Printer Friendly

Liberte, egalite, sororite: the regime of the sister in Graffigny's Lettres d'une Peruvienne.

The three editions of Francoise de Graffigny's Lettres d'une Peruvienne published since the late twentieth century are each adorned with vastly different covers. The first (1983) depicts a European woman writing a letter, the second (1993) illustrates the moment when the heroine, Zilia, becomes a property owner, and the third (2005) highlights the protagonist's exotic Otherness with a cartoon drawing of a native woman in traditional Peruvian garb in the foreground surrounded by aristocratic, European onlookers. Such varied choices in cover art for this novel signal a tension of representation inherent to the novel itself, that is, the variations in cover art demonstrate an opposition between on the one hand, an assertion of feminine and proto-feminist autonomy and, on the other, an exoticist subordination to the object of the male gaze.

The space between feminine autonomy and female objectification serves as the basis for a narrative of the changing role of women in eighteenth-century France. As family politics evolve, masculine roles change dramatically; the father's importance wanes to the point of impotence while the son joins with his brothers to take the place of the fallen father. And yet, the place of women within this familial schema changes very little. The change in the woman's role can largely be summed up by substituting an adjective: the woman's role, which is always maternal, shifts simply from "bad" to "good." (1) Olympe de Gouges famously recorded this perspectival shift in the postscript to her Declaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne when she wrote that the female sex was "autrefois meprisable et respecte, et depuis la revolution, respectable et meprise." (2)

In her seminal work, The Regime of the Brother: After the Patriarchy, Juliet Flower MacCannell argues that the fall of patriarchy sees the rise of a Regime of the Brother--an exclusively masculine regime which excludes female participation in the public sphere.-1 Despite this regime's denial of female agency, Graffigny's novel proposes an alternative to the brothers takeover. In the absence of fathers, Zilia instead constructs a new, egalitarian family based on sibling-like relationships, inventing a new role for the woman--that of the independent, enlightened sister. In this article, I argue that the Lettres provides a striking counter-example to a fraternal refusal of patriarchy. Zilia's unique form of refusal offers the sister as well as the brother as the inheritors of paternal legacy. Looking at how the heroine translates her body first through the Peruvian form of writing, then through her letters in French, I demonstrate how she disentangles the various threads that construct identity, creating in the process the possibility for a new, female identity that is not anchored in any masculine system.

Rewriting the Family

The central plot of the Lettres focuses on Zilia's journey as recounted through letters to her long lost Peruvian lover, Aza. She is wrested away from her native village by Spaniards on the day she is to marry her beloved King of the Incan empire. While being transported to Europe, a group of Frenchmen seize the boat on which she is held captive, and she meets Deterville, the French aristocrat who cares for her and becomes her most trusted friend. Much to Deterville's chagrin, Zilia refuses his offers of marriage, insisting on her eternal bond to Aza. Given her exoticism and the travel-like narrative, many critics tend to read the Lettres against Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, (4) Indeed, Graffigny invites this comparison in the foreword when she famously asks, "Comment peut-on etre Persan?" In Julia Douthwaites important work on Graffigny's text, she makes exactly this association. Comparing Zilia to the wealthy and educated Persian men (Rica and Usbek) she writes, "because the preliterate, victimized Peruvian enjoys no such privileges, ethical issues dominate her narrative." (5) While Douthwaites reading allows us to assess the state of female writing in early modern France, it also downplays the heroine's agency within the text. By reading Zilia's narrative outside of a traditionally masculine genre (the philosophical travel narrative), we can account both for the heroine's non-Western education in the Temple of the Sun, and for her mastery of the Peruvian language. These two details are crucial to understanding Zilia's creation of an autonomous, female subject.

