Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Coup de Grace, as are Yourcenar’s novels generally, is set in a precarious historical period. Another era, in this case the Fascist, is about to begin, and the tragedy is that all the individuals of the novel have been so brutalized by preceding events that they no longer recognize evil for what it is. They have developed an existential amorality which accepts all things as normal.

This is obvious in all the characters. Erick can blame Sophie’s desire that he inflict the coup de grace (the death blow) on her as revenge. It is actually a perverse act of love which frees her from the pain of living with unrequited love. Conrad accepts his own coup de grace fearfully but ultimately with as much dignity as he can muster. Lowe has received his own death blow on the battlefield, and his death compels Erick, however reluctantly, to accept the Bolshevik as a comrade-in-arms. It remains for someone else to administer Erick’s coup de grace. In the meantime, he tells his story to whomever may listen (presumably often to captive audiences such as that at the Pisa station) and is always on guard to make its retelling impartial.

Erick, it follows, controls the narrative, but he has an amazing lack of insight in its telling. He never understands what it is about himself or the overwhelming events through which he has lived that allows him neither to respond to love nor to rise above the amoral world about him. His recit, or recital of events as he sees them, marks him and the others in this story as yet more spiritually hungry souls of the twentieth century.