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The Abyss Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like Yourcenar’s previous works, The Abyss re-creates an era, with its particular modes of thinking and being. The action occurs between 1510 and 1569 in Europe, mainly in the Belgian city of Bruges, and is divided into three parts, the first two echoing each other (“Wandering Life” and “Immobile Life”) and the third (“The Prison”) describing the site of the hero’s last months and serving as a metaphor for his body and the world.

Zeno, whose name is the same as the Greek philosopher’s and whose name is associated with “zero” and “no,” learned ancient languages, natural sciences, and alchemy at a young age. He quickly realizes, however, that men and books lie. A universal man of the Renaissance, he invents a weaving machine, discusses the atoms of Epicurus and the proofs demonstrating God’s existence, and refuses a priori the authority of scholars. He is interested in geology and botany, medicine and surgery, and astronomy and metallurgy.

After some thirty years of wandering under assumed names, one step ahead of the Inquisition, he returns to Bruges, where he becomes a physician at a hospital run by Franciscans. The good and learned prior of the Franciscans and Zeno have daily conversations about religion and questions of faith as well as about the deteriorating situation in Flanders, repression of the patriots, and the torture and killing of Protestants and Catholics alike. Thus, the prior’s Christian wisdom complements Zeno’s secular wisdom.

Arrested for his sympathy to the rebels’ cause and for his blasphemous writings, Zeno defends himself before the tribunal, arguing about physiology and physics, rejecting unscientific hypotheses and conclusions. Ultimately, he is condemned because he instinctively knows that there can be no accommodation between those who seek truth and those who want to impose their viewpoints by force of will. Afraid to burn at the stake, Zeno chooses suicide. This suicide is more than a revolt against the Christian prohibition of the deed or the uniquely free act of an existential negator. By sacrificing his life, Zeno attains the supreme freedom offered by eternity.

Despite its French title, the novel is not concerned with the transformation of base metals but with the quest for knowledge devoid of falsehood, superstition, fear, and ignorance. This search for the absolute distinguishes Zeno from other scientists and makes him a universal man, lucid in his thinking and unwilling to accept fanaticism, whether philosophical, scientific, moral, or religious. More interested in negating so as better to reaffirm, he discovers that in addition to ridding himself of all prejudices and preconceptions, he must achieve a broadening of the self and of the understanding by which one becomes integrated into the universe.

In illustrating and analyzing her hero’s difficult progress, Yourcenar shows that any seeker of truth defies established values and must be destroyed by defenders of the status quo. It is not surprising, then, that Zeno, when forced to choose, would much prefer death to life in the horror of the human condition.


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Abyss is the story of one man’s devotion to truth. As Zeno relentlessly searches for knowledge, vast historical forces—Catholicism and Protestantism, France and the Holy Roman Empire, agrarianism and commercialism—turn Reformation Europe into a bloodbath. Marguerite Yourcenar’s careful documentation adds to this continent-sized clash between dissidence and dogma a great sense of period realism.

The story opens in 1530. Henry Maximilian Ligre runs into Zeno outside Dranoutre, Henry Justus Ligre’s Belgian country estate, and the two discuss plans. At sixteen, Henry Maximilian is planning to serve with King Francis I. At twenty, Zeno is leaving to study alchemy in Spain. Both have abandoned the merchant House of Ligre. Henry Maximilian has chosen war, poetry, and women. Zeno has chosen a rendezvous with himself.

A flashback recalls Zeno’s youth. His...

(The entire section is 1,558 words.)