Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2255
King Alexander I
King Alexander I became king of Yugoslavia in 1921. He had fought in World War I and believed passionately in the ideal of a Yugoslav state. However, ethnic and political divisions within the new kingdom were acute. Croats demanded independence and there were so many political parties that stable government proved impossible. In 1929 Alexander abolished the constitution and ruled as a dictator. He was assassinated in 1934 in Marseille, France—an event that first aroused Rebecca West’s interest in Yugoslavia.
Henry Andrews is Rebecca West’s husband. He is an Oxford-educated banker who speaks fluent German, and he accompanies West throughout her travels. In their discussions about people, culture, and history, West presents Andrews as a man who speaks reasonably, without anger or prejudice. He is patient and full of common sense, although he and his wife do not always agree with each other.
Nedyelyko Chabrinovich was one of the Serb conspirators in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He threw a bomb that missed the archduke but wounded his aide-de-camp (camp assistant). Chabrinovich was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Archduchess Sophie Chotek
Archduchess Sophie Chotek was the wife of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. There was opposition in the Austrian court to her marriage because, even though she was a countess, she was not considered noble enough to marry an archduke. After the marriage, she continued to be excluded from the most intimate functions of the Austrian court. West presents Sophie as an ambitious woman who nursed petty resentments and had many enemies. However, she and Ferdinand felt great love for each other, although she feared that her husband was on the verge of going mad. Sophie was assassinated with her husband in Sarajevo in June 1914.
Constantine is a close friend of West and her husband. He accompanies them on most of their travels. A forty-six-year-old poet, Constantine, who is a Serb and is Jewish, lives in Serbia. He is also a member of the Orthodox church. Constantine is short and fat, with black curly hair, and he talks incessantly: ‘‘In the morning he comes out of his bedroom in the middle of a sentence; and at night he backs into it, so that he can just finish one more sentence.’’ But his talk is very entertaining. He is emotional and excitable and sometimes boastful, with strong opinions on almost everything. Constantine fought in World War I and is now an official in the Yugoslav government. He believes firmly in the ideal of Yugoslavia. He is a passionate, cultured man who studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. He is also an accomplished musician. Constantine is married to Gerda, whom he adores, although the German Gerda is a difficult wife. As Constantine tries to appease her, he becomes an increasingly unhappy figure. West notes that when Constantine is with Gerda, his personality changes, and he does not express himself so fully. Instead, he seems to mold himself according to his idea of what she might find acceptable. Sometimes he adopts the role of the Jewish comedian. Later in their travels, West observes that because of the influence of Gerda, Constantine has undergone a ‘‘disintegrating change,’’ and she no longer trusts his judgment. Constantine becomes irritable and complains about everything. West concludes that there is something in Constantine’s personality that compels him to be loyal only to those who despise him.
Diocletian was the Roman Emperor who, after a twenty-one-year reign as emperor, built a palace in 305 at Split in Dalmatia. West considers him the greatest of the Roman emperors who came from Illyria. He died, probably by poisoning himself, sometime between 313 and 316.
Dragutin, a Serb, is the chauffeur for West and her husband during their travels through Macedonia, Old Serbia, and Montenegro. West presents Dragutin as the embodiment of the passionate, fierce temperament of the Serbian male. Raised in both Germany and England, he is young, handsome, brave, and honest. He is also an effective tour guide and takes charge when necessary, knowing the ways of his people and the hazards of the terrain. Dragutin is strongly pro-Yugoslavia, and when his party visits the ancient battlefield at Kossovo, he shows great contempt for the Turks.
Stephen Dushan was the monarch of the old Serbian empire during the mid-fourteenth century, when Serbia reached the height of its power and its culture flowered. West compares Dushan to Elizabeth I of England, who, like Dushan, inherited a threatened kingdom and left it a powerful one. Dushan successfully confronted the hostile Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Hungary, and had he lived longer, he might have reunited the entire Byzantine world. Dushan died at the age of forty-eight in 1365, only thirty-four years before the Serbs were defeated at Kossovo in 1389. (In modern spelling, one ‘‘s’’ for Kosovo is preferred, rather than West’s ‘‘Kossovo’’.) Archduke Franz Ferdinand Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria. Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in June 1914 in Sarajevo—an event that sparked World War I. West presents Ferdinand as an extremely unattractive figure. He was dull-minded, ungracious, obstinate, bigoted, suspicious, and aggressive. He loved hunting simply because he liked to kill, and he hated the entire world, with the exception of his wife and children.
Gerda is Constantine’s German wife. West and her husband meet her in Belgrade, and she accompanies them on some of their subsequent travels. Gerda is middle-aged and stout, with fair hair and gray eyes. Constantine claims she is beautiful, and he adores her, but Gerda is a thoroughly unattractive figure. She is a nationalistic German who despises the Slavs, even though she lives amongst them. In her opinion, they have no culture; they are all primitive and stupid. Gerda and West get off to a bad start when Gerda expresses contempt for the book West is carrying, even though she has never read it. Gerda is smug in her sense of her own superiority as a German, and she is determined to dislike West and her husband. Her views are compatible with the Nazis. She believes for example that all Slavs in Germany should be expelled so that the land can be given back to ‘‘true Germans.’’
Gerda proves to be a disagreeable traveling companion. In Skoplje, Macedonia, she disparages Byzantine art, hates West and her husband because they are English, and calls all Yugoslavs liars. She hates the Gypsy dancers, saying that Gypsies are ‘‘dirty and stupid,’’ and she has to smoke a cigarette to ‘‘disinfect’’ herself from their contamination. After this episode, she insults a poor old man.
Gerda becomes so unpleasant that eventually West and her husband are forced to insist that she accompany them no further. She returns to Belgrade on her own.
Marko Gregorievitch is a friend of West and her husband, whom they meet in Zagreb. He is a gloomy fifty-six-year-old Croat critic and journalist who looks like Pluto in the Mickey Mouse films. For sixteen years before World War I he was an active revolutionary, fighting the Hungarians for the right of Croatia to run its own affairs, for which he suffered imprisonment and exile. He now supports the Yugoslavian state with great enthusiasm because it symbolizes Slav defiance of the Austrian- Hungarian empire. He dislikes Valetta and regards him as a traitor.
Karageorge was a leader of Serbia in the early nineteenth century. He led an insurrection against the Turks in 1804. West describes him as one of the most remarkable men in European history. Although he could neither read nor write, he excelled as a soldier, strategist, and diplomat. In 1813 his career came to an disreputable end when he fled the scene of a great battle with the Turks. He later returned to Serbia but was assassinated in 1817. In spite of his failures, Serbs still regard him as the founder of their liberty.
Tsar Lazar was the leader of the Serbs defeated by the Turks at Kossovo in 1389. West visits his tomb and touches his mummified hand.
Draga Mashin was the hated wife of Serbia’s King Alexander Obrenovitch. She was born in 1866, married young, and was widowed in 1885. In 1900 she married Alexander, who was more than ten years younger than she. Draga was loathed throughout Serbia because it was said she was of low birth and had led a vicious life. West is sympathetic to Draga but concedes she may have led a loose life before her marriage. After marriage Draga was further reviled because it was believed she was unable to bear a child. She was brutally murdered along with her husband by Serbian army officers in 1903. The naked, mutilated corpses were thrown out of the window of the palace.
Bishop Nikolai is Bishop of Zhitcha and of Ochrid, in Macedonia. He holds an Easter service at the Church of Sveti Yovan (St. John) that West attends. She is greatly impressed by his spiritual power and charisma.
King Alexander Obrenovitch
Alexander Obrenovitch inherited the throne of Serbia in 1890, when he was twelve years old. Until the age of seventeen, he ruled through three regents. Alexander showed little wisdom in government, one of his first acts being to abolish freedom of speech and of the press. In 1900 he married the hated Draga Mashin. In 1901 he appointed a military dictatorship after a failed attempt to establish a new constitution. In 1903, with the Serbian economy in shambles, there were riots in Belgrade. A general election was held and the government falsi- fied the results. A month later, in June 1903, a group of army officers assassinated both Alexander and his wife in their palace at night.
Gavrilo Princip was the Bosnian Serb nationalist who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand to death in 1914. When he was a young man, Princip’s peasant family sent him to Sarajevo to get an education and earn money. He soon dropped out of his studies and traveled to Belgrade to enroll in secondary studies. He then volunteered to fight in the Balkan war in 1913, but he was physically weak and was discharged from the army. Back in Belgrade, he met Nedyelyko Chabrinovich, who was to become one of his fellow conspirators. When he was convicted of the assassination, Princip was too young to be sentenced to death (no one under twenty-one could be executed), so he received a twenty-year prison term. In prison he did not receive the medical care he needed, and he died in 1918.
Bishop Strossmayer was a great Croat patriot whose statue stands in Zagreb. Stossmayer fought for over fifty years for the liberation of Croatia from Austria-Hungary. As bishop and scholar, he campaigned for the preservation of the Serbo-Croatian language and for the right to use the Slav liturgy rather than the Latin. He also founded the University of Zagreb. He refused to have any part of the movement to persecute the Orthodox Church, because that would have set Croats against Serbs, and he also opposed anti-Semitism. West presents him as an entirely saintly human being. Strossmayer died in 1905 at the age of ninety.
Valletta is a friend of West and her husband. A twenty-six-year-old lecturer in mathematics at Zagreb University, he is a Croat from Dalmatia, and a Roman Catholic. Unlike Constantine, he does not believe in the ideal of Yugoslavia; he is a federalist and believes Croatia should have autonomy. West considers him gentle, kind, and charming.
Rebecca West is the author of the book, and Yugoslavia is seen for the most part through her eyes. She presents herself as endlessly curious and highly intellectual, with strong opinions and the ability and will to express them. She can more than hold her own in any company. Her abiding quest is to explore life in all its manifestations and understand the nature of it, its laws and purposes. She calls this ‘‘process,’’ and sees it as a never-ending quest. She often makes sweeping statements about life, and sometimes her pronouncements are somewhat idiosyncratic, as when she says she does not like the city of Dubrovnik because its citizens appreciate the wrong kind of art.
West is an admirer of the Serbs, particularly Serbian men, and their culture. Her descriptions of Serbian history often have a romantic glow about them (the Balkan war in 1912, for example). She takes an intense interest in politics, history, and all aspects of current affairs. She is a feminist. She is also, in the 1930s, keenly aware of the threat posed by Nazi Germany and does not share the pacifist sentiments professed by many in the intellectual classes in England. She is convinced that the preservation of civilization requires a willingness to fight.
At the personal level, West has a loving relationship with her husband, although she has a tendency to give herself the last word in any of their civilized disagreements. Sometimes, however, in dealing with others she can be haughty and difficult, as when an Austrian student consults her about a dissertation she wishes to write on West’s work.
West values the trivial things in life as much as the important ones—she can gain intense pleasure from a small item acquired as a bargain at a market or shop. She also appreciates fine food (and comments when necessary on the lack of it), and elegant fine manners. She is a lover and discerning critic of art and music, especially, so it seems, Mozart, and she believes in the transcendental value of art.
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