Analysis of André Gide’s The Pastoral Symphony

La symphonie pastorale, translated as The Pastoral Symphony (1931), but just as often called by its French title by English-speaking critics, is part of a group of firstperson narratives called récits. Récits are characterized by a simple and ironic text from an unreliable narrator, also found in L’école des femmes (1929), Robert (1930), Geneviève (1937), and Thésée (1946). According to his Journal, André Gide (1869–1951) conceived of the idea for the plot of this novel around May 30, 1910, and was going to title it L’aveugle, which translates as either The Blind Girl or The Blind One.

André Paul Guillaume Gide was a towering figure of 20th-century French literature due to his diverse and prolific talents in letters, including plays, fiction, diaries, travel writings, poetry, criticism, and social commentary. Gide was born and died in Paris. His early works, those written in the 19th century, reflect the strong influence of the symbolists, the literary family of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, who rebelled against realism and naturalism. Over six decades of published writings, Gide came to be considered a surrealist and a modernist. He married a cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux, in 1895, but there were no children in the marriage, and it was not a happy union after Madeleine discovered Gide’s homosexual inclinations. It remained an unconsummated marriage. He wrote about, and enjoyed embodying, the multiplicity and contradictions found in a single psyche (i.e., a married man who loved his wife, had a child with another woman [1923], but preferred young men and boys).

Andre Gide © Photo Collection Catherine Gide Editions Gallimard

Gide was an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of London beginning in 1924. He was awarded the Goethe Medal in 1932, an honorary doctorate in letters from Oxford University in 1947, and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947. This increased interest in him from the English-speaking world, for some of his works were translated as early as 1919. A larger number of his writings were published in English after 1949, and the translations continued strongly throughout the 1960s. He received the Goethe Plaque from the city of Frankfort am Main in 1949, and in 1950 he was made an honorary corresponding member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In The Pastoral Symphony, a Protestant pastor takes in a young, mute, blind girl. He names her Gertrude, educates her, and watches her mind bloom with language, while he draws away from his wife and five children. The reader comes to realize that the unnamed pastor, a symbolic everyman, is deluding himself and is not a credible narrator; he conceals from himself the sin growing inside him just as he seeks to conceal the very idea of sin from his beautiful pupil. At the very moment when Gertrude regains her sight, she seeks to kill herself after seeing the misery on the faces of the people around her, especially the pastor’s wife. His alienated son, who has converted to Catholicism after witnessing his father’s behavior, converts Gertrude before she dies of complications from her attempted suicide.

The title The Pastoral Symphony refers to both Gertrude and the pastor. On the one hand, it takes its name from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which the pastor uses as an example of the beauty of nature and the harmony of music. Innocent of sin, Gertrude believes that the world she cannot see is as harmonious and beautiful as that symphony, a belief the pastor encourages. But pastoral is also a pun on the word pastor—pasteur in French, from the Latin “shepherd.” The protagonist often compares himself to a shepherd tending his one lost sheep. Gertrude, a person whose entire being is defined by what she hears, is his symphony, who briefly conveys to him the illusion of bucolic perfection, only to die, proving her person as transitory and insubstantial as the music at a concert.

The Pastoral Symphony works well as a microcosm of Gide’s themes. Metaphoric and physical blindness, the conflict between religious doctrine and restraint with human sin and desire, and the contradictory nature of the self all figure in many of Gide’s plays, novels, and journals. Critics praise Gide’s ability to show the subtle changes and growth of feeling in the pastor, from mentor and father to lover, though Gide is criticized for the abruptness of the ending of the novel. La symphonie pastorale was adapted by Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche into a movie in 1948 and into a three-act play in 1954.

Harvey, Lawrence E. “The Utopia of Blindness in Gide’s Symphonie pastorale.” Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature 55, no. 3 (1958): 188–197.
Kingcaid, Renée A. “Retreat from Discovery: Symbol and Sign in La Symphonie pastorale.” Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 8 (1982): 34–41.
O’Keefe, Charles. “Verbal-Erotic Anarchy in Gide’s La Symphonie pastorale.” French Review 60, no. 1 (1986): 20–29.
———. Void and Voice: Questioning Narrative Conventions in André Gide’s Major First-Person Narratives. Chapel Hill and Valencia, Spain: Dept. of Romance Languages, University of North Carolina; Artes Gráfi cas Soler, 1996.
Parnell, Charles. “André Gide and His Symphonie Pastorale.” Yale French Studies 7 (1951): 60–71.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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

%d bloggers like this: