Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Ourika, or Galatea Reverts to Stone

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Ourika, or Galatea Reverts to Stone

Article excerpt

For Yvonne Ozzello

Claire de Duras's sentimental novella Ourika (1823), recounting the story of a young Senegalese woman bred and educated to gentility at the time of the French Revolution, has received its due meed of praise in recent years. Though Duras's penetrating analysis of her eponymous heroine's anguish after discovering her true condition has been compared to writers of the grand siecle, the social dimension has played a large part in the text's appeal to the contemporary reader, for questions of race, class, and gender are pointedly foregrounded. The story was inspired by an actual displaced child, brought back from the colonies and raised in a noblewoman's household on the eve of the Revolution. Aside from these bare bones details, and a reference to the mysterious nature of Ourika's untimely death, Duras emphasizes that the narrative is her invention:

   [Voici] une petite nouvelle que j'ai faite il y a deux ans et dont j'ai
   fait imprimer cette annie quelques exemplaires pour mes amis. Le fond de
   l'histoire est vrai. Ourika fut rapportee par le chevalier de Boufflers a
   Mme la marechale de Beauvau, mais hors leurs deux caracteres et la triste
   cause de la fin d'Ourika, tout le reste est d'imagination.(1)

In this essay, we are concerned to show how Mme de Duras draws upon the Pygmalion and Galatea myth in order to provide a general framework and themes for her text. At the very beginning of her narrative, it is noteworthy that Ourika herself alludes to the figure of Galatea:

   Me sauver de l'esclavage, me choisir pour bienfaitrice madame de B.,
   c'etoit me donner deux fois la vie: je fus ingrate envers la Providence en
   n'etant point heureuse [...] et la fable ne nous dit pas si Galatee trouva
   le bonheur apres avoir recu la vie.(2)

Like Pygmalion's beloved sculpture which Venus brought to life, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses (X, 243-97), so Ourika describes her rescue from the clutches of the slave trade and subsequent adoption by her benefactress as receiving a second existence. She tellingly observes, however, that Ovid's tale neglects to mention whether the sculptor and his animated creation did indeed live happily ever after. Ourika, for her part, did not find happiness after being granted life anew.

In fact, Duras's protagonist is cast as a kind of Galatea in reverse. Instead of developing an autonomous life of her own, a chance-heard conversation reveals to Ourika her true social status and begins a process of psychological disintegration and physical suffering which culminates in a death-like state. This inversion of the Pygmalion story is not out of step with Ovid's own mythmaking, for in many of his tales, the transformations proceed in the opposite direction, from animate to inanimate, from human to inhuman, from life to death.(3) If Duras's novella does indeed constitute a "metamorphosis" of the canonical myth, with the process moving in the opposite direction, it is because Ourika's race and gender limit her role in society, and because her sense of alienation produces a state of psychological paralysis. She is condemned to complete inaction, finding solace only in the seclusion of a convent. In other words, it is as if our black Galatea remounts her pedestal and reverts to stone.

Since what chiefly marks Ourika's difference in society is the pigment of her skin, she appears as the perfect counterpoint to Galatea, who is associated with the purest white. Not only did Pygmalion carve his maiden of surpassing beauty out of snowy ivory ("niveum mira feliciter arte / sculpsit ebur formamque dedit" [X, 247-48]), but the very name Galateia in Greek signifies "milk-white" (from gala, "milk"). Elsewhere in classical literature, Galatea also appears as the name of a water-nymph.(4) As explained in the Encyclopedie, the ancients dubbed her "Galathee, soit a cause de sa blancheur, soit [...] parce qu'elle etoit la mer meme dont l'eclume fait blanchir les flots" (VII, 428). …

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