so subtle.
But what makes this book so affecting is Ourika’s personality. She is a wonderful, warm person, overflowing with generosity, gentleness, and intelligence. She bears her humiliations and heartbreaks with strength and dignity, and does not consider them an excuse for poor behavior on her part. Even more winningly, her faith in God is triumphant. I was sad that in the end she becomes a nun, because I had so hoped that she might find happiness and acceptance by marrying and having a family, which is what she had wanted, and yet I still must be at peace with her decision. In the end, Ourika has come to terms with the society that she lives in, and she understands that in the long run, it matters not what men think of her, because she is a daughter of God in Heaven, in Whose eyes all men and women are equal.
Does this choice of mine fit the meme topic? Maybe not, I don’t know. I do not believe I had read any early nineteenth century French literature before this. However, I had certain assumptions which would never have let me guess the existence of a novel like this. Did I say novel? It’s more like a novella, at under fifty pages. So much is accomplished in that small space, though. I was utterly astonished by this book, and in the end very much won over. Among other things, I guess you could say that it changed my mind about the reputedly callous nature of pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy, because the author, who was of that class, proves to be a singularly sensitive and wise person.
Update: Good news, folks! The University of Georgia has provided the entire story free in PDF format here. In this format it’s only 18 pages, a hefty short story, really. Read it yourself and see if what I said about it is true!