Study Guide

The Immoralist

by Andre Gide

The Immoralist Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Michel, the narrator, recounts his life to three friends. Michel is an archaeologist like his father, with whom he has worked and has lived an isolated life of research. His father treats him as an intellectual equal, and Michel is well accepted in the world of archaeology. Although his father is an atheist, Michel received a Huguenot religious upbringing from his mother, who died when he was young.

Michel’s father is dying and is anxious about leaving Michel alone. To please his father, Michel enters into an arranged marriage with Marceline. Their families have been acquainted for a long time; Michel has little interest in Marceline and simply accepts her. Although Marceline, an orphan, brings virtually nothing to the marriage, Michel’s inheritance from his father is substantial. The couple goes to Algeria on a honeymoon. Preoccupied by his father’s death and his archaeological investigations, Michel is scarcely aware of Marceline’s existence. On the boat from Marseille, he suddenly becomes aware of her beauty. He begins talking with her and realizes that she is intelligent. That night, he awakens with the thought that she actually exists and has a life of her own.

The newlyweds land at Tunis and set out for Biskra. While crossing the desert, Michel begins to vomit blood. He keeps the situation to himself for a while, but finally, unable to endure his condition alone, he tells Marceline about it. Marceline turns pale and faints. She revives and assumes her role of caretaker for her husband.

Michel has tuberculosis. At first, he is unconcerned about dying; then, as his health returns slowly, he develops an obsession with living. He begins to recall sensations from his childhood. Marceline tells him he cannot get well by himself and recommends that he pray. Michel refuses, explaining that he does not want to owe God anything. He tells Marceline that she will help him heal. Michel becomes totally occupied with his body and anything that is healthy. He rejects anything that does not contribute to health. He takes walks and eats heartily.

Marceline begins to bring young Arab boys whom she has befriended to see Michel. First Bachir comes, then Ashour, and finally Moktir. Marceline is interested in the sickly children. Michel finds the sickly ones disgusting and wishes to have only the healthy ones with him. He is particularly attracted to the dishonest, rebellious Moktir. When Michel and Moktir are alone in the room, Moktir steals Marceline’s scissors. Michel sees him take the scissors but says nothing. He is fascinated both by the physical appearance of Moktir—healthy, young, and strong—and by...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)

The Immoralist Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Immoralist was the first of Gide’s famous series of quasi-autobiographical, psychological tales. It is narrated as if it is a confession made to three friends of the protagonist, Michel. He has summoned them together to hear his story, not to pass judgment, but simply to listen. Strangely, he wishes that their friendship may “resist” the accounting of his life that he is about to make. In the end, however, the friends believe that they have been unwittingly turned into “accomplices,” that Michel’s confession is a veiled attempt to legitimize his “immorality” rather than to express remorse at the pain and suffering he has caused.

The framing context of the story is significant in that it helps the reader appreciate Gide’s irony. The novel has been misread as a call for a Nietzschean individualism that revels in its own freedom. The only clue to an action’s propriety, according to such a philosophy, would be the pleasure the individual takes in it, irrespective of its impact on others. Ménalque, the Nietzschean apostle of pure freedom in the novel, mocks the “man of principles” as “the most detestable kind of person in the world” and warns Michel that as a married man with responsibilities he must choose between his freedom and his happiness. In attempting to heed Ménalque’s advice and to satisfy his own sensual desires, Michel proves at least indirectly responsible for the declining health and ultimate death of...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

The Immoralist Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Told in the first person by Michel, the central character, The Immoralist is a retrospective account of the three years of his life directly preceding the opening of the novel—three years during which his father dies, he marries Marceline, he nearly dies from tuberculosis and undergoes a profound psychological transformation, and Marceline dies. Although Michel tells his own story, the reader receives it secondhand from a friend to whom he has told it; thus Michel’s narration is framed, at beginning and end, by this friend’s voice as he writes to his brother, an important French official, and pleads with him to secure for Michel a position in the French government. The friend’s plea seems charitable, coming as it does before he recounts Michel’s narration; by the end of the novel, after the reader has witnessed the murderously shrewd, calculating, and self-centered Michel “the immoralist” (he would call himself an amoralist), the idea of him working for any government seems, without question, immoral.

A published, polyglot historian and self-professed “learned Puritan” at the age of twenty-four when his father becomes fatally ill, Michel says that he decided to marry Marceline because it would comfort the old man to know that his son would not be alone in the world (Michel’s mother had died when he was fifteen). Michel says, furthermore, that he did not love the twenty-year-old Marceline when he married her, but “at least I had never loved any other woman. That was enough, I assumed, to insure our happiness....” His lack of love for her explains, in part, why their marriage is not consummated until several months after the wedding. Married in Paris, they set out on what is to become a three-year journey, interrupted only by relatively brief sojourns in various places of Michel’s choosing. Unfortunately, in her goodness and naivete, Marceline fails to see that Michel does not love her and that he forces her into the latter half of their journey, at least, because he knows that it will kill her. Initially, their travels are for the purpose of Michel’s historical research at various ancient ruins, but Michel’s interest in the past diminishes in direct proportion to the growth of his increasingly intense and ultimately hedonistic involvement in the present.

From Paris, Michel and Marceline travel to Marseilles, where they board a ship bound for northern Africa; they are traveling to Sousse by way of Tunis. As the couple nears Sousse late at night, Michel begins coughing up blood so profusely that his handkerchief and hands are covered with it. He decides not to tell Marceline, who is asleep beside him, yet, when she awakens and notices nothing abnormal (he has hidden his handkerchief from her), he is overcome by an irrational anger because she has not also had to suffer. Once they are situated in a hotel room, his anger compels him to make her suffer too, so he tells her in a brutally direct way about the blood; the news causes her to faint. Suddenly he is sorry to have upset her, and he asks himself, “Wasn’t it enough that I should be sick?”

He has already answered this question with his actions, as well as proved to himself and the reader that Marceline is totally malleable beneath the force of his will—even when he is seriously ill with tuberculosis. Indeed, she becomes his servant not only during his illness, but also after he recovers determined to be a different person and “make the thrilling discovery of life.” One significant discovery that he makes, after she begins to bring children from the streets of Sousse to their room to keep him company, is that he prefers the companionship of young males far more than that of his wife—so much more, in fact, that, even before he is completely recovered from his illness, he begins to see Marceline as an impediment to his sensual, essentially homosexual quests.

While before his illness Michel devoted himself to intellectual pursuits, one significant result of his infirmity is that he becomes obsessed with his physical being, with “voluptuous...

(The entire section is 1670 words.)

The Immoralist Extended Summary

Part 1
Michel, the protagonist of The Immoralist, has spent his early adulthood as a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. He describes his marriage at the age of twenty-five to Marceline, a twenty-year-old woman whom he hardly knows. Shortly after their engagement, Michel’s father dies. The newlyweds travel on their honeymoon to North Africa, a region that at the time was colonized by the French. During their travels, Michel becomes ill from tuberculosis. By the time they arrive in the city of Biskra, Algeria, he is gravely ill and close to death.

Throughout his illness, Michel and Marceline stay at a hotel in Biskra, where Marceline nurses him. Michel is so ill that he does not even leave...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)