eccentricweft: (Default)
[personal profile] eccentricweft
I found this while browsing at the public library: the story of an African woman who was raised in France in the late 1700s.

The memoir is fictional, but the woman did exist. France had a colonial presence in Senegal (and other places) and was involved in the slave trade. In about 1780, the former governor of the colony was present when a slave ship was being loaded. Among the recently-captured Senegalese there was a two-year-old girl whose mother had died. The man purchased her and brought her home to France, where he gave her to his mother, a noblewoman. The black child was raised by the noblewoman alongside two orphaned grandsons of the same age.

In Ourika, written in 1823, Claire de Duras imagined the life of that young African woman, and it's a very unhappy tale. As a child, Ourika has no idea how unusual her situation is; "Madame de B" is the only mother she remembers, the grandsons are the only siblings she knows. She has been educated as a young lady of social rank; she has a talent for drawing, and can sing, and converse about literature, and do all the other things expected of a marriageable girl from a wealthy family.

When she is fifteen, though, she overhears a conversation between Madame de B and another woman, who confronts her about Ourika's future. They both know perfectly well that no white man of their social station will marry Ourika; the only marriage she could hope for would be with "some fellow" willing to father "mulatto children" for the sake of a large dowry. Madame de B confesses that anxiety about Ourika's future has troubled her for years.

In a horrible instant, Ourika comprehends how profoundly isolated she is, and is likely to be for the rest of her life. She has no hope of a happy marriage in France (which is all she wants, to be a wife and mother) and even if she were somehow able to return to Senegal, she would be divided from her own people by language and by her education, which included none of the skills needed by the women of her own country. She was purchased, and has been kept as a beloved pet.

And essentially she never recovers from the realization and the sense of hopelessness and separation it brings. She becomes deeply depressed. She is distracted from her misery somewhat during the Terror, when Madame de B is in danger of being executed by the revolutionaries and the family has to hide in the countryside, but once the political situation calms down, Ourika is left to contemplate her grief again. Eventually she decides to enter a convent, and dies at a young age, as the real Ourika did.

So... it's a pretty sad and sobering story. I keep wanting to use the word "tragedy" but somehow that has the wrong connotations. In the classical sense, a tragedy is a situation where the characters plant the seeds of their own destruction. But Ourika was absolutely correct when she pinned the fault, not on herself, but on the society around her.
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