The representational tension we noted in the cover art--the conflicting images of Zilia--finds repetition in the heroine who remains between worlds, languages, and genders. If one of the main tenets of the Enlightenment is a categorization of knowledge with the goal of rendering men equal, then the feminine Enlightenment that Graffigny proposes resists categorization within masculine systems, producing autonomy for the human species rather than one gender. In order to do so, she creates a female presence apart from conventional modes of family. This constitutes a utopian production of individuality within what Louis Marin calls the "neutral" space where autonomy is produced only between contradicting poles. (6) Zilia's utopie practice produces a future role for women between traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Content replicates form when the author conveys key information through footnotes and parenthetical comments, spaces that depart from the order of the main text. For example, in the first letter of the novel, the heroine writes:
   Depuis le moment terrible (qui aurait du etre arrache de la chaine
   du temps, et replonge dans les idees eternelles) depuis le moment
   d'horreur ou ces sauvages impies m'ont enlevee au culte du Soleil,
   a moi-meme, a ton amour; retenue dans une etroite captivite, privee
   de toute communication avec nos citoyens, ignorant la langue de ces
   hommes feroces dont je porte les fers, je n'eprouve que les effets
   du malheur, sans pouvoir en decouvrir la cause. (7)

The impious savages to whom Zilia refers are her Spanish captors who kidnap her from her fellow Incans (citoyens). Throwing the reader into the story in medias res, the narrator gives the impression of frenzy, confusion, and panic--precisely the feelings of a woman being kidnapped and dragged by unknown captors to an unknown location. Such feelings are reinforced by the language of the narrator who laments the "moment d'horreur," the "hommes feroces," and the "effets du malheur." The use of the present tense in the first-person singular (je n'eprouve) combined with the effusive display of adjectives enhances the impression that the reader is receiving a first-hand account of a specific moment as of yet unmediated by time. However, the words between the parentheses betray the instantaneity of the rest of the letter. The use of the past conditional in the parenthetical clause, coupled with its visual segregation from the rest of the sentence, indicate that the notion of ripping apart time (communicated within the parentheses) is grafted onto the event of the main clause at some point after the initial event. This clause, therefore, represents another temporal matrix: the distanced perspective of the letter's author. The moment of crisis has passed and should, in the narrator's opinion, not simply be erased, but ripped completely from the fabric of time, leaving the frayed edges of the moment to be patched together through the work of nar ration and translation. From within the ruptured space, Zilia rewrites history and in doing so, she weaves together a new, independent female identity separate from masculine regimes.

The discourse of fraternity that animates much Republican discourse of the late eighteenth century constitutes one form of a refusal of monarchy. The notion of brotherhood becomes concretized in France's motto "liberte, egalite, fraternite." While "liberte" and "egalite" are integrated easily into the motto, the adoption of the third term, "fraternite," remains problematic. Although the term appears often throughout the eighteenth century in religious and political contexts (designating societies of men), it is not officially incorporated into the motto until almost a century later (1880). (8) The Lettres, on the other hand, provides a striking counter-example to a fraternal refusal of patriarchy--one that offers the sister as well as the brother as the inheritors of paternal legacy. In the introduction to Vierge du soleil, fille des lumieres, J. R Schneider explains that Zilia's distinct mode of knowledge production makes her the symbol of the Enlightenment par excellence. (9) While this statement holds true, Zilia's production of knowledge initially relies on what Nancy K. Miller calls a specifically female form of writing, inseparable from the craft of weaving. (10) It is precisely this form of writing that simultaneously enables her autonomy (her captors cannot read it) and ties her to a moral system in which she can avoid marriage, motherhood, and the reproduction of the nuclear family in France. She remains, therefore, too complex to be merely symbolic of another type of masculine order. Zilia questions and subverts the commonly held notion that woman's primary function is "la procreation & la conservation des enfans." (11) She does not reproduce the species, instead she produces (and reproduces) letters, transforming Descartes' cogito ergo sum into "I write therefore I exist." Zilia is not a wife or mother; instead she reconfigures familial roles in her letters, emerging as an enlightened sister. In other words, rather than seeking transcendence through writing, this sister thrives in the materiality of writing itself.

Zilia's record of events is initially written in quipos, an Incan form of writing, consisting of colorful cords knotted together. The quipos, as imagined by Graffigny, weave together historical events and individual emotions into a collective story as writer and reader engage with one another, untying and re-tying the knots. In vacillating between the knots of the quipos and the words of the French language, the protagonist reproduces the plight of the eighteenth-century woman for all to read. Her rich descriptions of language-learning dramatize what Miller calls woman's "coming-to-writing," that is, the moment when female writing becomes feminist writing, as the female author ironizes the female voice in the novel previously authored by men. Graffigny subverts the philosophical motif of the exotic ingenu critiquing occidental society by presenting an educated woman who creates her own identity within the cultural divide. With her knots, she builds a bridge from female subjectivity (subject to masculine hegemonies) to the independent female subject. In so doing, the heroine offers an alternative, feminine Enlightenment based on principles of sisterhood--one that rejects the narcissistic tendencies of the brother who denies all desires but his own, in favor of a common desire for individual liberty.

