Framing Bodies: Images of the Colonial Woman

Christie Margrave

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Claire de Duras’s Ourika (1823) deals with the psychological trauma of a Senegalese woman who finds herself an object of curiosity in the French society which she is forced to inhabit. Whilst, as Waller reminds us, ‘French racial prejudices instill in [Ourika] a self-hatred that makes her body, and her skin in particular, an object of revulsion to her’, Ourika is not alone in presenting bodily confusion and suffering on the part of female figures caught between the colonies and the métropole at this time. Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s Sarah (1821) widens the scope of bodily identification when the male, black slave-hero becomes maternal and the young heroine finds herself a slave, despite her white skin colour. The eponymous heroine of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1788) inevitably dies when her body is caught, physically and psychologically, between two poles: France and the colonies. This paper examines how issues relating to female bodily identity, female body ownership and the displaying of female bodies were approached in these French colonial novellas at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Yet, what is perhaps most remarkable about these works is the extraordinary similarity of the appearance and function of their frame narratives. The latter are neither mere introductions nor simple hints at the veracity of the plot. Rather, they function as integral parts of the intrigue itself. The stories of these colonial women are accentuated by the frame narratives in which they appear, just as a painting of a body is, according to Derrida, accentuated by the frame which surrounds it. Indeed, the leitmotif of paintings, freeze frames and mirrors recur throughout the inner narratives of these three works, each time displaying female bodies, and each time echoing the sentiments presented by the frame narrative.

Just as Derrida argues, in opposition to Kant, that a picture frame ‘responds to and signifies a lack within the work itself’, so too, in Sarah, Ourika and Paul et Virginie, does the frame narrative point the reader in directions in which the main narrative cannot take us. Thus, rather than demarcating boundaries, these frame narratives blur them. The frames operate as a means of conditioning the reader’s attitude towards the bodies presented in the inner narrative, and of orchestrating dialogues between bodies, bringing perspective along with an outward extension into the world of the author. It is through analysing these frame narratives that we begin to understand just how these novellas convey their ideas concerning the identity and ownership of female human bodies and how each novella thus fits into a wider body of anti-colonial and anti-slavery writing.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


  • French literature
  • women's writing
  • colonialism

Cite this