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To what extent do the novels on this module confirm Carolyn Helibrun’s assertion that ‘to be a person and a wife are oddly incompatible’? In your answer you should refer to at least THREE of the novels studied.

To what extent do the novels on this module confirm Carolyn Helibrun’s assertion that ‘to be a person and a wife are oddly incompatible’? In your answer you should refer to at least THREE of the novels studied.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Lecturer Nomination) Competition by Eimear Kennedy. It is nominated by Lecturer Nigel Harkness of Queen's University Belfast in the category of Languages & Linguisitcs
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Lecturer Nomination) Competition by Eimear Kennedy. It is nominated by Lecturer Nigel Harkness of Queen's University Belfast in the category of Languages & Linguisitcs

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
“To what extent do the novels on this module confirm Carolyn Helibrun’s assertionthat ‘to be a person and a wife are oddly incompatible’? In your answer you shouldrefer to at least THREE of the novels studied.The feminist author Carolyn Helibrun stated that ‘to be a person and a wife are oddlyincompatible’, which implies that if a woman wants to be a person i.e. to be anindividual and to have her own identity, that she cannot, at the same time, be a wife.This is quite a contentious assertion and so it is particularly interesting to look at therelevance of this statement in relation to women’s writing of the 19
th
and 20
th
century,as marriage was commonplace for women, and it was, in fact, the objective of manywomen at that time. There are examples of women’s writing in this period that seemto challenge this statement. In
Ourika,
for example, it seems that the main character cannot be a ‘person’ unless she is married and when the opportunity of a goodmarriage is taken away from her, she has a crisis of identity so serious that she feelsthat her life is no longer worth living. It seems, however, that to a large extent thisstatement is in fact confirmed in women’s writing of 19
th
and 20
th
Century France.Renée, the protagonist of 
 La Vagabonde
, clearly illustrates this as she strugglesthroughout the novel to reconcile her independent life with having a relationship witha man and, in the end, she rejects Max’s proposal as she feels that she could not haveher own independent identity and be a wife simultaneously. Beauvoir also seems toconfirm this in
 La Femme Rompue
, as Monique has no autonomous identity while sheis married. Her identity is fully dependent on being a wife and a mother and so, whenthis is taken from her, she lapses into depression as she has no true identity of her own. Let us therefore examine in more detail the importance of marriage in thesenovels and how being a wife would affect or has already affected the identity of thesewomen.In
Ourika
the protagonist is a young black woman who was “saved” from the slavetrade of Senegal and brought to live with an aristocratic Parisian family. We are toldthat in the beginning Ourika is an intelligent, articulate and sympathetic youngwoman who enjoyed a happy existence with Madame de B. There are three factorsthat cause Ourika to be alienated throughout the remainder of the novel however;1
 