In her coming-to-writing, the narrator describes and transcribes moments of rupture, drawing a distinction between epic time (events which have already happened or will inevitably happen) and historical time (which can be altered and manipulated). Thomas Kavanagh describes the conception of alterable historical time in the Lettres as an "aesthetics of the moment," where unpredictable events produce ruptures in the fabric of time. (12) Zilia's deep understanding of diverse temporalities and her ability to manipulate the French language adeptly demonstrate that she is a femme philosophe, her collection of letters serving as much as a collective annals of Incan and French history and culture as an individual story about feminine desire. Knowing that the epic past cannot be changed, she suggests that the narrative of the past can be manipulated. Zilia alters the narrative of her past first, through the act of untying and retying the knots, and second, by translating her story from Peruvian to French. She thus provides the means to write the womans story into a masculine history.

Familial law under the Ancien Regime stipulates that each member of a family is subject to a patriarch. (11) Within such a system, family is founded upon masculine blood. The relationship between husband and wife remains the only union not based on consanguinity. A wife is chosen based on a number of factors but she must not be related by "close" blood--namely, she cannot be her future husband's sister, a fact that Zilia decries to Deterville when she learns that Aza will not marry her: "Si j'etais etrangere, inconnue, Aza pourrait maimer: unis par les liens du sang, il doit m'abandonner." (14) Conversely, Graffigny's historical introduction explains that the Peruvian family begins with the marital union of brother and sister. In this way, there is no distinction between masculine and feminine blood within the union because they share a lineage prior to the marriage. In this construction, family is family--blood is genderless. When Zilia tells Deterville that she cannot marry him because the two are not of the same nation, her ultimate fear is that a union of the two in France would mean a complete loss of her heritage. Female blood would be ceded to the male bloodline, and any children produced from the union would be her family only in as much as it is an extension of his. To marry a Frenchman would not only be the end of her freedom, but it would also be the end of the line for her Peruvian family. Rather than blood ties, Zilia invests in her own lifeline--the cords of her quipos that tie her to Aza and to her homeland.

Keenly aware of the loss of female power in European marriage and unable to marry her Peruvian prince, Zilia refuses any type of marital union. By granting Zilia access to knowledge, Aza endowed her with power, making her his equal. A marriage to anyone else, therefore, would result in a loss of power and would relegate her to a maternal role, reproducing a race to which she does not belong. Therefore, she must invent a new family where she can retain the power she has garnered as an equal of men, all while continuing to learn. Such a family must sidestep the husband-wife axis, and in order to do so she proposes a family based on friendship, where the bonds of friendship imitate sibling bonds. A family composed of unique individuals, unrelated by blood and yet acting as if they were brothers and sisters, redefines aristocratic systems of alliance, paving the way for a new, bourgeois model of kinship where alliances formed do not preserve a particular family name but rather encourage the individual happiness of each member of the unit. Sibling bonds are transposed upon and eventually overtake the husband-wife relationship, thus producing a more egalitarian family based on reasonable (and familial) rather than passionate love.

Zilias preference for the sibling relationship over matrimony prevents her from fully integrating into French society as a citizen, and as such she remains squarely between identities. Taken out of Peru, she is no longer physically tied to her homeland, yet by refusing to marry into French society she remains a foreigner in France. It is precisely because of her in between status that she is able to construct a new political identity free from traditionally gendered and nationalistic stereotypes. Zilia breaks free from her position as exotic object to become an independent subject. Indeed, she becomes the ideal citizen of the Enlightenment, yet her ideas exceed the imagination of even the most famous philosophers of the day.

While the term "Enlightenment" is often associated with solar illumination, Zilias enlightenment is associated with the moon. As Graffigny explains in the introduction, the Incans venerate the moon as much as the sun the former of which "ils traitaient de femme et de soeur du Soleil." (15) Zilia, therefore, proposes a radically different Enlightenment, one based on the general principles of Enlightenment ideology (daring to know, waking up from a self-imposed nonage) while running counter to it by creating a place for women. Womens nonage is not self-imposed but rather imposed by men. As daughters, wives, and mothers, a womans primary duty is to obey the male head of the family and, as we see from much domestic literature of the day, her role with regards to knowledge acquisition is to inspire the desire to learn in her male offspring. In order to create a space where the female can become an active member of the family--a space where she can act in her own best interest--she must enjoy a relative independence from male dominance. She must occupy the role of the sister.

From Possessed to Possessor

Boucher D'Argis's definition of "mari" in Diderot and DAlembert's Encyclopedie tells us that a husband "est considere comme le maitre de la societe conjugale." Additionally, an article on "puissance paternelle" in the same collection discusses the father's legal rights over every person or object in his household. It seems that even some of the most enlightened men of the day understood the proverbial patriarch as the possessor of all things familial. It is clear that the question of familial constitution is inextricably linked to the question of property ownership. Graffigny, too, grapples with issues of possession and power; however, the problematic of female ownership unfolds in a drastically different fashion. "Aza! Mon cher Aza!" With this opening exclamation, the reader encounters a woman seemingly possessed, that is, she is irrational and in control of neither her emotions nor her body. Although she uses the possessive pronoun "mon" to describe her lover, the reader quickly learns of his physical absence from her. Possessed by passion, fear, and confusion, the heroine reveals the one thing she actually possesses--the quipos: "je ne sais par quel heureux hasard j'ai conserve mes quipos. Je les possede, mon cher Aza!" (16) Throughout the early letters of the novel, Zilia compensates for the lack of possession of her body (she is continually imprisoned) by translating her self into the quipos. Zilia goes on a quest for self-possession that ends with her refusal to marry, which results in the re-possession of her body. To do this, she sublimates violent, passionate desire into a desire to write, thus translating her individual female subjective experience.

Given that Zilia constructs her identity around the acquisition and reproduction of knowledge, it is no wonder that she is heralded as a source of knowledge on so many things by the philosophers of eighteenth-century France. For example, Jaucourt cites Graffigny's heroine in five articles in the Encyclopedie. His crediting of Zilia, the fictional heroine, rather than Graffigny, the novel's author, with the knowledge produced in the Lettres can be understood, according to Lorraine Piroux, as a move to present his thoughts as more natural. Piroux elaborates, "when a man of letters in eighteenth-century France appeared to draw his wisdom from a 'noble savage,' there was always reason to suspect that some deep, natural truth was being unveiled." (17) Yet the philosopher's citation of the Peruvian woman goes beyond the use of a narrative device; his citation of the fictional female can also be read as a displacement of female knowledge. To acknowledge a female author would be to admit the possibility for an enlightened female subject. By citing Zilia, Jaucourt performs a double displacement. First, he places the potential for an enlightened woman outside of Europe, in the exotic woman; and second, as if Peru were not distant enough from France's border, he relegates the potential for female knowledge--and therefore female power--to the realm of fiction.

However, anticipating a reception that would deny feminine enlightenment, Graffigny's protagonist creates her own encyclopedia, explaining Peruvian and French customs in an encyclopedic fashion where subject headings abound. In the early letters, Zilia's entries focus mainly on the material technology she encounters (e.g. "boat," "telescope," "mirror") with later letters investigating broader philosophical categories (e.g. "woman," "education," "friendship"). In this encyclopedia, discourse on the role of women within the family and the nation occupies a large space. In fact, in the thirty-fourth letter (added in the second edition) we see the first direct comparison between family life in Peru and France: "On sait au Perou, mon cher Aza," writes Zilia, "que pour preparer les humains a la pratique des vertus, il faut leur inspirer des l'enfance un courage et une certaine fermete d'ame qui leur forment un caractere decide; on l'ignore en France." (18) She goes on to chastise French mothers for deceiving their children, for discouraging them from learning, and for laughing "inhumainement" when children make mistakes. The rest of the letter reads like a series of encyclopedic entries on topics ranging from religion to education to empathy, each topic explained by and for women. Her position in this letter is clear: the ills of French society can be traced back to the cultural, social, and political inequalities between men and women born of patriarchal kinship structures.

