Marguerite Yourcenar Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Marguerite Yourcenar (yewr-suh-NAHR), although best known as a novelist, wrote in virtually every other literary form as well. Her first published work, Le Jardin des chimères (1921), was a poem about Icarus. It was followed by a collection of poems titled Les Dieux ne sont pas morts (1922). Of these early works she did not speak highly. Feux (1936; Fires, 1981) is a collection of prose poems about love centered on such characters as Phaedra, Achilles, Antigone, Sappho, and Mary Magdalene, but shot through with images and allusions that reflect the modern world. Les Charités d’Alcippe, et autres poèmes (1956; The Alms of Alcippe, 1982) is another verse collection.

Pindare (1932) is a study of the Greek poet, another early work with which Yourcenar later became dissatisfied. Les Songes et les sorts (1938; Dreams and Destinies, 1999) concerns the mythic aspects of dreams. The collection Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (1962; The Dark Brain of Piranesi, and Other Essays, 1984) includes essays on such diverse subjects as the engravings of Piranesi, the château of Chenonceaux, Selma Lagerlöf, and Thomas Mann. Mishima: Ou, La Vision du vide (1980; Mishima: A Vision of the Void, 1986) is a study of the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. La Mort conduit l’attelage (1934) and Nouvelles orientales (1938; Oriental Tales, 1985) are volumes of short stories. Yourcenar also wrote many plays and translated a number of works into French: the poetry of Constantine Cavafy and Hortense Flexner; a volume of African American spirituals, Fleuve profond, sombre rivière: Les Negro Spirituals (1964); and a selection of Greek poetry, La Couronne et la lyre (1979). Le Labyrinthe du monde (1990), a three-part chronicle of her forebears, comprises Souvenirs pieux (1974; Dear Departed, 1991), Archives du nord (1977; How Many Years, 1995), and Quoi? L’Éternité (1988). Les Yeux ouverts: Entretiens avec Matthieu Galey (1980; With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey, 1984) is a series of interviews in which she talks about her life, her values, and her work.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Marguerite Yourcenar’s greatest achievement is probably Memoirs of Hadrian, a novel in the form of a letter written by the emperor shortly before his death. Like nearly all of her mature works, it had a long gestation period—more than a quarter of a century, in fact. She destroyed some early versions of it, and between 1939 and 1948, she put it wholly aside. The Abyss is another novel with a long history. The original impulse goes back to the early 1920’s, and the final version is a development of material from the first story in the 1934 collection La Mort conduit l’attelage. Such perfectionism is seldom rewarded with popular success, however respectful the critics may be. Memoirs of Hadrian, however, was not only very favorably reviewed (like most of her previous works) but also widely read by a large and enthusiastic public. It won the Prix Femina-Vacaresco. Yourcenar was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and the National Order of Merit. Other honors she received included membership in the Royal Academy of Belgium, the Prix Combat (1963), the Prix Femina for The Abyss, the Grand Prix National des Lettres (1974), and the Grand Prix de la Littérature de l’Académie Française (1977). In 1980, international attention was focused on Yourcenar and her work when she was elected to the Académie Française, becoming the first woman member in that institution’s history.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Marguerite Yourcenar was educated both at home and in school. What evidence suggests that the homeschooling was more important?

Does Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian intimate the decline of Western influence in the modern world?

What were the main impediments for truth-seekers in Yourcenar’s The Abyss?

In “An Obscure Man” the protagonist learns that life is guided by accident. Can such a discovery be fulfilling or reconciliatory?

Yourcenar lived more than half her life in the United States. What traces of American influence can be found in her writings?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Farrell, C. Frederick, and Edith R. Farrell. Marguerite Yourcenar in Counterpoint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. An introductory study of Yourcenar’s novels and essays, with a biographical note, chronology, and bibliography.

Frederick, Patricia E. Mythic Symbolism and Cultural Anthropology in Three Early Works of Marguerite Yourcenar: “Nouvelles orientales,” “Le Coup de grâce,” “Comme l’eau qui Coule.” Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995. Concentrates mainly on Yourcenar’s short fiction, but the introduction and conclusion contain valuable insights into all of her writing. Includes notes and bibliography.

Horn, Pierre. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne, 1985. A reliable introductory study, with a biographical chapter, two chapters on Memoirs of Hadrian, a chapter on autobiographical works, and another on writing in other genres. Includes chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.

Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. Contains chapters on all the major fictional works, with notes and bibliography.

Savignau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Translated by John E. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. A reliable and well annotated biography which also examines the significance of her contributions to literature. Includes family tree, notes, and bibliography.

Shurr, Georgia Hooks. Marguerite Yourcenar: A Reader’s Guide. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987. Two chapters on Yourcenar’s experimental fiction, her fictional studies of politics, a chapter on Memoirs of Hadrian, and a chapter on women in Yourcenar’s fiction. Includes a chronology, notes, a bibliography of books and articles about Yourcenar, and a bibliography of Yourcenar’s works in English translation.