Analysis of André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures

The prodigious French Nobel laureate André Gide (1869–1951) originally published Lafcadio’s Adventures in La Nouvelle Revue Française in four installments, from January through April 1914; it appeared as a book later the same year. In 1933 Gide adapted it for the stage, and it was eventually performed at the Comédie-Française in 1950. In English, the book has appeared under three titles: The Catacombs of the Vatican, The Vatican Cellars, and Lafcadio’s Adventures, with the last being the preferred. The story was the product of many years of work, with the first reference to it in Gide’s Journal dating from 1905. When it appeared, it was suggested that Gide had plagiarized an earlier, historical work by Jean de Pauly, The False Pope, published in 1895. Both works deal with a hoax—which actually occurred in the early 1890s—involving the collection of a ransom to rescue the pope kidnapped (allegedly) by Masonic elements within the Catholic Church. Although such a plot does form a backdrop to the action of Gide’s story, he writes in his Journal in 1909 that “the story of Lafcadio” illustrates the claim “that there is no essential difference between the honest man and the knave.”

Gide insistently referred to Lafcadio’s Adventures as a sotie, a sort of parody popular in France during the Renaissance, a popular theme of which was to depict the world as governed by fools. According to Emile Picot’s study Sotie en France (1878), the sotie was often staged as the first piece in a comedic trilogy: The sotie led into a farce and was concluded with a morality play. Gide’s sotie manages to preserve the ridiculous, madcap character of its predecessors but introduces an axis for the action through persistent concern for the possibility and consequences of a crime without motive—a concern that effectively combines parody, farce, and morality play into a single work stitched together by the work of chance. Composed of five books, temporally sequential but involving a number of characters whose actions interweave in a dizzying variety of combinations, Lafcadio’s Adventures relentlessly explores the consequences of fortuitous decisions, deliberately eschewing any sort of psychological realism.

The first three books of the novel set out the characters and their conditions before their respective motions combine, in the final two books, to yield the action of the story proper. The first book focuses on a highly ranked Masonic scientist, Anthime ArmandDubois, and his wife Veronica, who have recently moved to Rome in order to seek a cure for Anthime’s rheumatism. Just before the arrival of Veronica’s sister and her family, Anthime discovers that Veronica has been interfering in his experiments out of concern for his animal subjects. When Veronica’s sister Marguerite arrives with her husband, the prominent author Julius de Barraglioul, Anthime vents his spleen by sparring with the devotion of their young daughter Julie, who piously rebuffs him. Over dinner, Anthime learns that Veronica has secretly been praying for him at a shrine to the Virgin and, further enraged, leaps from the table and vandalizes the statue. That night Anthime has a dream in which the Virgin appears and reproaches him. Awakening alone later that night, Veronica finds her husband in his laboratory, cured of his rheumatism and praying. Given his prominence in the lodge, Anthime is encouraged to make a public announcement of his conversion, and he is reassured by the church that he will receive support when he is deserted by the Masons. Anthime makes his announcement, but the support never arrives, and he and Veronica are forced to move to Milan for financial reasons.

The second book opens with Julius and his family returning to Paris from their trip to Italy. Arriving home, Julius finds a letter from his ailing father, a count, asking him to look up a young man named Lafcadio Wlouki. The letter closes with what Julius takes to be some disdainful comments concerning Julius’s most recent novel, which was based on his father’s life and upon which rest his chances for being elected to the Académie Française. Julius dutifully seeks out Lafcadio, finding him in a seedy lodging house where, after being admitted to Lafcadio’s room in the latter’s absence by Lafcadio’s mistress, Carola, he is surprised by Lafcadio as he is searching through the room. After an awkward conversation, Julius arranges for Lafcadio to visit him the next day under the pretext of needing a secretary and then departs hastily, leaving Lafcadio to destroy the scant personal articles that Julius has found. Piecing together a number of coincidences, Lafcadio surmises that he is an illegitimate child of Julius’s father and sets out to visit the count immediately. On the way, Lafcadio rescues two small children from a burning house and meets an attractive young woman who rewards him with her handbag. The count confirms Lafcadio’s suspicions and assures him of a generous but discreet inheritance. Visiting Julius the next day, Lafcadio discovers that the young woman from the scene of the fire the previous day is Julius’s daughter Genevieve. In the subsequent conversation with Julius, again remarkable for its awkwardness, Lafcadio relates his life story, Gide taking care to emphasize the contrast between the “paradoxical” (Julius’s term) nature of Lafcadio’s aleatory existence and the “hash of bare bones” (Lafcadio’s term) that constitutes the logical coherence of Julius’s novels. Their meeting ends abruptly when news arrives that the count has died, and Lafcadio leaves to prepare for his departure from Paris—buying Carola an ostentatious pair of cufflinks as a parting gift.

The third book again opens with Julius’s younger sister, Valentine, returning to her country home from the count’s funeral in Paris. Waiting for her there is a priest who confides in her a story about the kidnapping of the pope and asks for money in order to ransom the pontiff. The exceptional nature of this story leads Gide to interpose himself into the narrative and provide an aside on the nature and relation of fiction and history. Writing that some “have considered that fiction is history which might have taken place, and history fiction that has taken place,” Gide cautions that the present story is not intended for readers who would disavow the extraordinary out of hand. The priest is actually Protos, a boyhood friend of Lafcadio, and when he leaves, Valentine immediately contacts her friend, Arnica Fleurissoire, in order to relate the story to her. Arnica, in turn, is the youngest sister of Veronica and Marguerite. She tells her husband Amédée, who, unable to contribute any money to the ransom, quixotically resolves to go in person to Rome. Drawing the final threads into place, the book ends with Julius visiting with Anthime on his way back to Rome for a meeting and vowing to intercede on Anthime’s behalf with the pope himself.

The fourth book is entirely devoted to Amédée’s bumbling crusade. After a series of misadventures, Amédée fi nally arrives in Rome, his skin a comically repulsive mass of insect bites, and he is immediately swept up by a young French boy who installs him in a seedy lodging house where Amédée discovers to his horror that he is to share his room with a woman: Lafcadio’s former mistress Carola. The boy, Baptistin, and Carola prove to be confederates of Protos and “the Millipede,” the group perpetrating the swindle involving the kidnapping of the pope. Surmising Amédée’s purpose in visiting Rome, Protos, along with a false cardinal in Naples, enlists Amédée’s aid in cashing a check by disguising himself as a priest and convincing Amédée that he represents those who are “truly” working to free the pope. The devout and idealistic Amédée readily assents to aid Protos and returns to Rome, where be goes to meet with Julius to ask his advice on the situation. Julius has just come from his audience with the pope and is agitated by its apparent fruitlessness, leading Julius to question his principles, both personal and artistic. Struck by the uncharacteristic impiousness of his brother, Amédée wonders for a moment if he is not speaking to a “false Julius.” At lunch, Julius reveals the source of his disquiet: It certainly still seems to him that self-interest is not the sole source of all human actions, but it now seems that self-sacrifice cannot be the sole source either, that there must be a third possibility, neither good nor evil: gratuitousness or disinterested actions. Their conversation is cut short by a note from an anxious Protos, and Julius takes Amédée to cash the check and loans him his ticket for the trip to Naples.

The final book opens with Lafcadio, having taken possession of his inheritance, on his way by train through Italy from whence he plans to sail to Java. As his thoughts wander, Lafcadio is joined in his compartment by Amédée. Lafcadio immediately forms a desire “to impinge upon that fellow’s [Amédée’s] fate.” He satisfies this desire when, in accordance with a spurious circumstance that he sets for himself, he commits a gratuitous act, “a crime without a motive,” and throws Amédée from the train. At the next station, Lafcadio’s bag is mysteriously stolen as he throws a die to determine whether he should retrieve his hat, which Amédée had pulled off as he fell. Remaining on the train, Lafcadio discovers the Millipede’s money, as well as Julius’s ticket, in Amédée’s coat and decides to return to Rome to ascertain the effects of his action upon Julius. On the way to visit his brother, Lafcadio learns from the newspaper that Amédée was wearing the cufflinks Lafcadio had given to Carola in Paris.

The conversation between Julius and Lafcadio is the climax of the novel. When Lafcadio presents himself, Julius immediately begins speaking of the recent transformation of his principles occasioned by his audience with the pope. He is beginning to compose a new novel, one no longer governed by the overly structured logic and ethics of conventional literature; it will consist of an account of the character of a young criminal, which, of itself, engenders an utterly gratuitous crime. As the two men together develop a more particular account of such a character, Gide switches to the format of a play and indicates the speaker by a marginal notation as they proceed, “each in turn overtaking and overtaken by the other.” Their exchange concludes with Julius reading to Lafcadio the latest account of Amédée’s murder, which reveals to Lafcadio that someone had tampered with the body after the murder, but which Julius uses to argue that the motive for the crime was robbery, making it deliberate rather than gratuitous. When Lafcadio corrects Julius’s error, the latter, far from recognizing the model for his own villain, abruptly concludes that Amédée’s “outrageous” story about the kidnapping of the pope must in fact be true and the reason he was murdered. Julius immediately departs for the police, while Lafcadio sets Julius’s train ticket on the table and then leaves to retrieve Amédée’s body for the funeral.

On his return trip to Rome, Lafcadio encounters Protos, now disguised as a lawyer, who reveals himself as the one who helped to cover up Lafcadio’s murder of Amédée by removing evidence from the body. Protos attempts to induce Lafcadio to continue along the path opened by the murder and to blackmail Julius, but Lafcadio, horrified, refuses. In Rome, after the funeral, Julius attempts to reassure Anthime as to his misfortune by relating the story of the kidnapped pope, but Anthime instead renounces his conversion and reveals that his rheumatism has returned. Meanwhile, having been denounced by Carola, Protos strangles her just before the police arrest him, discovering in the process the evidence that he had taken from Amédée’s body. That night, Lafcadio, having heard of Protos’s arrest, confesses his crime to Julius, who advises him to confess to the church but to allow Protos to be blamed for Amédée’s murder since Lafcadio’s inheritance allows him the possibility of a “new life.” Unconvinced, Lafcadio retires but is woken by Genevieve, who declares the love that she has harbored since seeing Lafcadio rescue the children from the fire. She too counsels Lafcadio to confess only to the church and Gide ends the novel— “here begins a new book”—with Lafcadio waking at dawn, Genevieve beside him, his decision unmade.

Lafcadio’s Adventures is narrated in the third person, sometimes with a distant perspective and other times revealing the characters’ interior space. Repeatedly a first-person, authorial “I” voice intrudes, reflecting on the story, and how to tell it, and on the relationship between fiction and reality. Although Lafcadio desires his spontaneous act to be viewed as a meaningless, amoral adventure, Gide ends the narrative with disquieting ambiguity, leaving the reader to wonder whether Lafcadio will escape his crime unpunished or face his moral duty through the courts.

As the original French title “Caves” implies, the characters, save for Lafcadio and Protos, are hollow shells, each blindly following a belief system without foundations. Ultimately, even Lafcadio and Protos can be viewed as being torn by institutional forces and playing socially governed roles. Protos takes on the guise of various institutional representatives (cleric, lawyer, confidence man), and Lafcadio is torn between the injustice of his act on the one hand and his own desire for autonomy on the other. Despite its ambiguous ending, Lafcadio’s Adventures does not present the Gidean ideal—a person capable of dealing with contradiction and paradox. Although Lafcadio tries to break free of social and moral claims, aspiring to become a Nietzschean superman—one who stands aloof from the masses—he still struggles with the conventions provided by his lineage and class. Protos, ever shifting from one system to another, exploits the external, superficial elements of all systems, including the swindler system he chooses to follow. Here Gide foregrounds the contradictions that will become the central conflict of his masterwork, The Counterfeiters (1925).

Gide himself insisted that he conceived Lafcadio’s Adventures, The Immoralist (L’Immoraliste, 1902), and Strait Is the Gate (La Porte Etroite, 1909) as a set, each exploring a similar theme of problematic moral attitudes. As in The Immoralist, homoerotic descriptions accompany many of the male characters, especially Lafcadio, to whom both men and women are attracted. Lafcadio’s Adventures drew stern criticism from the Catholic right, both for its depiction of Lafcadio’s motiveless crime and for a pederast passage involving the young Lafcadio and one of his mother’s many lovers, all of whom seem more attracted to the son than to the mother. Lafcadio’s Adventures’ anti-institutional views, its anti-deterministic philosophy, and its disdain of the church endeared the work to the iconographers of the dadaists and the surrealists.

Like many of Gide’s other works, Lafcadio’s Adventures is often compared with the existential novels and philosophy of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Like Camus’ Mersault in The Strangerand Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Lafcadio is often seen as an existential hero, a man who is troubled over his own existence and purpose in the world. One of Gide’s first mature works, Lafcadio’s Adventures remains an early 20th-century literary milestone for its break with novelistic conventions, ironic tone, and iconoclastic outlook.

Analysis of André Gide’s The Immoralist

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Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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