Success came rather early to Roger Martin du Gard. Even his first novel, Devenir! (becoming), published in 1908, earned for him a succès d’estime at the age of twenty-seven. The publication of Jean Barois, in 1913, and the reception of his first play, Le Testament du père Leleu, earned the esteem of the new literary establishment developing around La Nouvelle Revue française. After World War I, when he began to publish the eight volumes of The World of the Thibaults, his readership continued to grow steadily.
Although leading a discreet life and shying away from the Parisian literary scene, Martin du Gard maintained at least an epistolary contact with numerous confreres among the established and the young, who frequently sought and received his advice. He was respected by all for his integrity, moderation, and dedication to friendship. His readers admired the solidity and ingenuity of the structure of his novels, his knowledge of contemporary society and his insight into the period covered, and his ability to cast his characters into a well-understood historical context. Like Marcel Proust, he wrote about the quarter-century preceding World War I. Whereas Proust painted aristocratic society in its decadence and decline, replaced at the top of the social pyramid by the bourgeoisie, Martin du Gard studied the fate of individuals in the bourgeois family and society, as well as the challenge to their class posed by demands for social justice and by historical accidents such as wars.
In his other works, such as Le Testament du père Leleu, La Gonfle, and Vieille France, Martin du Gard pays special attention, though with a sense of humor, to the mentality and mores, as well as the backward conditions, of French rural life during the first half of the twentieth century. Although many writers of his generation were quite aloof to social and political problems, Martin du Gard was keenly aware of them. Even later, however, when commitment became almost unavoidable, especially after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937, he strove to remain scrupulously objective. Except for his total and pronounced atheism, he avoided philosophical dogmatism.
Although Martin du Gard’s reputation declined sharply in the postwar years, the publication of his vast journal, his extensive correspondence, and his unfinished last novel may reawaken interest in his work and bring about a reevaluation of his French and world literature of the twentieth century.