Themes and Meanings

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The most important theme of A Coin in Nine Hands is the need for illusion in life. Without such illusions, most of the characters in the book would be unable to exist. The only two who live in reality, Dr. Sarte and Massimo, seem to be miserable. Clearly, the demand for supporting illusions is related to the political situation of 1933. Fascism seems to be an illusion in itself but not one that comforts the people; instead, it drives them deeper into other substitutes for life. Thus Mussolini is at the heart of the novel, even though his name is never mentioned and he is referred to only as “Caesar.”

A related theme is the lack of love or even connection between man and woman. All the married couples are separated except for Giulio and his shrew of a wife. Potential relationships, such as those between Marcella and Massimo or Dr. Sarte and Angiola, are incomplete or distorted. One of the ideals of this Fascist state was family, but it seems to produce the opposite effect. Everyone, from the highest ranks—Dr. Sarte—to the lowest—Oreste—is alone. Yourcenar says that of one of the main purposes of the book is “to confront the hollow reality behind the bloated facade of Fascism,” and it is nowhere more apparent than in these broken relationships.

Social Concerns / Themes

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As stated in the afterword to the revised edition of A Coin in Nine Hands, the novel was clearly political in design and considered by the author as one of the first French novels "to confront the hollow reality behind the bloated facade of Fascism." Undoubtedly, Yourcenar is attempting to investigate and expose the imperceptible evil she envisions as permeating the quality of life within pre-World War II Italy, simultaneously incorporating the delusion of idealism and the mastery of deception. Interestingly, the contemporary setting of A Coin in Nine Hands, Rome in 1933, is atypical of Yourcenar, and clearly the novel occupies a relatively distinct position within her body of work. Thematically, however, Yourcenar traverses a familiar literary landscape: the eternal mystery of human destiny, the restoration of self by means of illusion, and the psychological contrast of physical and spiritual death.

In the novel, the coin of the title seemingly by chance passes through the hands of the primary characters, serving as a linking device to tenuously connect the pattern and internal conflict of their lives. The coin itself is at once insignificant in monetary value yet of ultimate importance in relation to the sequence of events and artistic sensibility. Representing "the symbol of contact between human beings each lost in his own passions and in his intrinsic solitude," the coin essentially becomes a means of character identification as well as thematic definition.

Of utmost importance, the concept pervading the novel with structured precision is the ever-present proximity of death, and Yourcenar masterfully enables the reader to distinguish among the characters the systematic avoidance, fear, prolongation, or acceptance of the inevitable. Interestingly, as one pair of "hands" uses the coin to mask the symptom, another buys a moment of pleasure, while still another embraces the comfort of impending demise. At the center of the novel, however, is death by violence, and the aborted assassination attempt on Mussolini is crucial to advancing the moral sentiment of Yourcenar's political ideology.

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