Critical Context

In the context of Yourcenar’s personal canon, The Abyss points backward to her Memoires d’Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian, 1954) and forward to Le Labyrinthe du monde, an autobiographical project interrupted by the author’s death. The first two works, monumental in scope and architecture, are credited with restoring the historical novel in France. The third is predicted by Zeno’s phantasy vision in prison of a melancholy son by the Lady of Froso. “If that phantom was his child, then he, philosopher though he was, was caught up in the game...; he would not get out of this labyrinth until the end of time.”

In the general current of French literary history, Yourcenar’s treatment of difficult moral issues suggests comparison with Andre Gide. Her painful revisions recall the arduous polishing of Gustave Flaubert. Her classical erudition places her in the humanist tradition, but her focus on daily life more closely aligns her with the New Historians. Her taste for formula evokes the maxims of the seventeenth century moralists. Yourcenar’s greatest stylistic achievements are her narrative voice, a kind of intimate third person, and her irony, a form of resigned disgust. In 1968, her forty years of work on The Abyss were recognized by the esteemed Prix Femina, and in 1980, she became the first woman elected to the French Academy.