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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056

Marguerite Yourcenar wrote Coup de Grace in the style of a classical French recit, a first-person narrative severely limited in time, place, and action. Erick von Lhomond, an elegant soldier of fortune approaching forty as the story begins, recalls an episode connected with his youth. Though the story begins at the Pisa, Italy, railroad station as Erick is waiting to return to Germany after having been wounded at Zaragoza (presumably in the Spanish Civil War), the entire focus of his tale remains on his experience in the Baltic regions of Livonia and Kurland as the Bolshevik army approaches Kratovitsy, the estate of his cousin and boyhood friend, Conrad de Reval. Erick briefly recounts his first visit to Kratovitsy. He is innocent in every sense of the word, little more than a boy, and the place seems an Edenic paradise. He and Conrad become strong friends. Sophie, who evidently cares for Erick even at this point, remains merely an unobtrusive distraction for him.

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In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Erick returns to Kratovitsy as a Prussian-trained officer fighting in the White Russian army and determined to stop the advance of Bolshevik forces in the Baltic states. He serves with his boyhood friend Conrad and eventually arranges to be billeted at Kratovitsy. He discovers that war has brought a general neglect to the once excellently managed estate. He notices changes in his feelings for Sophie as well; her kiss makes him determined to view her as the sister he never had. It was general knowledge among those living in the house that Sophie had been raped by a drunken Lithuanian sergeant. Her brother Conrad never learns of the incident, but the fact that she has been “sullied” makes Erick feel a new affinity for her.

Erick does not love Sophie; rather, he views her as he sees himself, as a creature degraded by circumstances. Sophie does not understand the complex workings of Erick’s mind, and he never is willing, perhaps is not even able, to describe his feelings for her. She is puzzled and embarrassed when Erick does not respond to her advances; even so, she realizes that he never rejects her, merely that he does not respond. She cannot understand why Erick misses no opportunity to belittle her and is puzzled by the oblique ways he chooses to do this, registering his disgust when she wears clothing he does not think appropriate, when she dances with officers stationed at Kratovitsy, when she drinks more than he considers proper, or does not pay sufficient attention to her appearance.

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Such incidents become the norm during the winter lull between battles. Erick grows careless of Sophie’s safety, sending her on dangerous but nonessential errands to the front. Sophie, for her part, becomes unconcerned about her own safety and that of the others residing at Kratovitsy. For example, she intentionally stands on a lighted balcony as the estate comes under aerial attack. She is shaken but feels no remorse when a bomb falls on the stables, causing the horses a painful death. When her dog Texas is killed by one of the soldiers, she retreats into drink but shows no outward sorrow. In short, she comes to accept the brutality and wickedness around her as the norm and becomes indifferent to the possibilities of life or death.

Erick, not Conrad, witnesses Sophie’s sudden departure from Kratovitsy, alone and on foot. Erick hypothesizes to himself about what, if any, progress she is likely to make in winter weather, but the thought of her death does not especially bother him. He does not, predictably, tell Conrad that she has left. Routine search parties fail to discover any definite information about her whereabouts or, indeed, whether she managed to survive.

On patrol and under threat of the advancing Bolshevik army, Erick seizes the pretext of levying supplies to set out for Lilienkron, home of Gregory Loew, a Jewish bookstore clerk who had in past years been a friend of Sophie. Loew, an intellectual and, by this time, long gone from his home to fight with the Bolsheviks, had had long, pleasant discussions with Sophie about books in the years before and just after the start of the war. Erick, bitterly amused at the prospect, had always suspected that Loew loved Sophie. He realized that Sophie might have been attracted to Loew as well, though he characteristically had never even mentioned his feelings to Sophie.

When Erick recognizes Loew’s mother wearing Sophie’s coat, the one she had worn when she left Kratovitsy, he ruthlessly interrogates the old woman and searches the Loew home. He eventually learns that Sophie had indeed come to Mother Loew’s home and had borrowed some of Loew’s clothes in order to dress like a man.

Inevitably, the cause of the White army deteriorates under pressure from the Bolsheviks. Conrad dies a painful death, and Erick comes by chance upon the body of Loew. Shortly thereafter, he discovers Sophie, who had been hiding with several exhausted Bolshevik soldiers in the hayloft of a barn. No prisoners can be taken because of the hard-pressed circumstances of the White army, and a tall, blond soldier who had been Sophie’s companion and protector is killed immediately. Erick knows that he can intervene to save Sophie’s life. Yet, having told her of the deaths of Conrad and Loew, he orders the execution of all prisoners. He orders Michael, the former butcher at Kratovitsy, to do this, and one by one the prisoners are shot. Sophie is last, but just as Michael is about to pull the trigger she requests that Erick kill her. With the thought that he wishes finally to put an end to Conrad, Erick, turning his head away “like a frightened child setting off a torpedo on Christmas Eve,” destroys Sophie’s face with his first shot but does not kill her. It requires a second shot to end her life. Erick first believes that Sophie had intended this act as a final indication of her love. He interprets it ultimately, however, as her wish to take revenge and cause him to feel remorse. Though he admits that he occasionally does feel remorse, his more overwhelming feeling is that he has been trapped, as, he believes, one always is in dealings with women.

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