Category Archives: Marguerite Yourcenar

25th Discussion: Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (20 Oct)

We all found the book dry although Aaron claimed that the day after he read the book, it hit him and he had an unexplainable fondness for it.

Roy provided us with some historical background: The Greeks were comfortable with pederastic behavior while Romans despised it and bottoms were especially looked down upon. Antinous, Hadrian’s lover,  was a slave from Turkey, and being a slave made it ok for Hadrian to fuck him – it appears that power play was more important than sex play. The apotheosis of Antinous’s death by Hadrian was meant to bridge the conflict between Romans and Greeks.

1. Characters:

a. Antinous: Roy asked how Antinous dies in the novel, as the death was ambiguous historically. Aaron misread the book, thinking that Antinous is jealous of Lucius. Timmy explicated the matter: Antinous sacrifices his life for Hadrian as an oracle has predicted Hadrian’s early demise if there isn’t a sacrifice.

(It is perhaps significant that not one, but two people commit suicide for for Hadrian. When Hadrian is utterly depressed with Antinous’ passing and wants death, a young doctor promises him a poison but goes back to the apothecary to consume the poison himself so that he doesn’t need to return to Hadrian. What significance is the theme of suicide? We didn’t discuss.)

b. Hadrian: Alex and Aaron argued that Antinous’ death could be avoided if Hadrian could give himself freely and completely to Antinous. Hadrian is trapped by conventions and customs–or is just emotionally scarred–and has to divide his attention between Antinous whom he truly loves and Lucius whom he sees as a frivolous, decadent youth.

Alex liked Hadrian because he was wilderness-fit, as opposed to gym-fit.

c. Lucius: Timmy said that if Lucius were alive today, he’d be a materialistic metrosexual. Aaron claimed that obviously Yourcenar is fictionalizing history to a certain extent because it seems that Lucius is punished for his ambition to be Emperor: once Lucius starts to work seriously, his illness begins and culminates in his death.

d. Characterization:  Overall, we as a group felt that the characters don’t have much psychological depth.

2. Themes:

a. Homosexuality: Roy and Timmy noted that Hadrian’s emotions are not one bit invested in his wife and it is a marriage of convenience. In many ways, homosexuality is portrayed positively.

b. Gender: Roy told us that historically, Hadrian’s wife slept around but this fact isn’t mentioned in the book. The reason why is tied to the character of Plotina. As Timmy, the champion and supporter of strong women, noted, Plotina is all-knowing and wise and she is the one who plots to get Hadrian to the throne. Hence, Yourcenar’s portrayal of Hadrian’s chaste wife and Plotina as a strong woman bring her gender-equality point across.

c. Religion: Roy related Hadrian’s war on the Jews because he doesn’t like circumcision of boys, a brutal act according to Hadrian. Aaron said that what Hadrian dislikes is the notion of a monotheistic religion which doesn’t allow the existence of other religions. Hadrian believes in diversity, even in religions.

Other themes include family, love, and war, we didn’t discuss in detail but we thought Yourcenar’s technique of “Tell, not Show,” as opposed to the usual literary technique “Show, not Tell,” means that these themes are self-explanatory and can be found directly in passages of the novel.

Style: Besides the “Tell, not Show” technique, Timmy and Alex noted that the scenes which could have been dramatic were toned down and glossed over.

Why choose the form of a memoir when a different form could have been more sensational and exciting? Alex said that it was just Yourcenar’s way of showing off: “Look how erudite I am.” Aaron, on the other hand, claimed that Yourcenar is very intelligent to pick a form to show her strengths–the research and the beauty of her lines–and cover her flaws (lousy characterization and, in turn, inability to capture a person’s voice, ie, dialogue). Roy, however, had a more favorable explanation: the fictionalized memoir was and still is (to a certain extent) an experimental, innovative and original genre.

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