Justine, 1957

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, identified as L. G. Darley later in the quartet. All the events in this book are filtered through Darley’s understanding. After the central events recounted in the novel, Darley moves to an island (with Justine, the daughter of Melissa Artemis and Nessim Hosnani) and begins the write the narrative of Justine. He uses his own memories, Justine Hosnani’s diary, and another book,Moeurs, written about Justine by Justine’s former husband, the Albanian-French Jacob Arnauti. Darley recounts how he, a poor schoolteacher and later minor British War Office official and spy, began to have an affair with Justine, grew obsessed with her, and worried that Nessim, Justine’s husband, was going to have him killed. Darley experiences guilt over cheating on his lover, Melissa Artemis, and on his friend Nessim. He also believes that Justine loves him. In one memorable sequence, he goes with Nessim to help Justine leave a child brothel, where they find her nearly hysterical.

Justine Hosnani

Justine Hosnani, the title character. Attractive to all, multifaceted, wildly promiscuous, impressionable, and intelligent, Justine is also a staple of literature, the deceptive fatal woman. She begins an affair with Darley after hearing him deliver a lecture on poet C. P. Cavafy. She tells of being raped as child. It appears that her sexual escapades are attempts to re-enact that experience. Before marrying Nessim, she was very poor and apparently lost her one child, a daughter, perhaps as a result of kidnapping. She is Jewish, although she converted to Coptic Christianity upon marrying her second husband, Nessim. She takes part in the Cabal, a study...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Balthazar, 1958

(Great Characters in Literature)

S. Balthazar

S. Balthazar, a Jewish doctor and leader of the Cabal. He narrates approximately half of the novel. Darley sends him the manuscript of Justine, and Balthazar returns it with commentary, referred to in the novel as the Great Interlinear. The central events of Justine are not as Darley interpreted them. Balthazar argues that Justine did not love Darley; she began the affair with Darley, with the prior consent of Nessim, as a means of spying. The Hosnanis hoped that Darley could inform them if the British knew of the Hosnani conspiracy for the Zionist cause, traitorous in Egypt. The Cabal, with its open meetings and religious focus, was the cover for a cabal of Zionists. Balthazar was the doctor called to the scene of Pursewarden’s suicide, which he describes. Nessim arrived before Balthazar and hastily erased a message about the Cabal that Pursewarden had written on his mirror. Balthazar caught sight of a word or two but did not fully understand, being innocent of the conspiracy although aware of Nessim’s having political interests and secrets.

Justine Hosnani

Justine Hosnani, who made her flight to the kibbutz to avoid arrest—not, as Darley first supposed, for psychological reasons. Justine is revealed as a political, more than sexual, creature, with a yearning for power and an absolute commitment to the creation of Israel.

Narouz Hosnani


(The entire section is 511 words.)

Mountolive, 1958

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sir David Mountolive

Sir David Mountolive, the British ambassador. A conventional third-person limited-omniscient narration follows Mountolive through his diplomatic career, concentrating on his stays in Alexandria. A proper, repressed, and well-mannered young Englishman beginning a career in diplomacy, he goes to Alexandria to improve his Arabic and stays with the Hosnani family. Mountolive is entranced by the overwhelming beauty of Alexandria and Egypt. He becomes close friends with Narouz and Nessim. Mountolive also begins an affair with Leila. Although socially adept and intelligent, he is also callow and inexperienced, and he regrets betraying his host. Leila tells him that her husband, an aged invalid, gave her permission to have an affair with the young man. He is surprised to learn that Leila’s attraction to him is based on her comically bookish, romanticized view of the British. At dinner with the family one evening, Mountolive commits a gaffe for which he, a diplomat-in-training, berates himself: He calls the family Muslims. Later, Mountolive leaves Egypt for service elsewhere. He returns as ambassador at a time roughly contemporaneous with the events in Justine. He is soon made aware of the Hosnani conspiracy and finds himself torn between duty, which calls for him to ask the Egyptian government to kill Nessim, and friendship with Nessim. Mountolive does not waver: He pressures the Egyptian government to kill Nessim. The king is deathly ill, however, and Nessim, aware of the danger he is in, is able to play for time by bribing the Egyptian minister of the interior, Memlik Pasha.

