Despite André Gide’s claims otherwise, his novel The Immoralist is clearly autobiographical. Gide (1869–1951), one of the most significant novelists of the first half of the 20th century and winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in literature, went to great lengths to differentiate events in the main character’s life from events in his own. Yet the resemblance is apparent and uncanny. For example, Michel, the protagonist in The Immoralist, wrestles with his own sexual identity, as did Gide, both seeing in their homosexual desires an ideal existence that contrasted with their lived realities. Additionally, the name Gide chose for Michel’s wife, Marceline, closely resembles Gide’s wife’s name, Madeleine. These parallels are significant. When the novel, which Gide referred to as a récit (account or narrative), was published, many critics recognized the close resemblance between Michel and Gide. Notably, Gide himself insisted that The Immoralist, Strait Is the Gate (1909), and Lafcadio’s Adventures (1914) together formed a set, each exploring a similar theme of morality.
Doubly removed from the time that the events take place in the novel, a friend of Michel’s relays the story via a letter to his brother. Thus, the novel’s narrator is unreliable, an authorial presence that, in its distance from the actual happenings, causes the reader to doubt the story’s authenticity. Rather than provide a moral guide or authoritative narrative voice, Gide presents questions to which the narrative does not provide answers. In doing so, the author creates a text contingent upon the reader to complete its formation.
The Immoralist is a psychological novel, one dealing with repressed desires and the deep rift that exists between the central character’s interior world and the moral demands of the exterior world. The story focuses on Michel, who gathers his friends so he may share his story. Michel tells of his harsh, Protestant mother and disciplined, academic father (more Gide correspondences), both of whom contribute to his puritanical disposition. Yet despite these foundational early childhood experiences, Michel seeks to explain a change that has taken place, a self-transformation that he finds troubling but that affords a resolution to his distress: the conflicted existence of a homosexual man who, after having led a hypocritical existence, wishes to leave the moral confines of his life and enter an “immoral” world where he can follow his passions, his instincts, and his ardent will. Michel’s inner struggle is mirrored in his physical maladies, and his cross-continental travels provide him with sensual experience necessary for his psychological awakening.
Even though Michel does not love her, he marries his 20-year-old cousin Marceline (he is 24) after his father dies. The marriage fulfills his father’s deathbed wish, but Michel remains divided in his ability to make a complete commitment, and the marriage is not consummated for several years. After marrying in Paris, Michel and Marceline travel to North Africa, where Michel at once confronts new sensations, sensual feelings he has not known before. Unfortunately, he is also stricken with tuberculosis at the same time, an outward, visible sign of his inner, invisible conflict. While recovering, he is inspired by a young, attractive Arab boy; Michel then vows to live. After Michel convalesces, he and Marceline travel to Italy, where he sunbathes in the nude and shaves off his beard, signs of his recovery and transformation. His metamorphosis removes layers of constraints. Michel describes what is left: the original being, a manuscript hidden underneath all the layers of fiction. Before leaving, Michel and Marceline consummate their marriage for the first and only time.
The second part of the novel begins in Normandy, where the two live on their farm, La Moliniére. There Michel prepares for his Paris teaching duties and spends considerable time with the 17-year-old son of the farm’s caretaker, another one of the many homoerotic relationships that sustain him. When Michel returns to Paris, however, he resents the “false” life he leads. He works these feelings into lectures on Roman civilization. After one of these lectures, he stays up all night with his friend Ménalque, who embodies what Michel wants to be: a free, independent spirit who can travel on his own and experience the sensual world. Ménalque rebels against the forces and institutions that have formed him: Christianity, middle-class society, Parisian culture. He is a Nietzschean man, one who personifies the “immoralist” ideal Michel develops. Upon returning to his Paris apartment, Michel finds that Marceline has contracted tuberculosis. He takes her to the farm to recover, but he soon becomes restless and insists that they sell the farm.
The third and final part of the novel opens with Marceline struggling to recover from her illness. The two set out for an air cure in the Swiss mountains, although Michel soon insists that they follow the route of his own convalescence, a journey that takes them through Italy and back to Africa. As Michel again regains his passion for life, Marceline’s health worsens, and she dies. Left alone, Michel struggles to find the will to live and pleads for his friends to come and listen to his story.
The Immoralist ends ambiguously. Michel remains at a terminal point, a watershed where he must decide whether to follow his own path or the path defined by society. This moral struggle not only encompasses the dominant concerns of the novel but also becomes the central concern for the rest of Gide’s works. Michel is weak at the novel’s close, a seemingly failed Nietzschean superman who faces an existential dilemma.
By ending the narrative with an open-ended question, Gide created a modernist work of art posing many of the same questions about human existence that Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus raised in the middle of the 20th century. In this way, The Immoralist is not only representative of its age but also foreshadows philosophic thought to come.
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