Creating a family in which the woman plays an active role necessitates a recasting of masculine roles as well. Therefore, the heroine begins to rewrite Aza. After the near-death experience of the third letter, Zilia remarks that Aza brings her back to life. In this letter, Aza represents passion and desire; remembering the fire that he first lit within her, Zilia channels that same power to come back from the (nearly) dead. Yet, already she begins to understand the delicate relationship between her lover's existence and writing. Explaining that writing seems to render her thoughts real, Zilia likens thinking to writing. Once content becomes fused with form there can no longer be a difference between the memory (or imprint) of a person and the person himself. Azas absence becomes the presence of writing and by the sixth letter she transforms him into nature. She believes she hears Azas voice imploring her to return to life after a second near-death experience, but she realizes that she is mistaken: "ce nest pas toi qui m'ordonnes de vivre, c'est la timide nature qui, en fremissant d'horreur, emprunte ta voix plus puissante que la sienne." (19) The transformation of the masculine lover into the feminine nature signals a tremendous transformation within the protagonist. While the third letter portrays an ailing woman brought back to life by the memory of passionate love, the sixth letter shows a woman taking charge of her own life, quite literally, with a suicide attempt. The Zilia of the third letter is so ashamed of dishonoring her lover that she refuses death even though it is what she most desires. In continuing to live, she writes to Aza, "je t'en fais un sacrifice." (20) By the sixth letter, however, the idea of shame and disgrace is no longer enough to keep her from death. In spite of the shame she feels after Deterville interrupts her suicidal plans, she seems more alive, finally interacting with her surroundings. In narrowly avoiding death, she kills off the part of Azas memory that binds her so tightly to the past.

Just after this suicide attempt Zilia reflects for the first time on the importance of her own body. Once her French captors save her from death she realizes the physical limits of her body, noting that it takes up too much space. She recognizes the female body as a prison: there is no place in the world that she knows for the female body to exist comfortably except in letters. That is, a woman of letters is only free as a woman in letters. Within the epistolary space, Zilia negotiates a symbolic medium that provides her with a material mediation of existence. Only once the physical body is translated into the body of letters can she construct a world where the female body will occupy just the right amount of space.

Prior to understanding her body as mediated by writing, Zilia sees herself as nothing more than the appendage of Aza. In her early moments of despair she remarks, "on cesse de vivre pour soi; on veut savoir comment on vivra dans ce qu'on aime." (21) The desire to blend two souls so perfectly that they act and feel as one necessitates the disappearance of the other; the two must be the same in order to face the worldly forces that oppose their happiness. Zilia wants to learn to live in another, however she does not succeed. Instead, she brings the male other to life within her own body, as the Aza she creates with the quipos becomes her prosthesis. This double consciousness leads her to feel that her body is too big. In fact, it becomes such a difficult task to sustain the two that she complains of the physical and emotional pain: "Je ne vis plus en moi ni pour moi; chaque instant ou je respire est un sacrifice que je fais a ton amour, et de jour en jour il devient plus penible." (22) Aza's existence in her becomes unbearable and the only cure lies in severing his memory from her own by translating (and exiling) him from her body into the quipos.

