Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
A Coin in Nine Hands is a highly structured narrative based on nine apparently separate stories loosely connected by the passage of a ten lire coin from the protagonist of one tale to the next. On closer examination, it becomes clear that Marguerite Yourcenar has set up these stories quite symmetrically. The first and last stories are the shortest; both focus on insignificant men who are easily self-deluded. The second and eighth stories are slightly longer; both focus on characters who are dying and who concern themselves with the meaning of artifice and illusion. The third and seventh stories introduce two good citizens—the cosmetics merchant and the flower seller—who are both loyal to the law-and-order party and spend much of their time thinking and worrying about money. The fourth and sixth stories contrast the two daughters of Don Ruggiero, one a narcissist, the other a martyr. The fifth offers the central action of the novel: Carlo Stevo’s death and Marcella’s failed attempt to assassinate the Dictator (Benito Mussolini). These three middle chapters are by far the longest and most complex.
Each of the nine chapters can be read as a self-contained portrait of its central character. There are also a variety of connections which link the characters to one another. For example, the wife who has run away from Paolo Farina, the protagonist of chapter 1, turns out to be the same Angiola featured in chapter 6 who is the sister of Rosalia of...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Yourcenar joins the ranks of powerful women who have broken new grounded with her election as the first woman member of the 350-year-old French Academy. Though she did not consider herself a feminist per se, she was an ardent supporter of both the free choice and the environmentalist movements of her time, and her life itself serves as an extraordinary example of female independence and assertiveness. Moreover, in her inaugural speech to the academy she graciously acknowledged the literary contributions of “the invisible troop of women,” including Madame Marie de Sévigné, Madame de Staël, George Sand, and Colette, “who should, perhaps, have received this honor much earlier.
There are few female protagonists in Yourcenar’s work; Marcella’s central role in A Coin in Nine Hands is an exception. Most of Yourcenar’s characters, whether male of female, are portrayed as complex products of their cultures and personal histories. Their relative strength as human beings, irrespective of gender, seems to depend on their ability to take responsibility for their own lives given the limitations of their existential situations. Marcella stands apart from the other characters in the novel because of her strength and honesty; she neither romanticizes her assassination attempt nor overrates her chances for success.
Like André Gide, one of her major literary mentors, Yourcenar is known for her sensitive portrayals of male homosexuality. This was clearly a topic of some personal interest to her given her forty-year-long friendship with Grace Frick, with whom she shared her love of both travel and the quiet beauty of their rural retreat on Mount Desert Island, Maine. It was because of her relationship with Frick that Yourcenar became an American citizen, a decision which proved problematic at the time of her election to the French Academy. Frick functioned as a secretary, editor, and translator, as well as a faithful companion to Yourcenar. Before they had the financial means to retire to Maine, Yourcenar helped support herself by teaching French and art history at two women’s colleges, Sarah Lawrence and Hartford College for Women, where her brilliance and perceived eccentricity must have inspired hundreds of students to pursue their own dreams of independence.
Techniques / Literary Precedents
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Horn, Pierre L. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne, 1985. As a part of the Twayne’s World Authors Series, Horn’s book offers a comprehensive introduction to Yourcenar’s complete oeuvre—autobiography, poetry, prose, fiction, theater, essays, and translations. He ranks her as one of the most “original” post-World War II writers, given her “independence” and “creativity.”
Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. Howard focuses on seven works, including A Coin in Nine Hands, in order to investigate Yourcenar’s frequent use of mythical or historical subject matter. She sees this predilection not as a turning away from the problems of her age but as an existential critique of twentieth century life.
Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. The translation of this highly rated biography by a noted French journalist is an important addition to the work available in English on Yourcenar. It provides useful information on the literary influences and personal experiences that helped to shape her work.
Tilby, Michael. “Marguerite Yourcenar.” In Beyond the Nouveau Roman: Essays on the Contemporary French Novel, edited by Michael Tilby. New York: Berg, 1990. Tilby sees Yourcenar’s work as rooted in a search for self which nevertheless transcends the individual experience to reveal the universality of human life despite “differences of time, of place and of gender.” According to Tilby, Yourcenar offers the reader a “resolutely masculine view” of the world which she herself felt privileged to enjoy.