(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Both real and fictional characters populate The Abyss, and the book has been compared to a tapestry because of its densely interwoven detail. The author uses historical document and anecdote to create a complex and tangled narrative of a particularly violent era; she relies less on physical description than on human voices to create a sense of time and place.

Amid this mass of cultural and historical information, however, Yourcenar’s focus is always Zeno. Such focus is not so simple and obvious as it might seem, because Zeno himself is a complex and tangled character whose intentions and actions often contradict one another. A fictional composite of Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Paracelsus, and others, he is at the same time the Adam of the book’s epigraph, taken from Pico della Mirandola. The epigraph is one of the thematic keys to the novel.

I have given you, O Adam, no fixed abode, and novisage of your own, nor any special gift, in order thatwhatever place or aspect or talents you yourself will havedesired, you may have and possess them wholly in accordwith your desire and your own decision. . . .

Yet Zeno is by no means so free as this passage suggests, and one of the book’s overarching metaphors is prison. As an arrogant twenty-year-old, he half-jokingly remarks to Henry Maximilian that no one would be so besotted...

(The entire section is 631 words.)