Just when Zilia begins to realize that her body occupies space, she arrives in France and is confronted with the image of her body for the first time: "j'ai vu dans l'enfoncement une jeune personne habillee comme une Vierge du Soleil; j'ai couru a elle les bras ouverts." (23) Mistaking her reflection for another Peruvian woman, Zilia sheds tears of joy as she rushes to embrace her only to be disappointed by the glass separating the two. Rather than a simple repetition of the motif of an ingenue encountering Western technology, this becomes a scene of liberation as Zilia begins to interrogate notions of gender. Even after Zilia understands the function of the mirror, she sits in front of it, conversing with her reflection: "je le touchais, je lui parlais, et je le voyais en meme temps fort pres et fort loin de moi." (24) Although Zilia appears to recognize the female body as "same" (and different from the male), the masculine pronoun "le" of this scene demonstrates her confusion regarding gendered bodies. She uses a wide variety of words to describe that which she sees before her (cette ombre, une figure humaine, celle qui occupait toute mon attention) but none of these terms are masculine. So what is the "le" she is touching, talking to, and observing? We can imagine that she is referring to the masculine, yet unnamed, "reflet," but this ambiguous pronoun also represents the protagonist's hesitation to accept her gender. Moments later, as if to reinforce Zilia's gender, she finally encounters another woman in France, her lady's maid (une China). (25) Upon seeing the servant, Zilia is relieved to be once again in the presence of another woman. Since her capture in Peru, to be a woman amongst Europeans has meant solitude; she begins to feel more comfortable in her skin at this point knowing that she is part of a collective--she is one of many women. Shortly after this scene, she also meets Celine, Deterville's sister, whom she quickly adopts as her French sister. Once Zilia recognizes the potential of both the individual and the collective female body, she begins to gain her independence, thus repossessing her body.

Upon accepting the physicality of her body, Zilia begins to yearn for a physical space in which to exist independently. While the reader of the Lettres does not encounter any Peruvian creation stories, Graffigny revises the Biblical creation narrative as she recounts the protagonist's coming to female subjectivity through writing. Following Zilia back to a prelapsarian moment (before she is taken away from her native land) Graffigny rewrites the story of a coming-to-being from a female perspective. Eve may have been made from Adam's rib, but Aza springs forth from Zilia's hand. With the tying of a knot and the stroke of a pen, the heroine undertakes the reinvention of the family in more egalitarian terms.

On the day Zilia is to marry Aza--which, notably, is also the day she has completed her education--she is kidnapped, banished from her Edenic village in Peru. The time after her capture in the boat represents the beginning of a new life in which Zilia will become the creator of her own destiny. This is precisely the moment that she begins to write her story using the colorful cords she saved under her dress, thus inventing a new utopian space by recording her desires first for Aza, then for knowledge and equality. She does so as she moves from one culture to another, weaving her experiences and the experiences of those around her into a unified and encoded textone to which, for the moment, only she has the key.

The transformation of space into text enacts precisely what Louis Marin calls utopia. "Utopia," he writes, "is both the total organization of the world-space as text and the exhaustive organization and complete system of discourse." (26) Early modern utopian fictions tend to rely on masculine systems of discourse. As Carmelina Imbroscio explains, most utopian fiction of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France sees the woman either accepting her "natural" role as faithful matriarch, or as denying her sex altogether, rejecting her femininity to play the masculine role. (27) Indeed Rousseau's Clarens, the utopian space in La Nouvelle Heloise, depicts a harmonious family, where the faithful wife respects her husband and raises wise and virtuous children. What makes Rousseau's utopia distinctly fraternal, according to Juliet Flower MacCannell, is the way in which Wolmar (Julie's husband) "formally" fulfills his wife's desires while simultaneously denying her any true authority to act on them. Thus, the brother-father Wolmar in fact fulfils his own desires of being the generous "father" while Julie remains powerless.

Zilia's utopia, on the other hand, lies not in a cessation of time within a secluded space, but in praxis. Her private country house constitutes a space, or what Michel de Certeau calls un lieu pratique, where she works toward a female utopia, with women becoming active subjects rather than subjects of men. (28) One of the central doctrines of Zilia's utopian praxis is gender equality. However, to be equal one must also be independent. For the majority of the novel, Zilia remains dependent upon men. First she depends upon Aza, then Deterville, both of whom provide her with everything she needs--a place to stay, clothing, food, and most importantly, an education. In order to take full control of her own body, Zilia must possess a place of her own where she can live and learn independently. In contrast to Julie's utopian space (provided for her by the brother-father), Deterville and Celine purchase Zilia's home using her own wealth thus granting her independence. The heroine is free to engage in her own desires, no longer a prisoner to foreign spaces.

