Form and Content
A Coin in Nine Hands is a highly structured narrative based on nine apparently separate stories loosely connected by the passage of a ten lire coin from the protagonist of one tale to the next. On closer examination, it becomes clear that Marguerite Yourcenar has set up these stories quite symmetrically. The first and last stories are the shortest; both focus on insignificant men who are easily self-deluded. The second and eighth stories are slightly longer; both focus on characters who are dying and who concern themselves with the meaning of artifice and illusion. The third and seventh stories introduce two good citizens—the cosmetics merchant and the flower seller—who are both loyal to the law-and-order party and spend much of their time thinking and worrying about money. The fourth and sixth stories contrast the two daughters of Don Ruggiero, one a narcissist, the other a martyr. The fifth offers the central action of the novel: Carlo Stevo’s death and Marcella’s failed attempt to assassinate the Dictator (Benito Mussolini). These three middle chapters are by far the longest and most complex.
Each of the nine chapters can be read as a self-contained portrait of its central character. There are also a variety of connections which link the characters to one another. For example, the wife who has run away from Paolo Farina, the protagonist of chapter 1, turns out to be the same Angiola featured in chapter 6 who is the sister of Rosalia of chapter 4. Lina Chiari of chapter 2 refers to her lover, Massimo, and her doctor, Alessandro Sarte, both of whom appear prominently in chapter 5, then again later. Vanna, the daughter of the cosmetics merchant in chapter 3, is married to Carlo Stevo. Oreste, the drunken dreamer of chapter 9, is married to Attilia, the flower seller’s daughter. As for the coin itself, Paolo uses it to pay Lina, the prostitute whom he contacts to compensate for his lost Angiola. She gives it to the cosmetics merchant to buy a lipstick. He then buys a candle in church from Angiola’s sister, Rosalia, who uses it to buy embers from Marcella to heat her small apartment. Marcella gives the coin to her husband, Dr. Sarte, to pay for the gun that she has already taken from him. He uses it to buy the flowers that he hopes to give to her later that evening. The flower seller then mistakes the painter Clement Roux for a beggar and gives the coin to him out of guilt at having been tagged a miser by her priest that morning. Roux throws it in a Roman fountain, where it is collected by Oreste, a worker for the water department, who will use it to drink himself into oblivion while his wife suffers at home giving birth to their fourth child.
A Coin in Nine Hands was originally written in 1934, then extensively revised by Yourcenar during the years 1958-1959. The basic story line, characters, and relationships are essentially the same in both versions. It is the political theme in particular, and therefore the critical central chapters, that Yourcenar reinforced and further developed. The book as first published in 1934 can be seen as quite prophetic about the dangers of fascism. Marcella’s seemingly isolated and futile protest cannot help but be understood differently in the post-World War II revision.
Yourcenar joins the ranks of powerful women who have broken new grounded with her election as the first woman member of the 350-year-old French Academy. Though she did not consider herself a feminist per se, she was an ardent supporter of both the free choice and the environmentalist movements of her time, and her life itself serves as an extraordinary example of female independence and assertiveness. Moreover, in her inaugural speech to the academy she graciously acknowledged the literary contributions of “the invisible troop of women,” including Madame Marie de Sévigné, Madame de Staël, George Sand, and Colette, “who should, perhaps, have received this honor much earlier.
There are few female protagonists in...
(The entire section is 1,384 words.)