Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1102


Zeno (zeh-NOH ), an alchemist, physician, and philosopher. At the beginning of the novel, Zeno is a wildly attractive twenty-year-old student of theology, tall and slim, pale, and haggard, with fiery eyes. Being illegitimate, he feels the hypocrisy of social morals; furthermore, he acquires early a thirst for...

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Zeno (zeh-NOH), an alchemist, physician, and philosopher. At the beginning of the novel, Zeno is a wildly attractive twenty-year-old student of theology, tall and slim, pale, and haggard, with fiery eyes. Being illegitimate, he feels the hypocrisy of social morals; furthermore, he acquires early a thirst for truth, which leads him to travel and meet all the important scientists and philosophers in his quest for knowledge and in his search for himself. A true skeptic, this Humanist challenges established orthodoxy. He is passionately interested in all human and scientific pursuits and experiences, often at the risk of prison or the stake. In middle age, gaunt, gray, and frugal, he hides under the alias of Sebastian Theus in his hometown of Bruges, Belgium, where he is appointed physician at a church-run hospice. As confidant to several monks, he learns of their orgies and fears for his own freedom. He decides to stay, however, because his life or death no longer matters to him. Indirectly implicated, he is arrested and tried (under his real name) for all his past activities and books and condemned to die, although he can obtain a pardon if he recants all his writings. He refuses and, at the age of fifty-eight, kills himself.

Henry Maximilian Ligre

Henry Maximilian Ligre (lih-greh), a soldier of fortune, Zeno’s cousin and a banker’s son. At the age of sixteen, he is tall and angular of face, with tawny hair, in love with life and poetry. He joins France’s armies to conquer the world of arms and women. Considered a brilliant soldier, for twenty-five years he leads the rude existence of a mercenary, often penniless, always cheerful and fearless, charming women to whom he writes sonnets, and enjoying the pleasures of wine and song. He dies during a sortie, as a captain. The pages of his manuscript are buried with him in a ditch.

Henry Justus Ligre

Henry Justus Ligre, a merchant and banker. This corpulent and lusty Fleming loves his son Henry Maximilian and tolerates his nephew Zeno. Enjoying the pleasures of food, drink, and female company, the newly widowed and increasingly rich and influential Ligre marries a trader’s daughter with whom he has a son, Philibert.

Jean-Louis de Berlaimont

Jean-Louis de Berlaimont (behr-leh-MAHN), the prior of a monastery. More than sixty years old, he is gentle and compassionate, refined and sophisticated, and devout and tolerant. A former courtier and diplomat, he enjoys discussing politics and theology with Zeno. During these talks, he sides with the Patriots against Spanish rule; torn between the presence of evil and God’s inherent goodness, he sometimes doubts his own faith. He dies of a throat polyp after advising his friend to flee from the Inquisition.

Alberico de’ Numi

Alberico de’ Numi (ahl-beh-REE-koh deh NEW-mee), a prelate. A handsome and attentive young nobleman, he seduces Hilzonda Ligre, whom he later abandons to pursue his political and clerical ambitions. He receives the cardinal’s hat at the age of thirty, although he continues to lead a rogue’s existence and is murdered after an orgy.

Hilzonda Ligre

Hilzonda Ligre, a bourgeois woman, Henry Justus’ sister. Slender and not very pretty, when young and naïve, she fell in love with Alberico, with whom she had Zeno. Ashamed of her sin, she is finally consoled by her brother’s friend and business associate, whom she eventually marries and with whom she has a daughter, Martha. All three leave for Munster, renamed the City of God. There, she becomes one of the ruler’s mistresses in mystical euphoria. After the imperial troops recapture the city, she is beheaded.

Simon Adriansen

Simon Adriansen, a merchant. He is a God-fearing older gentleman, bearded and wrinkled. In his conduct with all, he is charitable and kind. He is successful in his business and investments, and he is related to the Fuggers of the famous banking house. After his death following the Munster rebellion, he is buried in a Catholic cemetery, his strong Anabaptist faith notwithstanding.

Martha Adriansen

Martha Adriansen, a bourgeois woman. As a little girl, she is thin and sickly, more intellectual than her cousin Benedicta Fugger, with whom she is reared after her parents die. Although a Calvinist, she lacks true fervor; during the plague of 1549, she reveals to her half brother Zeno a cowardice of the spirit that is worse than any physical cowardice.