From the first pages of the novel, writing has been the activity that renders Zilia a free woman. She has translated her soul first into the quipos then into her letters in French, becoming incrementally freer each time she writes. Accordingly, it is an act of writing that delivers her ultimate freedom. When Celine insists that Zilia sign a document agreeing to play matron to a country house for the day, Zilia goes along with this ruse: "Je n'eus pas plus tot prononce ces paroles, que je vis entrer un homme vetu de noir, qui tenait un ecritoire et du papier deja ecrit; il me le presenta, et j'y placai mon nom ou l'on voulut." (29) Throughout the day she greets villagers and entertains as any good hostess would. She finally understands what has happened only later in the day, when she is presented with a golden key--she has become a property owner. Although she is now rooted to French soil and thus embedded in the masculine realm of property ownership, it is here that Zilia exercises the feminine utopian praxis set forth in her letters.

In parallel with this liberating act, Zilia loses the love of her life: "Aza infidele! Que ces funestes mots ont du pouvoir sur mon ame." (30) The heroine learns that Catholic laws prohibit the marital union of brother and sister. The shared bloodline that will unite them forever as siblings becomes exactly the bond that will keep them apart. However, while previous separations from Aza left her on the brink of death, this time she has a safety net in the family that she has created. Knowing he will never return, she is free to imagine a future that does end in a marriage of equals. "Si le souvenir d'Aza se presente a mon esprit," she writes, "c'est sous le meme aspect ou je le voyais alors. Je crois y attendre son arrivee. Je me prete a cette illusion autant quelle m'est agreable; si elle me quitte, je prends des livres." (31) She reflects on the past in order to imagine a future, but she is no longer a slave to the future. With this freedom, she is able to imagine a family free from patriarchal traditions. By choosing the reasonable love of friendship over passionate love, Zilia reinvents the eighteenth-century woman as one governed by intellect rather than passion. In so doing she takes up the role of sister, reinventing the family with her new, French brother and sister at her side.

The Regime of the Sister

While the rhetoric of fraternity permeates Enlightenment literature, authors such as Rousseau and Mercier extolling the virtues of democracy and equality for all, as MacCannell points out, there is no room for the sister. She explains, "Negating the relation to the past is not the only feature of the Regime of the Brother. It must also deny the sister." (32) While this may have been the outcome of the fall of Oedipus, we can see resistance to a brotherly take-over in several early modern female-authored texts. Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Cleves, for example, chooses a solitary life over entry into a male-dominated system of alliances. Drawing on Lafayette's solitary protagonist as allegory for feminine power, Graffigny amplifies the link between female solitude and independence in the Lettres, going beyond a simple rejection of masculine hegemony to offer an alternative. Through the heroine's letters, she invents a new and powerful category of woman within the family and lays the groundwork for feminist literature to follow.

Zilia's creation of the independent female is possible because of the heroine's radical otherness. The heroine remains so irresolvably "in-between" that one would assume that she lives in a void--and in a sense, she does. Within this void she seamlessly weaves together her French and Peruvian identities; she is coded neither as masculine nor feminine; and she simultaneously inhabits the past, present, and future. Within this non-space Zilia escapes the traditional confines that serve to delimit and to define the subject, disentangling the various threads that serve to construct identity. Instead she creates the possibility for a female identity free from masculine systems. In her removed space, Graffigny's heroine invents the enlightened sister.

While the Lettres depicts the story of the protagonist's coming-to-writing, they also move beyond this notion to show one woman's coming-to-using-writing. Zilia makes a personal decision to refuse marriage and embrace friendship, and then she transforms it into an opportunity to educate other women by recording and translating her story. Furthermore, she calls for a revolution of women: "comment ne seraient-elles [les femmes] pas revoltees contre l'injustice des lois qui tolerent l'impunite des hommes, poussee au meme exces que leur autorite?" (33) Serving as a prime example of individual female agency, the heroine encourages women to break free both from the nonage imposed upon them by men, and from the self-imposed ignorance, to become the enlightened, Kantian subject avant la lettre, to dare not only to know, but also to act publicly. More than one hundred years before the Third Republic would adopt "liberte, egalite, fraternite," Zilia had already proposed her own tripartite motto, "je suis, je vis, j'existe"u

These three exclamatory statements, written to Deterville in the inaugural stages of her independence, can also be read as an imperative. Her use of the first-person singular serves as a unifying pronoun, encouraging each individual to join in a state of being in which the pleasure of existence is a happy ending in and of itself. Happiness, for the heroine, can be obtained only when one exists freely. What she proposes moves beyond social and political notions of fraternity, which appear to promote democracy and equality. Zilia wishes to break free from patriarchy and to avoid the dominance of the brother when paternal power is passed on to the masculine children. Rather than the "Regime of the Brother" that MacCannell understands as supplanting patriarchy after the Revolution, in Les Lettres d'une Peruvienne Graffigny demonstrates the possibility of a Regime of the Sister.

