Characters Discussed

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Marcella Ardeati Sarte

Marcella Ardeati Sarte (mahr-CHEHL-lah ahr-DEHAH-tee SAHR-teh), Dr. Alessandro Sarte’s wife. She is separated from him and living with Massimo Iacofleff. She declares herself as realizing her vocation in her revolt against authority, law, and justice, as established by rulers such as Julius Caesar and Benito Mussolini. Marcella’s true vocation is to feel allied to all those who are humiliated, oppressed, and committed to rebellion. She is demoniacally bound to her mission of assassinating Mussolini. Her harshness is in response to that dictator’s authoritarian willfulness. Destruction fascinates Marcella, and Dr. Alessandro Sarte repeatedly sees her as a medusa or a vampire.

Dr. Alessandro Sarte

Dr. Alessandro Sarte, a famous surgeon and the husband of Marcella. He has failed in both of his functions, however, as he cannot heal Lina Chiari’s breast cancer and he cannot understand his wife. The doctor hides behind the mask of social success and exploits his patients financially. He seems to be cold, hard, bitter, and distressed. He likes hunting for deer with royalty and driving beautiful sports cars to attract women. For him, all women are interchangeable. Dr. Sarte, who sees the film Sir Julius while sitting next to Angiola, makes love to her but despises her.

Ruggiero di Credo

Ruggiero di Credo (rew-gee-EHR-oh dee KRAY-doh), the former Italian consul to Biscra. He married a vulgar Jewish Algerian woman, and they have two children, Rosalia and Angiola. His baroque domain of Gemera, in Sicily, which he inherited, is decaying. Faithful to the Bourbons, he disdained the dynasty of the Savoys; living in Sicily, he had no interest in the fall of papal Rome to the north. His hats resemble either halos or helmets. When he joins the army for four years, his wife betrays him. The splendor of Gemera remains but a dream for him and his family, and after it is destroyed, they leave for Rome, in the hope of exploiting his aristocratic ancestors and relatives. Life has stolen his dreams, but it is Ruggiero’s constant misinterpretation of reality that leads to his isolation in an asylum, then death.

Rosalia di Credo

Rosalia di Credo, the uneducated daughter of Ruggiero di Credo who becomes a votive candle vendor in Rome. Rosalia remains devoted to the dream of her past, to Gemera, and to both her father and her sister, Angiola. Her own wishes are seldom granted, and her solitary destiny without love and happiness is her immediate reality. Rosalia and Angiola propose two opposed ways of understanding life. While Rosalia takes care of her father until she has to put him into an asylum, she continues to weep for all the sorrows of love, and she suffers for both her father and her sister. Her life is sustained by the hope that her sister will return to her, when, in fact, Angiola will destroy herself in many love affairs.


Angiola (ahn-gee-OH-lah), Rosalia’s sister. Although educated in a fashionable school run by aristocratic nuns in Florence, Angiola takes lovers and marries men from all classes, from tailor to maharaja. She is unfaithful to all of them—even to her husband Paolo Farina, who pays the mortgage for Gemera until she leaves him.

Paolo Farina

Paolo Farina (pa-OH-loh fah-REE-nah), a young lawyer. He is married to Angiola, but she leaves him for another lover. Paolo then immediately hopes to possess Lina Chiari.

Lina Chiari

Lina Chiari (LEEN-ah kee-AH -ree), a prostitute. She soon realizes that true love cannot be bought. When Lina discovers that she has breast...

(This entire section contains 1101 words.)

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cancer, her future seems to be stripped of all hope. Her lipstick and artificial smile cover her despair.

Old Giulio Lovisi

Old Giulio Lovisi (jee-EW-lee-oh loh-VEE-see), the owner of a cosmetics store and a villa in Ostia. He is married to Giuseppa, and their daughter, Giovanna, is married to the writer Carlo Stevo, a socialist whom Giulio would like to “own.” Carlo disappears while in jail for crimes against the state. Giulio often lights votive candles and says his prayers in an incoherent and automatic way. He remains enslaved to money worries and family problems, and he realizes the irreversible decline of his feelings for his wife, whose corpulence, sour disposition, and many shortcomings can only worsen. When a wish is granted to Giulio, his agony of hoping is perpetuated.

Carlo Stevo

Carlo Stevo (STEH-voh), the husband of Giovanna. He is a writer and inspires Marcella’s assassination attempt. Carlo dies in jail.

