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  • Marriage, Métissage, and Women's Citizenship:Revisiting Race and Gender in Claire de Duras's Ourika
  • Adeline Koh

"Qui voudra jamais épouser une nègresse?"1

Many critics consider Claire de Duras's 1823 novel Ourika to be one of the most penetrating portrayals of racism of its time. In the brief novel, a young black Senegalese girl is saved at a young age from a life of slavery and raised by a white woman in an aristocratic French milieu as an adoptive daughter. Petted and praised by members of her benefactress's salon until she comes of age, she remains blissfully unaware of any form of racial prejudice. That is, until she realizes that she will never be able to marry a white Frenchman because she is black. She then descends into a depressive spiral from which she never completely recovers. Literary scholars often praise Ourika for its sensitive insight into the psychological plight of its young protagonist, frequently comparing her to the alienated narrator in Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks.2 At the same time, critics celebrate Duras for her insight into the black condition. Alison Finch has praised Duras as being "humanely free of racism" and declared that "no other French woman was as far-reaching or imaginative on the question of birth-disadvantages,"3 while Joan DeJean and Margaret Waller argue that when Ourika is compared with other works of its time, "its originality and its author's daring are evident."4

In what follows I will argue that Duras's Ourika is not as sympathetic towards the condition of black people as has been commonly interpreted. In particular, I will concentrate on revisiting the marriage device in Ourika, and show that the way Duras deploys the marriage trope reveals substantial [End Page 15] anxiety as it represents the potential for social equality between black and white women. Through a historical examination of political changes to marriage for French women after the Revolution, a survey of the historical status of métissage in the colonies and a close reading of two scenes in the novel, I seek to demonstrate that the way Duras eradicates all possibility of her black protagonist's marriage in France is indicative of a larger apprehension towards the black female subject.

Current scholarship has neglected the political dimensions of marriage in the novel.5 Except for Chantal Bertrand-Jennings,6 who has argued that marriage in Ourika provides a way for the narrative to give voice to the silenced feminine subject, scholars such as Lucy Schwartz,7 Sylvia Romanowskie,8 and Alison Finch9 look at marriage under the umbrella of German Romanticism, arguing that marriage—or Ourika's inability to marry—is a simple plot element within narratives of this movement, or, as Doris Kadish and Françoise Massardier-Kenney suggest, that it functions as a critique of racism as marriage is intertwined with a critique of patriarchal interests.10 However, in the following analysis I shall contend that marriage and race combine to form a threatening possibility: that black women have the potential to become the civic peers of white women within the French social contract via marriage.

In this manner, this paper contributes to a growing reassessment of Duras's racial sympathies. Christopher Miller has recently introduced ambivalence into Duras criticism by arguing that Duras's inherited colonial holdings in Martinique and their profits complicate current interpretations of Ourika, going so far as to ask: "As she was creating one of the most sympathetic representations of an African in French literature, did she still hold title to hundreds of slaves in Martinique?"11 My strategy in this essay is to build on Miller's exploratory study through this reading of Ourika.

My intention is not to recast Duras as a pro-slavery figure. Neither is it to argue that Duras was unsympathetic towards the plight of African slaves in the French colonies. Rather, it is to show how a historically informed postcolonial reading practice can illuminate the ways in which even a canonical anticolonial text such as Ourika may still be fundamentally ambiguous in terms of civic equality between blacks and whites.

Race, Sex, and Marriage...


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