(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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.

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.

Such incidents become the norm during the winter...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)