(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Counterfeiters is Gide’s most complex and ambitious work, the only one he called a novel. There are at least a dozen characters and almost as many subplots surrounding a group of families, some of whose children are involved in a ring of counterfeiters. On its most coherent level The Counterfeiters is a study of adolescents attempting to discover who they really are and how they may achieve authentic, “sincere” lives in the face of all the false, counterfeit attitudes and social forms that dominate their middle-class lives.

The two major characters, Olivier and Bernard, share a love of literature and an enthusiasm for life. Bernard, however, is by far the stronger of the two; he alone is capable of true authenticity, of discovering his own internal law and living by it. In terms of one of the novel’s major metaphors, Bernard is the fish who sees with his own light; Olivier is the fish who becomes the prey of others because he swims either too high or too low. Olivier at his best is capable of true lyricism; at his most vulnerable he falls under the influence of Robert de Passavant, a literary counterfeiter who is guilty of claiming the ideas of others as his own.

Olivier is ultimately rescued from Passavant’s pernicious influence by his uncle Édouard, whom he has always adored but whom he has been too shy to approach. Édouard functions in a sense as the center of the novel. His notebooks are juxtaposed with Bernard’s and Olivier’s narratives; they provide most of the key subplots and a running commentary on the nature of the novel viewed in terms of the same problem of authenticity at work in the lives of the main characters. Édouard is not the implied author of the novel...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

The Counterfeiters Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When seventeen-year-old Bernard Profitendieu discovers an old love letter of his mother and realizes that he is an illegitimate son, he leaves a scathing letter for the man whom he considered his real father and runs away from home. He spends that night with his friend, Olivier Molinier. Olivier tells him of his Uncle Édouard, a writer, who will be arriving from England the following day and also of a woman with whom his older brother Vincent is involved.

The next morning, Bernard leaves before Olivier awakens. For a time he wonders what to do. He idly decides to go to the station and watch Olivier meet his uncle. That same morning Vincent visits his friend, the notoriously gay Comte Robert de Passavant. Vincent is disturbed over his affair with Laura Douviers, a married woman he met while both were patients in a sanatorium. Upon her release, she followed Vincent to Paris.

Édouard returns to Paris because of a promise to Laura. He knew her before her marriage and told her to call upon him whenever necessary. He is also looking forward to seeing his nephew Olivier, of whom he is very fond. He is so excited, in fact, that, after checking his bag, he drops his checkroom ticket. The meeting with his nephew, however, proves unsatisfactory. Unobserved, Bernard watches the meeting between the two. He picks up the checkroom ticket Édouard dropped and claims the bag. In it he discovers a large sum of money, which he quickly pockets; Édouard’s journal, which he reads without scruple; and Laura’s supplicating letter.

With no definite plan in mind, Bernard calls on Laura. Laura is disturbed by the young man who knows so much about her affairs, but his actions become understandable when Édouard arrives and Bernard admits the theft of the bag. He says that he stole it as a means of getting in touch with Édouard. Édouard is impressed with the young man’s impudent charm. When Bernard suggests that he might fill the role of a secretary, Édouard agrees. A few days later, with Bernard as his secretary, Édouard takes Laura to Switzerland. Bernard writes to Olivier in glowing terms about his new position. Olivier is jealous of Bernard, who, he believes, has taken his place in Édouard’s affections. He decides to take an editorial assignment offered to him by de Passavant.

In the meantime, Bernard falls in love with Laura. When he confesses his love, Laura shows him a letter from her husband, begging her to come back to him with her child and Vincent’s. She decides to return to him. Bernard and Édouard return to Paris. A letter then arrives from Olivier to Bernard. He is in Italy with de Passavant, and he writes complacently about the wonderful journal they intend to publish. Bernard shows the letter to Édouard, who fails to realize that the letter disguises the boy’s real feelings of jealousy and hurt.

Although still serving as Édouard’s secretary,...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)