Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


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...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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.