Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marguerite Yourcenar presents the novel Memoirs of Hadrian as an extended letter written by the dying emperor to his adopted grandson Marc. The reader is assumed to be knowledgeable about Hadrian and his empire as well as about the general outlines of the later life of Marcus Aurelius, unknown to Hadrian. The novel is a first-person narrative, its tone is warmly intimate, and it presents an enormous amount of historical detail as realistic, individual, personal material.

Exiled from Europe by World War II, Yourcenar wrote her novel in the United States in the years immediately following the liberation of France. She was independently educated and saw herself as a humanist writing in a tradition that began in antiquity, and thus as an intellectual descendent of Hadrian. An eccentric thinker isolated from the French literary establishment, she produced an intellectual best-seller that dazzled critics with its lapidary style. The work established Yourcenar as a force in world literature and paved the way for her election in 1984 as the first female member of the prestigious Académie Française.

The general temporal outline of the novel is to be found in any standard encyclopedia article about Hadrian. Yourcenar’s attention to historical detail is evident throughout the novel; an epilogue specifies which personages and events are fully documented and which she has added speculatively or simply to advance her plot. Nevertheless, Memoirs of Hadrian is not a standard historical novel. The true flesh of the novel is the musing self-analysis of the narrator, who reveals the most intimate emotions of his private life, his political theories and personal bereavements.

Yourcenar’s narrative is arranged in short blocks clustered under Latin headings, beginning with the first line of a poem addressed by Hadrian to his soul and continuing with phrases that served as mottoes for coins or watchwords for action during Hadrian’s life. The smaller subdivisions fall in chronological order and explore both historical events and personal thematics evoked for the narrator by specific events. Several continuing subjects...

(The entire section is 882 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Tibur (Tivoli)

*Tibur (Tivoli). As Hadrian waits for death at his villa in central Italy, places haunt his thoughts. He sees his life “like dismantled rooms of a palace too vast for an impoverished owner to occupy in its entirety.” He thinks about the places that brought him joy—the Spanish forests where hunting acquainted him with suffering and death, and the Mauretanian savannas in northwest Africa where he killed lions. But he also thinks of places that caused him pain—Rome whose public debaucheries sickened him, whose delight was in moderation.


Italica. Obscure town in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, where Hadrian was born. Despite his Spanish origins, Hadrian felt that his true homeland was schools and books. Educated in Spain and, after the death of his father, in Rome, he returned to his homeland where, with the Seventh Legion in a wild region of the Pyrenees, he learned, through hunting and rough living, to judge the courage of men.


*Athens. Intellectual center of ancient Greece. Having mastered Greek in Rome, Hadrian continued his education in Athens, which seemed to him “slumbering in a haze of ideas” compared to Rome, where the world’s business was being done and undone. Athens, with its rich intellectual history, appealed to Hadrian’s scholarly side, but his appetite for power drew him back to Rome, where decisions could determine the fate of the world.

Roman Empire

Roman Empire. Before and during Trajan’s reign, Hadrian held a succession of administrative and military appointments that prepared him to become emperor. By participating in Rome’s battles with the Germanic tribes, he learned to love this northern region, which contrasted so sharply with the dry and sunny Mediterranean lands he had previously known. Though a kind of umbilical cord attached him...

(The entire section is 787 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marguerite Yourcenar never considered herself a feminist per se, but rather a humanist, directly descended from the great thinkers of antiquity. The Memoirs of Hadrian was not intended to advance specifically feminist issues; it is concerned with the gender-neutral enlargement of human understanding. Thus, although Hadrian considers the place of women in Roman society, he does so only in the context of a search for a larger understanding of humanity, independent of male/female cultural and sexual roles. It is the gender-neutral Plotina who has the strongest female role in the book. Contemporary French criticism, in fact, praised the “virile” style of the novel and marveled at the author’s skill in creating her male protagonist in the first person.

The impact of this work on women’s literature rests on its importance in establishing Yourcenar as a major literary figure, independent of her gender. Memoirs of Hadrian won the Prix Femina Varesco in June of 1952, one of the most prestigious French literary prizes, awarded by a jury of women, but not restricted to female authors. Her later work L’uvre au noir (1968; The Abyss, 1976), also with a male protagonist and which also qualified as “virile” in style, won for Yourcenar the Prix Femina in 1968.

A long-term resident and naturalized citizen of the United States, Yourcenar was isolated from Parisian literary politics and was not in close contact with contemporary French feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir. Although she declined to campaign for election to the Académie Française, she was so actively supported by other members who were willing to campaign for her that the technical difficulties of her foreign residence and nonretention of French citizenship were dealt with. In 1980, at the age of seventy-seven, she was elected as the first female member of the three-hundred-and-fifty-year-old institution, making her a worldwide celebrity. Without the enormous literary success of Memoirs of Hadrian, this would never have been possible.

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Whether history as literature or historical fiction, Memoirs of Hadrian is founded in the literary tradition of integrating the...

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Often cited in conjunction with Memoirs of Hadrian as a notable literary achievement, Yourcenar's most widely read and translated work...

(The entire section is 194 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Farrell, C. Frederick, Jr., and Edith R. Farrell. Marguerite Yourcenar in Counterpoint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. This collection of essays, written between 1978 and 1982, studies a variety of Yourcenar’s works, beginning with her very earliest publications. There is a substantial essay on Memoirs of Hadrian, concentrating on the image of Hadrian as a “good prince” and the significance of the novel in postwar Europe. Another essay is dedicated to the role of women in Yourcenar’s work, acknowledging that they are rarely central characters but defending their influence and depiction. Women are shown as being closer than men to...

(The entire section is 509 words.)