Benedicta Fugger

Benedicta Fugger (few-GEHR), the daughter of Martin and Salome Fugger, a pretty girl of the same age as her cousin Martha. Martha and Benedicta are best friends and learn French, music, and drawing together; in addition, both secretly study Reformed liturgy and tenets. She dies of the plague, despite Zeno’s treatment.

Bartholomew Campanus

Bartholomew Campanus, a canon. Thirty years old but appearing much older, Campanus is Zeno’s affectionate uncle and tutor. He is scholarly in his interest in languages and philosophy, which he teaches his pupil. At the end of the novel, he is eighty years old and infirm. Although his life has been peaceful and innocent, he is desolate over Zeno’s past and his probable end.

Philibert Ligre

Philibert Ligre, a banker. The second son of Henry Justus Ligre, he is fat and physically unassuming. Deeply interested in money and finance, he is very astute and ferocious in his business dealings. He is at first engaged to Benedicta, but when she dies, he marries his cousin Martha. He and Martha become fabulously wealthy and powerful. They live in ostentatious luxury and yet refuse to help Zeno (his cousin and her half brother) after Zeno’s indictment.


Cyprian, a monk. He is Zeno’s handsome and affable eighteen-year-old aide who, though superstitious, hardly educated, and lazy, has a certain nursing ability. He is involved in theologically inspired sex orgies with several other monks. After his arrest, under torture he confesses all and dies at the stake, along with his friends.

Idelette de Loos

Idelette de Loos, a noble girl. This fifteen-year-old maiden, appropriately called the Fair One by the monks, is very beautiful, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and always well dressed. Daring, coquettish, and headstrong, she is the center of orgiastic and sexual rituals. Being an “angel,” she supposedly cannot conceive; when she becomes pregnant and gives birth, she strangles her baby. At her trial, she implicates her accomplices. Found guilty, she is beheaded.

Sign Ulfsdatter

Sign Ulfsdatter (EWLFS-dah-tuhr), a healer and herbalist. Referred to as the Lady of Froso, she is tall, fair, beautiful, generous, and hospitable. She is one of Zeno’s few peers and the only woman he truly loves.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

The Abyss has a cast of more than four hundred characters. There are men of money (the Ligres and the Fuggers), men of the cloth (Canon Campanus and Berlaimont), men of war (Marshalls Strozzi and Montluc), men of science (Zeno and Francois Rondelet), and “the lesser estate” (jailers, blacksmiths, and the like). Feminine characters consist primarily of self-interested royalty (Catherine of Medicis and Marguerite of Austria) and mystic martyrs (Hilzonda, Vivine, Benedicta, Idelette, and Martha). An exception is the Lady of Froso, a healer who was able to match Zeno’s mind. Special sympathy goes to the aged: the prior, Jan Myers, and Bishop Campanus. The sheer numbers give an idea of the scale of Yourcenar’s drama. Her characterization reveals what she values: intelligence, goodness, simplicity, and justice. Conversely, she detests brutality, violence, self-satisfaction, and connivance.

In an author’s note, Marguerite Yourcenar reveals her numerous sources. Zeno resembles Erasmus (bastardy), Giordano Bruno (imprisonment), Tycho Brahe (astronomy), Paracelsus (alchemy), Tommaso Campanella (persecution), Etienne Dolet (violence), Leonardo da Vinci (inventions), and the latter four in his alleged sodomy. Michel de Montaigne inspired the prior, and the Fuggers were the true financiers of Charles V. Through his dissidence, Zeno also calls to mind Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Margaret Sanger. Alberico suggests both the Venetian painter Titian and Yourcenar’s own father Michel Cleenewerke de Crayencour. Albrecht Durer’s engraving Melancholia inspired the first part of the novel, and the scenes of horror and disorder were influenced by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

Zeno dominates all other characters. Through his universal appetite for knowledge, he embodies the ideal of the Renaissance man. Successively theologian, alchemist, engineer, physician, astronomer, botanist, and philosopher, he is at the forefront of all these fields. His insistence on truth and his contempt for stupidity make him fearsome to others. In a hospitable world, there would have been no upper limit to his potential.

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