From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar

From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar

From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar

From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar


Following a resolutely textual approach, Joan E. Howard examines the neglected but central role of sacrifice in the literary oeuvre of Marguerite Yourcenar.

Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman elected to the previously all-male bastion of the Académie française. However, while some readers have regarded Yourcenar as antagonistic to modem feminism, Howard shows that Yourcenar's works are susceptible to some surprisingly feminist interpretations. "Those who would co-opt Yourcenar into the conservative camp," warns Howard, "have not read her work carefully enough." In Le mystère d'Alceste, for example, Yourcenar's Alcestis substitutes for her husband in death not out of wifely devotion, but to escape her stifling existence as wife and mother.

By combining her textual approach with various strains of poststructuralist theory, Howard argues convincingly that Yourcenar's novels, stories, and plays call for a radical destructuring both of the human subject as commonly conceived and of the social, political, economic, and religious institutions in the Western world. Howard is the first to demonstrate that the largely unexamined role of sacrifice is central both to that critique and to Yourcenar's literary oeuvre.


In attempting to write about Marguerite Yourcenar's work, one faces what can seem an almost insurmountable obstacle: her own many critical statements about what she herself has written. As Colette Gaudin has observed, prefaces, afterwords, notes, and other supplementary texts are a nearly constant adjunct to Yourcenar's creative works (32). What could one possibly say about an oeuvre that has already been so eloquently commented on by its own creator? To answer this question, I would like to relate an incident from my personal experience with Madame Yourcenar.

Back in 1982, when I discovered the importance of sacrifice in this author's work, it was my signal good fortune to succeed at arranging an interview with Madame Yourcenar at her island home in Maine. I arrived with reams of notes, prepared to convince her that I had found the key to her oeuvre. It soon became clear, however, on that late-summer day that Madame Yourcenar considered my approach to her novels and plays somewhat eccentric. Nonetheless, we struck up a friendship. As a result of that first meeting, I enjoyed several month-long stays at Petite Plaisance over the course of the summers that followed. Never once did I specifically bring up the progress of my ongoing research. One day in July of 1983, however, Madame Yourcenar looked at me and said, "Vous savez, on pourrait interpreter la mort de Marcella dans Denier du rêve comme une sorte de sacrifice"/"You know, one could interpret Marcella's death in A Coin in Nine Hands as a kind of sacrifice," which is just what I was doing at the time.

My motive in telling this story is not to invoke Madame Yourcenar's authority on behalf of my interpretation of her work -- though I certainly was pleased that, despite her initial resistance, she had continued to reflect on my ideas and eventually saw them as valid. My intention is rather to illustrate the lesson learned so well on that August afternoon in 1982: that creator and critic almost always view a work of art from two distinct perspectives, each of . . .

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