Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

During his trial, Zeno reflects thatno lasting accord exists between those who seek, ponder, and dissect, and pride themselves on being capable of thinking tomorrow other than they do today, and those who accept the Faith, or declare that they do, and oblige their fellow men to do the same, on pain of death.

This reflection expresses the essential theme of the novel: polarization. Tension and hostility separate freethinkers, on the one hand, from hypocrites and fanatics, on the other. Four subthemes emerge as a consequence of this primary choice: danger, parallel worlds, self-transmutation, and paradox.

Any link involving Zeno is not only polarizing but also dangerous. Some associations form a clear and present danger: Zeno with Cyprian, or with Han, the injured Calvinist. Other associations, such as with Catherine, appear harmless but prove damning. Still others are directly or indirectly lethal: the Duke of Alba, whose murderous Council of Blood controls the prosecutor; Catherine of Medicis, who would not halt censorship; Philibert and Martha, whose inaction disowned and condemned a relative. These dangers give The Abyss some of the flavor of a spy novel.

Zeno’s repeated exposure to the same persecution leads him to approve Democritus’ hypothesis of an infinite series of parallel universes. Countless ironic juxtapositions demonstrate the theory. While Zeno awaits sentence in prison, Philibert sups with the Duke of...

(The entire section is 523 words.)