Analysis of André Gide’s The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters was first published in Paris in 1926, although its French author, André Gide (1869–1951), began the three-part novel in 1922. A winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in literature, Gide considered The Counterfeiters his only true novel. Its style was influenced by the 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, about whom Gide wrote the important work, Dostoyevsky through His Correspondence (1908). Gide’s Russian characters, such as the mysterious Strouvilhou, point to the strong influence of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in Gide’s work.

The Counterfeiters is an experimental novel that reflects on Gide’s engagement with the modern novel, the avantgarde literary milieu in the 1920s in Paris, and a wide range of sexual preferences. The main protagonist, Edouard, a novelist, sometimes acts as a second-person narrator. Edouard’s lack of control over the narration is evidenced by the theft, early on in the story, of his novel, also titled The Counterfeiters. Arriving in Paris, ostensibly to visit his half sister (but actually owing to his attraction to his nephew, Olivier Molinier), Edouard loses his belongings to his nephew’s schoolmate, Bernard Profitendieus. Bernard assumes narrative authority at times, as does Gide, who “reviews his characters” between the second and third parts of the book and provides insight into his writing process in the accompanying Journal of the Counterfeiters. As Gide writes in the First Notebook: “I am like a musician striving . . . to juxtapose and overlap an andante theme and an allegro theme.”

This symphony of voices and stories represents the abstract qualities of the modernist movement in art and literature (ca. 1910–30), such as surrealist dreamscapes and experimental subjectivity. In contrast to French realism and 19th-century novelists such as Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola, Gide illustrates the ways in which the modern character defies categorization or stereotyping.

Five Parisian families dominate Gide’s story: the Profitendieus, Molinier, Passavant, Vedel-Azaïs, and La Pérouse families. Part one of the novel lays the foundation for several bourgeois hypocrisies, including adultery, prostitution, and illegitimate children. Bernard Profitendieus finds a love letter to his mother that indicates his father, the lawyer Albéric Profitendieus, is not his biological parent, inspiring him to leave home. Bernard spends one night with his friend and fellow graduating senior, Olivier, incidentally the son of his father’s colleague, the judge Oscar Molinier. Though their parents are leaders in the community, they discover and cover up their middle-class children’s use of a garret to have sexual orgies and later a counterfeiting ring at their sons’ boarding school. As mentioned in news clippings included in the Journal, Gide based this subplot on a real crime ring in 1906 that used children to circulate counterfeit coins. The theme of counterfeiting is also an extended metaphor for understanding the hypocrisies of the bourgeois family.

The second part of the novel is set in Saas-Feé, Switzerland, where Bernard delays his final exam to accompany Edouard and his platonic friend, Laura Vedel-Azaïs Douviers, on a retreat. Laura is the daughter of Prosper Vedel, who runs the boarding school that is attended by males in The Counterfeiters at one time or another. Wife of a French professor in England, Laura is in Switzerland because she is pregnant by Olivier’s brother Vincent, whom she meets while recovering from ostensibly fatal tuberculosis in a sanitarium. In Saas-Feé, Bernard, Edouard, and Laura meet Boris, the illegitimate grandson of their former music teacher, La Pérouse. La Pérouse’s son died estranged from his father, and Boris’s mother moved to Russia. Boris is accompanied by his Russian psychiatrist, who intimates that Boris suffers from mental illness related to precocious sexual activity. Edouard arranges for Boris to move to Paris and board at the academy where his grandfather teaches.

Meanwhile, Olivier becomes the editor of a literary review owned by Edouard’s literary rival, Count Robert Passavant. The novel by Passavant, The Horizontal Bar, is popular, yet Gide mocks the literary pretensions of the symbolist school that surrounds Passavant. The turning point of the novel, for example, occurs during the Argonauts’ dinner. A literary avant-garde society, the Argonauts slavishly follow fads. In a related subplot, Olivier’s brother Vincent (the father of Laura’s child) becomes romantically involved with Passavant’s friend Lady Lilian Griffith, who finds her doctor friend’s scientific observations on life “better than any novel.” They disappear mysteriously in Africa, where Lilian dies in a boating accident and Vincent goes mad. Such tangents and attention to minor characters are meant to convey realism and underscore the artificiality of the novel. “In real life,” Edouard remarks, “nothing is solved; everything continues.” Gide posits that the art of fiction is forgery, whereas reality, with its messiness and untidiness, cannot be copied in a lucid manner.

The final chapters focus on suicide. Olivier is insulted at the Argonauts’ dinner and goes home with his uncle Edouard. After they make love, Olivier attempts to kill himself but is saved at the last minute. La Pérouse muses about killing himself, but Boris commits suicide with the gun his grandfather keeps in his desk. Boris dies because of a dare by his schoolmates, proving the motto of the students’ clique: “The strong man cares nothing for life.” That such nihilism is introduced by the Russian Strouvilhou and his cousin Ghéridanisol is no coincidence.

Though Bernard reconciles with his father, and Laura returns to her husband Felix, several mysteries remain unsolved by the conclusion: the identity of Bernard’s biological father, the future of Laura’s illegitimate child, the fate of the counterfeit gang, and the direction of Edouard’s novel. In fact, the final chapters of Gide’s The Counterfeiters point to a continuance of adultery and pederasty. Edouard’s sister (and Olivier’s mother) Pauline discovers that her husband is unfaithful (an act for which her son, George, attempts to blackmail his father). Edouard is invited to dinner by M. Profitendieus, who ominously hints, in the final line of the novel, at a new liaison with Bernard’s younger brother: “I feel very curious to know Caloub.”

Brée, Germaine. “Form and Content in Gide.” The French Review 30, no. 6 (May 1957): 423–428.
Brosman, Catherine Savage. An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism on André Gide. New York: Garland, 1990.
O’Brien, Justin. “Gide’s Fictional Technique.” Yale French Studies 7 (1951): 81–90.
Rossi, Vinio. André Gide: The Evolution of an Aesthetic. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: