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  • Approaches to Teaching Duras’s ‘Ourika’
  • Steven Wilson
Approaches to Teaching Duras’s ‘Ourika’. Edited by Mary Ellen Birkett and Christopher Rivers. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009. vii + 184 pp. Pb $19.75.

Renewed interest in Claire de Duras’s 1823 novella, stimulated by developments in feminist and postcolonial theories, has challenged teachers to find inventive ways to elicit the complexity, significance, and relevance of a deceptively simple text. The present volume thus offers a timely pedagogical approach to Ourika, and strategies for reading and exposing its rich themes. An opening section usefully presents the principal editions of the text, critical studies, and background readings on race, gender, class, and history. Part 2 contains twenty-two didactic approaches, spanning four broadly thematic categories. The first, on ‘historical dimensions’, provides pertinent insights into everything from the French and Haitian revolutions to Duras’s family ties to the plantation slave trade. Although the extratextual role of history in Ourika functions as a framework that impacts on the eponymous heroine’s alienation, in contrast to the Balzacian or Flaubertian novel where history is often explicitly woven into the textual fabric itself, the significance of this, disappointingly, is not developed. Rather than functioning as an isolated section, the treatment of history — notably through an exploitation of references to ‘public and private revolutions’ (p. 32) — could have allowed for further consideration of the work’s distinctive textuality and for a more general discussion on the differences between the roman sentimental and other prevailing textual models (most notably realism). The second section, on the dominant themes of race, class, and gender, charts the prevalent social, political, and sexual attitudes of the time, but hinges on an impressive set of close textual analyses by renowned critics. Here Ourika is identified within trends in women’s writing and is successfully placed in dialogue with Chateaubriand’s René (le mal du siècle is a dominant theme throughout). While this leads neatly into a third section, on ‘literary contexts’, intended to ‘illuminate Ourika and highlight its originality by juxtaposing it with other texts’ (p. 22), surprisingly this is the shortest category in the volume (although an element of fluidity is acknowledged). The impression persists that an opportunity has been missed to suggest how teachers might build on the foundations laid by examinations of the protagonist’s exclusion by proceeding to highlight the textual otherness of the récit itself. Granted, the relationship between Ourika and Byronic Romanticism, the Ovidian myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, Hugo’s Bug-Jargal, and Pineau’s contemporary francophone novel L’Exil selon Julia all advance original arguments and make telling connections, but these remain somewhat fragmentary, and a more cohesive sense of Ourika’s literary significance — its appropriation of and departure from Romanticism, the counterpoint it furnishes to readings of social integration and sexual identity in canonical nineteenth-century male-authored novels — would have been productive. In spite of these frustrations, what remains constant is a sense of the value Ourika can bring to the classroom. Contributors to the final section — the most explicitly pedagogical — recount how the work’s timeless themes engage students and promote vibrant discussion in everything from comparative literature to civilization courses. Overall, the editors succeed in communicating the powerful appeal, [End Page 356] and possibilities, of teaching Duras’s text, and their book will prove valuable to tutors and students alike.

Steven Wilson
University of Manchester


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pp. 356-357
Launched on MUSE
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