gender, race and class
1
, yet it is only after she overhears a conversation betweenMadame de B and the marquise, when the marquise states, “mais que deviendra-t-elle?”,
2
that Ourika is confronted with the reality of her racial difference, which will prevent her from marrying. As Waller notes, “Once she is old enough to circulate inthe marriage market, however, Ourika discovers in one searing moment that her  blissful integration is an illusion…”
3
After hearing this, she realises the impact that her difference of colour will have on her future.
4
 She feels like a complete outsider and becomes so ashamed of the colour of her skin that she hides herself away and coversher skin almost completely. She says,“ma figure me faisait horreur, je n’osais plus me regarder dans une glace;lorsque mes yeux se portaient sur mes mains noires, je croyais voir cellesd’un singe; je m’exagérais ma laideur…” (Duras, 2009: 7/8)It is clear therefore that Ourika has a complete crisis of identity, because she realizesthat, in fact, she
cannot 
marry. Waller emphasises this when she states, “Thus barred by racial prejudice from a young heroine’s ultimate rite of passage-love and marriage-Ourika instantly sees herself as the other: “toujours seule! Jamais aie!(Waller,1994: xvi).In this novel Duras gives the reader an insight into the racism of society, yet rather than blaming society for these unjust prejudices, Ourika blames herself andinternalises the racist views of the society she grew up in. This has a huge impact on
1
As a woman of the early 19
th
Century it is Ourika’s destiny to marry. Her race, however, means thatshe cannot marry an aristocratic man, a man of the society in which she was brought up. As themarquise states, “Qui voudra jamais épouser une négresse?” (Mme de Duras,
Ourika,
Dodo Press,2009: 6) If she were to marry, she would have to marry someone of a lower class than herself, lesseducated and less cultured which was not an option. This is further emphasised by Bertrand Jenningswho comments, “C’est simultanément qu’elle a la révélation et de sa couleur et de son destin defemme, deux limites mutuellement exclusives puisqu’étant femme son destin est dans le mariage etqu’étant noire elle ne peut pas y aspirer” (C. Bertrand-Jennings, in ‘Problématique d’un sujet fémininen régime patriarcal:
Ourika
de Mme de Duras’,
 Nineteenth Century French Studies, 23
,1994 : 48)
2
Mme de Duras,
Ourika, ( 
Dodo Press, 2009): 5
3
Margaret Waller in Joan DeJean, and Margaret Waller, Introduction in
Ourika The Original FrenchText,
(The Modern Language Association of America, New York, 1994) xvi
4
Massardier-Kenney emphasises that it is her inability to marry that is the cause of her isolation anddepression when he comments, “When Ourika first realises that she can only have a life of solitude(actually, not quite, only a life without husband or child), she becomes very depressed and attempts tohide from herself the signs of what she comes to call her “mal” (her illness, her disease)” in FrançoiseMassardier-Kenney, ‘Duras, Racism, and Class’ in Doris Kadish & Françoise Massardier Kenney(eds.),
Translating Slavery Gender and Race in French Women’s Writing, 1783-1823 ( 
Kent OH: KentState University Press, 1994) 190
2
 
her self esteem, so much so that she states, “j’étais étrangère à la race humaine toutentière!” (Duras,2009: 8). She has internalised these racist views to the point of her own destruction; the destruction of her health, of her self-esteem and of her identityand all of this stems from overhearing that she will be unable to marry.There are several occasions in the novel where Ourika articulates her desire to getmarried, which further emphasise the torment and sense of alienation that she feltwhen she discovered that this was no longer an option for her. For example, whenCharles announces his marriage he speaks to her of his happiness and talks about thefuture he will have with his wife and children. All of this is too much for Ourika; it isall of the things that she can never have and it reminds her so much of her isolationthat the she faints. Without all of these things Ourika feels that she cannot be a‘person’, she cannot have the identity or the life that she was destined for. Bertrand-Jennings remarks that Ourika “longs to have “ma place dans la chaîne des êtres”…andto play her prescribed feminine role: to marry and have children”.
5
Furthermore, sheeven claims at one stage that she would prefer slavery than her current situation as anoutsider, at least then she would have a husband and children of her own colour;“je serais la négresse esclave de quelque riche colon;…mais j’aurais monhumble cabane pour me retirer le soir; j’aurais un compagnon de ma vie,et des enfants de ma couleur qui m’appelleraient: “Ma mère!” (Duras,2009:27)We can see that Ourika’s identity and self-esteem have been so devalued by therevelation that racial prejudice will prevent her from marrying, that she doesn’t eventrust her own opinions any more. She simply listens to the marquise, for example,when she tells her about her feelings for Charles and no longer trusts her own judgment.The doctor concludes the story telling us that, “elle tomba avec les dernières feuillesde l’automne” (Duras,2009: 32). The fact that Ourika could not marry had, therefore,
5
Bertrand Jennings in Mary Ellen Birkett, and Christopher Rivers (eds.),
Approaches to Teaching  Duras’ Ourika
(The Modern Language Association of America, New York 2009) :76/77 And this isfurther emphasised by Karl Weil who states, “Ourika is denied the one identity readily open to women-that of wife and mother-and as a black woman she is condemned, indeed rendered criminal, for desiring that identity” (in Birkett and Rivers, 2009: 83)
3

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