Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences


Modern Languages and Literatures

Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Kathleen Loysen

Committee Member

Rabia Redouane

Committee Member

Wendy Nielsen


This master’s thesis examines and analyzes how gender and race, as represented in literature during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, impact the development of the female character. Race specifically affects the woman’s perception of her own self as a foreigner, and this self-perception relates to the development of her character. The subjects of this thesis, Lettres d’une Péruvienne by Françoise de Graffigny and Ourika by Claire de Duras, contain female protagonists who are of foreign origin living in France.

The analysis begins in Chapter I, which explores the possible reasons for the different conclusions of the two novels, one in contentment and independence, the other in despair and death. It discusses the self-perception of the two main characters, Graffigny’s Zilia and Duras’ Ourika — and how the role of race and race theory might have influenced the two heroines. Considering that the two protagonists are women, women’s social status and education are also examined.

Chapter II briefly familiarizes the reader with the biographical backgrounds of Graffigny and Duras. It specifically addresses the circumstances under which the two authors came to write their novels. Two important aspects in representing their respective heroines are the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attitudes of the French toward foreigners in France, and the social conditions of foreigners during those times.

Our focus shifts in Chapter III to foreign women in particular and what conditions were like for them in France during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We address the importance and relevance of Graffigny’s and Duras’ reasons for choosing a Peruvian and a Senegalese heroine, respectively. Lastly, visual depictions of female foreigners are examined to understand how the French perceived those who were racially different from themselves.

Chapter IV analyzes in detail the narrative and structural similarities between the two heroines and Chapter V analyzes their differences. That which seems to unite them the most, the fact of being foreigners in France, also divides them, since each heroine perceives her racial difference very differently.

In Lettres d’une Péruvienne and Ourika the reader is able to observe the positive and negative impacts of race on the two heroines’ self-perceptions and thus their development as characters in their fictional world. Zilia is empowered by her exotic origin, whereas Ourika is unable to transcend the stigma of her black skin. As women, Zilia evolves to a state of independence, but Ourika devolves as an individual and is eventually obliterated by her self-imposed suffering. Both Zilia and Ourika represent the emergence of a foreign female protagonist who narrates her own story. However, as we move from Graffigny’s novel to Duras’, we also witness a regressive movement in terms of each author’s understanding of racial integration and acceptance.

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