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...
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