Falthaus Hosnani

Falthaus Hosnani, the family patriarch. On hearing Mountolive refer to the Hosnanis as Muslims, he begins a long denunciation of the British. Mountolive receives a history lesson on how the Copts (who are Christians) were, since ancient...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Clea, 1960

(Great Characters in Literature)

L. G. Darley

L. G. Darley, who returns to Alexandria from his island retreat in the last year of World War II. Mnemjian, a barber and minor character in all the novels, tells Darley what has happened. The conspiracy has collapsed: Justine is under house arrest, and Nessim, who is working as an ambulance driver for the duration, has become poor. Darley visits Justine and discovers his passion for her is gone.

George Gaston Pombal

George Gaston Pombal, the sensualist, who has fallen in love with Fosca but not gone to bed with her, a novelty he finds delightful. She is killed when their sailboat comes too close to a warship, and they are fired upon from the ship with a rifle.

Sir David Mountolive

Sir David Mountolive, who also has fallen in love, with Liza, Pursewarden’s blind sister. Mountolive considers rejecting her because of the impropriety of having a blind ambassadress at social functions, but eventually he accepts his love for her.

S. Balthazar

S. Balthazar, who is in disgrace for being associated with the Cabal. After a nearly successful suicide attempt resulting from the unrequited love of a worthless actor, he is helped by his friends, especially Mountolive, to return to life and society.

Paul Capodistria

Paul Capodistria, who, it is revealed, faked his own death. He did so because the conspiracy, in which he was...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Alexandria. Egyptian port city whose position, on the Nile Delta, has made it one of the most important trading cities in the Mediterranean and a magnet for an extraordinary mix of peoples and travelers. If one theme unites the complex web of political and sexual liaisons and betrayals layered throughout Durrell’s intricate sequence of novels, it is memory. Durrell calls Alexandria the “capital of Memory” and a place where “the wind blew out one’s footsteps like candle-flames,” making it the perfect setting for the rememberings and forgettings that are explored in his books.

A press attaché at the British embassy in Alexandria during World War II, Durrell describes with colorful vigor the city’s crumbling buildings, stultifying heat, and especially the mix of peoples—Jews, Copts, Greeks, English, and French as well as native Egyptians—who make up the city. It is this racial stew that provides the main impetus for Durrell’s story, as various English visitors—the teacher L. C. Darley, the author Percy Pursewarden, and the diplomat Sir David Mountolive—are seduced by Alexandria’s exotic atmosphere and sexual freedom. The theme of an inhibited Englishman becoming free in the warm, easy-going Mediterranean atmosphere was popular in postwar British fiction; it was a theme that Durrell would explore again and again.

Around his three Englishmen, Durrell assembles a cast of characters who represent every aspect of Alexandria: the Coptic financier Nessim Hosnani who, with his Jewish wife Justine, is revealed to be involved in political plots; the doctor S. Balthazar, whose cabalistic studies stand in for the extraordinary belief systems that are rife in the city; the exotic dancer Melissa who, as Darley’s lover, provides his entry into this society; the French sensualist George Gaston Pombal; the artist Clea Montis; and the garrulous old transvestite spy chief Joshua Scobie, who, in one of the novel’s more bizarre twists, evolves into a local saint. Between them, these characters represent not only the various races making up Alexandria’s population, but also the entire social mix from the very wealthy to the very poor. Moreover, the large cast of characters are not merely players in the drama...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Throughout his fiction, Durrell's narrative stance is to record experiences "not in the order in which they took place — for that is...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In his head note to Balthazar, Durrell indicates that his primary concern in The Alexandria Quartet is "an investigation of modern...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The question of literary precedents and influences is a bit trickier with Durrell than it is with other writers who, by virtue of an English...

(The entire section is 431 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Justine, the only Durrell work made into a major Hollywood film, was directed by George Cukor (Twentieth Century Fox, 1969). It...

(The entire section is 74 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Begnal, Michael H., ed. On Miracle Ground: Essays on the Fiction of Lawrence Durrell. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1990. In a transcript of a 1986 lecture, Durrell explains his life and art. Other essays in this volume give mythological, Buddhist, and narratological perspectives on The Alexandria Quartet.

Durrell, Lawrence. A Key to Modern British Poetry. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952. In the context of the book’s subject, Durrell presents the philosophical, artistic, and scientific ideas that underlie The Alexandria Quartet.

Friedman, Alan Warren, ed....

(The entire section is 228 words.)