Dartmouth College


(1.) Lynn Hunt explores the familial role of women in Republican politics in The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkley: University of California Press, 1992).

(2.) Olympe de Gouges, Declaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, ed. Emanuele Gaulier (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2003).

(3.) Juliet Flower MacCannell, The Regime of the Brother: After the Patriarchy (London: Routledge, 1991).

(4.) As critics such as Katherine Jensen and Nancy Miller have noted, unlike masculine travel narratives where educated men set off to discover new cultures, Zilia's journey begins with an abduction and she remains passive throughout her transition from the "new" to the "old" world.

(5.) Julia Douthwaite, Exotic Women: Literary Heroines and Cultural Strategies in Ancien Regime France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), p. 77.

(6.) Louis Marin, Utopies: The Semiological Plays of Textual Spaces, trans. Robert A. Vollrath (Atlantic Highlands nj: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1984).

(7.) Francoise de Graffigny, Lettres d'une Peruvienne, eds. Joan de Jean and Nancy K. Miller (New York: mla, 1993), pp. 17-18. Emphasis added.

(8.) For a detailed history of Frances national motto, see Mona Ozouf s "Liberte, egalite, fraternite," Lieux de Memoire, tome III, dir. Pierre Nora (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), pp. 4353-4389.

(9.) J. P. Schneider, Ed., Vierge du Soleil / Fille des Lumieres: La Peruvienne de Mme de Grafigny et ses Suites (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 1989).

(10.) Nancy K. Miller, Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

(11.) Jaucourt, "Femme," Encyclopedie, ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond dAlembert. University of Chi cago: artfl Encyclopedie Project (Spring 2013 Edition), Robert Morrissey (ed), http://

(12.) Thomas Kavanagh, "Reading the Moment and the Moment of Reading in Graffignys Lettres d'une Peruvienne',' Modern Language Quarterly 55.2 (1994): 125-47.

(13.) On marriage and family law in France, see James F. Traer, Marriage and Family in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca: Cornell, 1980).

(14.) Graffigny, 159. Emphasis added.

(15.) Ibid., 11.

(16.) Ibid., 2i.Emphasis added.

(17.) Lorraine Pirroux, "The Encyclopedist and the Peruvian Princess: The Poetics of Illegibility in French Enlightenment Book Culture," pmla 121.1 (2006): 110.

(18.) Graffigny, 138.

(19.) Ibid., 41.

(20.) Ibid., 29.

(21.) Ibid., 32.

(22.) Ibid., 33-34.

(23.) Ibid., 49-50.

(24.) Ibid., 50.

(25.) In fact, in Quechua (the Peruvian language) the word "china" means any female of any species. The choice of this word emphasizes Zilia's belonging to a particular gender.

(26.) Marin, 10.

(27.) Carmelina Imbroscio, L'Utopie a la derive: Sur les compromissions vitales du lieu utopique (Pisa: Editrice Libreria Goliardica, 1995).

(28.) Michel de Certeau, L'Invention du quotidien; 1. Arts de faire (Paris: Gallimard, 1990). He explains, "Est un lieu l'ordre (quel qu'il soit) selon lequel des elements sont distribues dans des rapports de coexistence [...] Est espace l'effet produit par les operations qui l'orientent, le circonstancient, le temporalisent et l'amenent a fonctionner en unite polyvalent de programmes conflictuels ou de proximites contractuelles." (172-73).

(29.) Graffigny, 147.

(30.) Ibid., 159.

(31.) Ibid., 164.

(32.) MacCannell, 24.

(33.) Graffigny, 143.

(34.) Ibid., 168.
COPYRIGHT 2014 University of Pennsylvania Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rutler, Tracy
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 22, 2014
Previous Article:Books received.
Next Article:Culture as colonizer: Raynal's "colonialisme eclaire" in the Histoire des deux Indes.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters