André Gide Essay - Critical Essays

André Gide Long Fiction Analysis

Although André Gide’s career as a published author spanned nearly sixty years, his position in literary history depends primarily on five prose narratives published in the first quarter of the twentieth century. As Gide’s reputation rose to prominence, roughly between 1910 and 1920, critics and commentators were quick to discover the author’s earlier writings and, in them, the clear annunciation of Gide’s mature output. It is likely, however, that without the merited success of The Immoralist, Strait Is the Gate, Lafcadio’s Adventures, The Pastoral Symphony, and The Counterfeiters, Gide’s earliest writings might well have remained mere literary curiosities of the late Symbolist period. A notable exception might well be Fruits of the Earth, a transitional work, which in the years following World War I enjoyed a belated success quite unrelated to that of Gide’s other writings. In any case, The Immoralist and its successors bear witness to a controlled, mature talent that has few peers in the subsequent history of French fiction.

With The Immoralist, a slim volume of deceptive simplicity, Gide reclaimed for the French tradition a strong foothold in the psychological novel. Skillful psychological narrative had been associated with France as early as the seventeenth century, thanks to Madame de La Fayette and her La Princesse de Clèves (1678; The Princess of Clèves, 1679), but had recently been pushed aside by the seemingly more urgent claims of realism and naturalism; it was not until the 1920’s and early 1930’s that the Belgian Georges Simenon, hailed and admired by Gide, would combine psychological narrative with the strongest legacies of naturalism. In the meantime, Gide further established his claim with Strait Is the Gate, another economical tale, which, although quite different, is in several respects a mirror image of The Immoralist. Particularly remarkable in both short novels is the emergence of Gide’s mature style—a clear, concise form of expression far removed from his early verbosity yet not without certain affective mannerisms, particularly noticeable in his frequent inversion of adverb and verb; it is quite likely that the proverbial aspect of Gide’s style derives at least in part from his frequent reading of the Bible.

Common to Gide’s first two récits is his skillful use of a somewhat unreliable first-person narrator whose impressions are “corrected” by other narrative or correspondence that is used to frame the text. In both cases, however, Gide is careful not to point to a moral or to intrude himself as narrator within the working of the text. The canvas remains small, perhaps justifying Gide’s use of the description récit in place of the more ambitious roman: In each tale, only two characters are singled out for close attention, with fewer than ten more appearing in the background. The Immoralist is the story of the process by which Michel, at once thoughtful and thoughtless, discovers himself, at the cost of his marriage and the life of his wife, Marceline; Strait Is the Gate, told mainly by the ineffectual Jérôme, presents the story of Alissa, whose renunciation and sacrifice seem hardly less selfish, in retrospect, than the deliberate indulgence of Michel in The Immoralist. More than once during his career, Gide pointed out that the two tales were in fact twins, having formed in his mind at the same time.

The Immoralist

Gide, in his earliest attempts at writing—intended mainly for himself, his school friends, and his cousin Madeleine—tried to discover and define the nature of a freedom that was felt but not yet experienced. Gide’s initial voyage to Africa, in 1893, resulted in an awakening that was psychological and spiritual as well as sexual, inspiring the young would-be author to shake off the bonds imposed by his austere French Protestant upbringing. One of the first concepts to emerge in his quest was that of disponibilité (availability). As expressed primarily in Fruits of the Earth, Gide’s idea of disponibilité holds that the individual should keep himself “available” to the full range of potential human experience, for only then can he discover all of himself and conduct himself in a truly sincere and authentic manner. Clearly, Gide as early as 1902 had perceived the possible dangers and advisable limits of such an attitude, for The Immoralist is at least in part a cautionary tale about personal freedom pushed thoughtlessly to its extreme. Still, the physical and spiritual flowering of the formerly frail and bookish Michel is not without a certain intentional appeal. Between extremes, Gide appears to be suggesting, even advocating, a self-liberation that stops short of incurring such disastrous consequences as the early death of one’s wife. For the purposes of fiction, however, The Immoralist is extremely well structured and memorable, involving the decline and failure of Marceline’s health in inverse proportion to that of her husband.

Like most of his work published both before and since, The Immoralist draws heavily upon the established data of Gide’s life; here as elsewhere, however, it would be erroneous to see in the work of fiction a direct transposition of the author’s experience. Michel’s awakening under the hot sun of North Africa, complete with his sexual initiation by young Arabs, obviously owes much to Gide’s own experience; Gide, however, initially discovered Africa before his marriage and not while on his honeymoon. Michel’s most important discoveries, however, appear to be not sexual but psychological, as in the memorable scene of the Arab boy Moktir stealing Marceline’s scissors. Michel, initially shocked, observes the theft with growing fascination and invents a false tale to tell his wife; only later does he learn from his mysterious friend Ménalque, who hands him the worn and battered scissors, that Moktir, in turn, was aware of being watched. Michel’s growing sense of complicity in the reversal of conventional morality constitutes no small part of his newfound freedom; later, upon his return to France, he will conspire with poachers to steal from his own land. Throughout the tale, recounted mainly in the first person by Michel, Gide equates Michel’s growing health and strength with his increasing fondness for the wild and elemental; later, when Marceline miscarries and falls ill, the erstwhile near-invalid Michel will prove strangely insensitive to her suffering, claiming that he “got well” all by himself and wondering why she cannot do the same. Still, Michel remains sufficiently attached to Marceline that he will dismiss his “experiment in liberation” as a failure when she ultimately dies.

In The Immoralist, as in his later narratives, Gide is particularly concerned to show the negative effects of conventional morality upon the individual; here, however, little mention is made of religion per se, and Gide’s concerns are implied rather than directly stated. Clearly, the circumstances of Michel’s comfortable bourgeois background are to be seen as stifling, confining, and detrimental to his health; it is not until he breaks away from the security of a precocious academic career (as an archaeologist) that Michel begins to “get well,” discovering at the same time what Gide portrays as his authentic self. As in Gide’s own case, however, the ties of love remain strong and are less easily dismissed than the constraints of traditional morality.

Strait Is the Gate

In Strait Is the Gate, conceived around the same time as The Immoralist, Gide presents what he sees as the other side of the same coin. Quite unlike Michel, yet with equal intransigence, Jérôme’s cousin Alissa chooses the path of renunciation and self-abnegation, causing some early readers to see in Strait Is the Gate a religious or devotional work—indeed, a rebuttal of The Immoralist. As in the earlier work, however, ambiguities abound on every page, and it is soon clear that Alissa’s “experiment” is hardly more successful or “exemplary” than that of her counterpart Michel; like Michel, indeed, she thoughtlessly contributes to needless human suffering.

Narrated mainly by the callow and ineffectual Jérôme, Alissa’s first cousin and sometime fiancé, Strait Is the Gate exemplifies and partially satirizes what Cordle has identified as the Catharist dimension of Gide’s thought and art. No doubt indebted to the author’s life and marriage in certain details, including the age difference and Alissa’s discovery of her mother’s extramarital affairs, the portrayal of Alissa through Jérôme’s love-struck eyes demonstrates a mastery of ironic technique that is all but lacking in The Immoralist and finds its strongest expression in The Pastoral Symphony. If Alissa indeed suffers from a variety of moral blindness in her adherence to Scripture at the expense of humanity, Jérôme, in turn, suffers from a literal-minded imperceptivity only partially explained by his scholarly training and plans. Perhaps most tellingly, he remains quite unaware of his sensual appeal to Alissa even as he records the effects of that attraction for his potential readers. The latent irony of Strait Is the Gate is further enhanced by the inclusion of Alissa’s diaries, discovered only posthumously, recording not only her intense feelings toward Jérôme but also her “selfless,” determined, and ultimately unsuccessful effort to “marry him off” to her sister Juliette.

Like the love of Gide and Madeleine, the emotion that binds Jérôme and Alissa is clearly “too good for this world,” incapable in any case of satisfaction. Although some readers continue to feel that Alissa has given ample proof of sainthood, it is somewhat more likely that she, like Michel of The Immoralist, has pushed her inclination to extremes. The reader, although invited to share the excruciating pain of two passionate individuals so hopelessly unable to communicate, might also find occasion to question Alissa’s taste in fastening her affections upon a creature as spineless as Jérôme. A stronger Jérôme would render the tale quite implausible, if not impossible, but his limitations spread outward to encompass Strait Is the Gate as well, perhaps adding an unintentional note of irony to the book’s biblical title.

Lafcadio’s Adventures

With Lafcadio’s Adventures, Gide broadened his narrative canvas considerably, involving a large cast of frequently outrageous characters in a broad social satire that leaves few sacred cows unmilked. For the first time in his fiction, Gide gives evidence of a perceptive, pervasive sense of humor, which, with some effort and the wisdom of hindsight, has been detected by some critics between the lines of his earlier works. If here, as elsewhere, Gide’s stated aim is to disturb the reader, he manages also to entertain, and lavishly so. In his lively evocation of a criminal scheme to extort funds from the faithful in order to “ransom” a Pope who has not in fact been kidnapped, Gide expresses his familiar concerns in a most unfamiliar way; if his main preoccupation remains with the individual, Gide nevertheless gains considerable appeal by placing those individuals against the background of society. Characteristically, however, Gide eschewed the description “novel” even for this effort, preferring the archaic (and exotic) term sotie, in part to underscore the sottise (stupidity) of most of the characters involved. His true novel, The Counterfeiters, moreover, was already in the planning stage, although not to be published until after The Pastoral Symphony.

In Lafcadio’s Adventures, Gide at last gave free rein to the strong ironic bent that is little more than latent in his earlier efforts; in addition, he added a strong portion of humor that is generally lacking elsewhere in his work, with keen observation that often crosses over into broad caricature....

(The entire section is 5007 words.)