Giovanna Lovisi-Stevo

Giovanna Lovisi-Stevo, Carlo’s wife and Giulio’s daughter. She takes care of their crippled child in the hope of seeing her husband again. The angelic and golden world of the church is the antithesis of Giovanna’s life. Giovanna is embittered, solitary, and prone to temptations while waiting in vain for the return of her husband.

Miss Jones

Miss Jones, Giulio’s salesgirl. When fired from her job because of Giuseppa’s jealousy, she says her prayers in the hope of returning to England and regrets her madness in having come to Italy, where none of her dreams has come true. Small miseries make up the lives of Giulio and Miss Jones. Their prayers sustain their hopes, which are the only things that give meaning to their lives.

Old Mother Dida of Ponte Porzio

Old Mother Dida of Ponte Porzio, the wife of Fruttuoso. She has faced a ruthless fate in her husband, a good-for-nothing man who had given her many children and poverty, and she is now filling her life with routine and habit. Selling flowers near the film theater and the Conti Palace, she has outlived her husband, a king, and three popes. Indifferent to politics and religion, she loves Father Cicca and his organist without any religious faith. Despite her stinginess, she offers the ten-lira coin received from Dr. Sarte to the exhausted Clément Roux.

Clément Roux

Clément Roux (klay-MAHN rew), a French artist about seventy years old. He has no interest in the modern architectural and political world of Rome. He meets with Massimo Iacofleff, but their ensuing conversation is completely at cross purposes, as neither listens to the other.

Massimo Iacofleff

Massimo Iacofleff (mahs-SEE-moh ee-AH-koh-flehf), a double agent. He is introduced as a lover of Lina Chiari. He tells Clément about his complicity with Marcella, when they traded in false passports in Vienna, and how he is now worried that Marcella might have despised him when she died alone during her failed assassination attempt. He is one of the two main witnesses to the assassination attempt. He expresses admiration for Marcella’s heroism and Carlo’s commitment.

The Characters

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There is no one central character in A Coin in Nine Hands; instead, several characters have a tenuous relationship with one another and share a com-mon need for illusion or obliteration. No one strives for meaningful action or consciousness; they simply act out predetermined roles or wear appropriate masks. Yourcenar’s other novels are very different, especially Memoires d’Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian, 1954). One critic makes the differences clear: “In that early work, Yourcenar made modern characters of mythical ones. Here [A Coin in Nine Hands], she has reversed the process. Marcella, the assassin, is seen not as a modern woman, but as a doomed spirit of revenge.” Yourcenar has also described her characterization as mythic; she suggests that “Massimo is of course Thanatos, the angel of death [and] Marinuzzi is Dionysus.”

Two other characters deserve mention. Dr. Sarte is, in contrast to most of the others, objective and aloof. He is not the victim of illusion but sees the world as it is. He is, moreover, an opportunist who is using Fascism rather than being used by it. Nevertheless, he wants and needs to reestablish his relationship with Marcella, since without it, his life is empty. Another disinterested character is Massimo. He is the product of the modern world, not of Marcella’s mythic one. He has been initiated by “hunger, war, escape, being arrested at the border.” His only value is survival in a meaningless world.


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Representing a fictional cross section of society in fascist Italy at the time of the novel, characterization in A Coin in Nine Hands is developed as an ensemble which is in sharp contrast to the single, dominating protagonist generally projected in Yourcenar's historical fiction. In essence, the various characters, male and female, constitute a collective statement concerning the social and political atmosphere created by the author. Each character who handles the coin uses it as retribution to purchase an illusion, attempting either to alleviate guilt or dispel the silence of despondency. From prostitute to shopkeeper to candle vendor, the coin moves in cyclical rotation as the action of the novel unfolds to reveal the universal pathos of existence.

Referred to by Yourcenar as "tragicomic," the characters in A Coin in Nine Hands are drawn with minimal detail and biographical information. Interestingly, the most developed as well as intricate characters of this novel are women, unlike Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) and The Abyss (1968) where male figures emerge with intensity. As an author, Yourcenar is clearly manipulating characterization to achieve her creative purpose. This is further illustrated by Yourcenar's ability to intertwine the lives of her secondary characters into the structural development of the novel as a means both to engage the interest of the reader and to enhance her thematic concerns. Most successful in realizing this capacity is the character of the dissident writer Carlo Stevo. Similar to her utilization of the coin as an object of connection, Yourcenar allows Stevo to indirectly impact on events as well as influence character motivation without his physical appearance in the novel. Consequently, the news of Stevo's death at the hands of his political captors serves to reinforce the element of futility that surfaces to signify the essence of the novel.




Critical Essays