Marguerite Yourcenar Long Fiction Analysis
Some of Marguerite Yourcenar’s novels have appeared in English, including A Coin in Nine Hands, Coup de Grâce, Memoirs of Hadrian, and The Abyss. A Coin in Nine Hands, first published in 1934 and extensively revised in 1959, takes place in Rome in 1933 and is thus unlike the other three novels in having (in its first version at least) a contemporary setting. It is also atypical in the number of its important characters. Coup de Grâce has only three major characters. Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss have large casts of secondary figures, but each is firmly centered on a singleprotagonist. A Coin in Nine Hands, in contrast, gives fairly full treatment to about a dozen characters, some of them only tenuously connected to one another. The looseness of structure that might have resulted is guarded by the concentration of the time scheme: Though the novel contains a certain amount of retrospective narrative (the past is always a concern for Yourcenar), the main action is confined to a period of about eighteen hours.
A Coin in Nine Hands
The English title of A Coin in Nine Hands refers to a unique structural feature of the novel, its tracing of the passage of a ten-lira piece from one character to another. The nine characters who handle the coin, and several others as well, are linked by a network of relationships, often casual or accidental, although none of them sees the whole pattern. The coin, though it is in itself of no great value to any of them and might seem a facile contrivance to a skeptical reader, in fact takes on considerable symbolic weight. In the afterword to the revised version of the novel, Yourcenar calls the coin “the symbol of contact between human beings each lost in his own passions and in his intrinsic solitude.” The casual or mechanical nature of many of these contacts is obvious, and the coin, belonging to anybody and finally to nobody in particular, suggests the inability of the characters to form any real bonds with others. In With Open Eyes, she offers another meaning for the coin, saying that it represents the external world, the state, all that is opposed to the intimate, secret lives of people. This meaning is also suggested by the title of the play that Yourcenar adapted from the novel, Rendre à César (pb. 1961; Render unto Caesar, 1984), an echo of Mark 12:17.
Any coin has two sides, and a symbolic coin may well be allowed several. Another meaning is suggested by the French title for the novel, Denier du rêve, literally “denarius of the dream.” The coin is associated with the characters’ dreams or illusions. The reader first sees the coin in the hand of Lina Chiari, a prostitute who received it from a man who has become a regular client since his wife deserted him. The narrator comments that although love cannot be bought, dreams can be, and adds, “The little money Paolo Farina gave Lina each week was used to create for him a welcome illusion; that is to say, perhaps the only thing in the world that does not deceive.” Lina, after learning that she must have a mastectomy, uses the coin to buy a lipstick, makes up her face, and forces a smile that gradually becomes sincere: “Party to an illusion that saved her from horror, Lina Chiari was kept from despair by a thin layer of makeup.” The storekeeper who sold her the lipstick buys votive candles to petition the Madonna for relief from his domestic problems, and the candles “maintain the fiction of a hope.” The candle vendor, learning of the sale of her childhood home in Sicily, to which she has long dreamed of returning, buys coals to light a fire to asphyxiate herself. Marcella, the seller of the coals, passes the coin to her estranged husband as payment for a gun she stole from him, with which she plans to shoot Mussolini. Her husband is in good standing with the Fascists, and she hates herself for still feeling drawn to him in spite of his politics. The gesture of paying for the gun is intended to free her from any debt to him, to purchase an...
(The entire section is 6,322 words.)