The Immoralist by Andre Gide is a short novel that epitomizes the late Victorian movement of Romanticism, from which other sub-genres emerged, namely, Gothic lit, and the Aesthetic works that were inspired by the French decadents. Gide belongs to a group of writers in the lines of Oscar Wilde, and Joris-Karl Huyssman among many others, who wrote against the extreme puritanical values of Victorian society, where prudishness was equalled to respectability. Gide, like Wilde and the others, suffered from the pressures imposed upon them by a society that did not welcome their artistic attempts to embrace diversity. The aesthetic ideal of L'Art pour L'art was particularly frowned upon, as Victorians (mainstream, middle class ones), had strict codes of behavior, roles within the family, and gender rules.
Enter main character Michel. As a man of Gide's own generation he abides by all expectations bestowed upon men. He is young, married, educated, serious, seemingly responsible, and a successful archaeologist. In the eyes of society, Michel has succeeeded without question. But here comes trouble. Michel begins to feel differently about himself upon surviving tuberculosis and breathing life again; new emotions surface that he had perhaps kept buried within his mind and heart
the layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there.
These new discoveries are not simple either; they have to do with sexuality, gender role, respectability, social acceptance, the question of marriage. Hence, Michel starts to fight his emotions by splitting himself into two lifestyles: the one respectable lifestyle to which he arrived as he followed every tenet imposed upon him by society, and the life that he feels within: the sensuous, desperately hungry part of him that has never been nurtured for lack of recognition. In the outside, Michel is the perfect Victorian; in the inside, he is desirous to experience every exterior sensation there is, from food, to sex, to knowledge. The lack of balance renders Michel a loner, since he cannot connect with anybody around him, not even with men who feel the same way that he does. Therefore Michel's denial of his emotions, and the tendency to let them run lose in secret is a poor choice that eventually eats him up inside.
The previously-described moralist society where Michel lived punished whoever felt, spoke, thought, or did anything different from the status quo. As a puritanical society, Victorians abide by the biblical sense of correctness that includes prudence, control, discipline, and virtuosity. Compare those values to all of the seemingly inappropriate things Michel does as he continues his self discovery:
- the acquisition of possessions that he did not need (a reference to the deadly sin of greed)
- atoning for his selfish actions by trying to convince others (disrepute)
- becoming a monomaniac (selfishness)
- disregarding his wife (abandonment)
- denying his true identity from himself and others (lying)
- the dependence on material things (greed again)
All of these came from a man who once was the epitome of Victorian morality. This is why he is, in a way, an antihero that readers try to commiserate with, but cannot. Michel's selfishness by-passes his moral and aesthetic problem. This is also why his character has caused such a ruckus throughout literature.