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  • « Rendue à moi-même, je crois recommencer à vivre »:Zilia's Search for Self in Lettres d'une Péruvienne
  • Linda S. Alcott (bio)

Since its rediscovery several decades ago by feminist critics in particular and canonical revisionists in general, Mme de Graffigny's eighteenth century bestseller, Lettres d'une Péruvienne, has rightfully drawn consistent attention due in part to its unconventional ending in which Zilia, the protagonist, boldly opts for a life of independence, creativity and solitude over conventional marriage. The fascination with the uniqueness of the conclusion continues to intrigue scholars who, while delving into wide-ranging and diverse interpretations of the text, still highlight within their writings the distinctiveness of the narrative's closure. In her 2005 study of the aristocratic strategies found in the novel, Stephanie M. Hilger underscores the singularity of Graffigny's conclusion by pointing to its non-compliance to societal norms. As she notes, "Instead of conforming to the public's expectation by having Zilia either die or get married, Graffigny's ending … provides Zilia with emotional and financial independence, which was unthinkable for many of her contemporaries" (74). Similarly, Heidi Bostic in her 2003 article tracing the distinctive elements of reason embedded within the text, underscores and celebrates the protagonist's "claim to her own status as subject" as well as her ultimate refusal of a marriage proposal in exchange for a "tranquil life of study and contemplation" (9). Likewise, in Janie Vanpée's 2002 study comparing Graffigny's epistolary novel to Leïla Sebbar's and Nancy Huston's Lettres parisiennes, the author [End Page 120] accords laudatory emphasis on the "challenge that Graffigny launched with the iconoclastic closure of her novel that opts for friendship and continued philosophical inquiry rather than for the heroine's death or marriage" (144). However, what is lacking to date in the broad, rekindled theoretical interest showered upon Lettres d'une Péruvienne and its unique ending, is a psychological study of the novel's "forced voyage structure," a phrase I coined to describe the special captive/redemptive features of the narrative. Indeed, I will argue, this particular structure provides the ideal framework for the progressive growth of the heroine, starting from a point of confinement and "other" centeredness, to the development of a self-directed, autonomous being. As such, the novel with its notable captivity narrative constitutes a uniquely successful personal development story as defined by widely accepted and fundamental notions of psychological fulfillment and self-actualization.

In their 2009 article, "Self-actualization is Paradise in La Nada Cotidiana by Zoé Valdés," authors Dinora Cardoso and Ynés Oggle orient their study of the protagonist Patria/Yocandra's quest for fulfillment using the concepts of self-development as outlined by Abraham Maslow, a key twentieth century theoretician in the study of human identity. Focusing on a subgenre of the bildungsroman termed the anti-kunstlerroman, Cardoso and Oggle track the successful growth of the text's artistic heroine toward self-fulfillment within a private, non-public sphere using Maslow's enduring markers for positive identity development. The authors' ultimate conclusion is one that describes the heroine's true growth as only occurring due to conscious reliance on herself rather than others. In a similar but more detailed approach, Zilia's voyage forcé and her psychological evolution will be examined in this essay using Maslow's theories. More specifically, I will argue that the trajectory of Zilia's voyage of self-discovery perfectly parallels Maslow's model regarding the requisite passages of self-actualization and provides the modern, questing feminist reader with a most satisfying portrait of female maturity and identity. And although Maslow's theory obviously postdates Graffigny's work by several centuries, the author's seemingly instinctual and/or intuitive sensing of the need for a progressive psychological growth design in her heroine is clear. [End Page 121]

In his seminal work, Toward a Psychology of Being, Maslow outlines the concept of self, of an autonomous identity, and discusses how that self can be fostered, denied, or even recovered once lost. More specifically and not surprisingly, Maslow argued that the most crucial factor regarding positive or negative psychological growth occurs with a...


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