Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802

Article abstract: Through his works, especially his fiction, Gide not only presented the problems and conditions of modern man but also renovated narrative genres and ways of seeing and feeling the world.

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Early Life

André Gide was born in Paris, France, on November 22, 1869. His father, a Huguenot of great integrity and piety from southwestern France, was a brilliant jurist and professor at the Paris Law School. Despite a certain aloofness, it was he who read secular books aloud to André. André’s mother, on the other hand, was more interested in his religious education and read selections from the Bible to him. Of noble character and puritanical Calvinism and born into a traditional family of rich bourgeois businessmen and industrialists, she was an austere woman, who ran household and life in too strict a fashion. Thus, after his father died in 1880, when André was almost eleven, he increasingly rebelled against her domineering authority.

At age eight, André attended the École Alsacienne, one of the best Protestant private schools in Paris, where, not because he was lazy or stupid but because he was erratic and shy in public, he quickly and steadily accumulated zeros. Unfortunately, on being caught masturbating in class, he was suspended and then threatened with castration by his parents’ doctor. His guilt over his sinful “vice” caused him considerable pain and suffused many of his writings and much of his personal life. He did return to the École Alsacienne, however, until anxiety attacks forced him to leave Paris, during which time he was privately tutored. He finally reenrolled in the École Alsacienne in the 1887 fall term and passed his baccalauréat examinations two years later. At school, he loved the Greek and Roman poets, principally Vergil, the French classics, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and the recently published Fragments d’un journal intime (1883-1884; Amiel’s Journal, 1885) by the introverted Henri-Frédéric Amiel. (Gide too would soon start keeping a lifelong journal.) Besides being an avid reader, he was an excellent student of languages and read German and English fluently, discovering Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s pantheistic message and, in translation, Arthur Schopenhauer’s anguish and ecstasy in 1888.

At the same time Gide fell chastely in love with his elder cousin. Madeleine Rondeaux was a gentle, melancholy, and frail girl whom Gide saw as the embodiment of moral perfection and whose approval and esteem he desperately sought. Together they read the Bible and the Gospels as brother and sister, and thus she reinforced his concepts of good and evil, salvation and damnation. Twice, however, she refused to marry him. To prove to her the depth of his adoration, and to be a published author by age twenty-one, he set out to write a work which was to become Les Cahiers d’André Walter (1891; The Notebooks of André Walter, 1968). This quasi-autobiographical novel shows the new mal du siècle’s Manichaean struggle between the soul and the flesh and the soul’s final victory. Gide had found his vocation, his themes, and his style.

Life’s Work

The book received several flattering reviews and above all gave Gide an introduction to one of the greatest poets of the time: Stéphane Mallarmé. Indeed, Mallarmé and his Symbolist circle were to play an important role in the young man’s thought and worldview, from the minor but charming Le Traité du Narcisse (1891; “Narcissus,” in The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1953) to the sensual and erotic, even decadent, Le Voyage d’Urien (1893; Urien’s Voyage, 1964). Gide satirized that stifling and artificial literary salon atmosphere, however, in Paludes (1895; Marshlands, 1953), the first of what Gide called sotie, a kind of preposterous and comical narrative.

Unfit for military service because of tuberculosis, he left for North Africa with the young painter Paul-Albert Laurens in October, 1893. This convalescence trip, full of exotic splendor and unknown thirsts, followed by another in early 1895 during which he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, would have considerable impact on his entire life: A first pederastic experience in Tunisia and his conversations with Wilde both forced him to question the principles of his puritanical upbringing and to consider his homosexual leanings with open eyes. Perhaps to help Gide fight against his new immoralism, especially after his mother’s death in May, 1895, Madeleine agreed at last to marry him that October, although their marriage was never consummated.

The lyrical Les Nourritures terrestres (1897; Fruits of the Earth, 1949) advocated rejecting any banal preconceptions and moral rules in order to taste life’s and the world’s joys better and to their fullest. This exaltation requires not imitation but freedom, availability, and self-exploration. On the other hand, in L’Immoraliste (1902; The Immoralist, 1930), Gide showed through his spokesman Ménalque how such an anarchical ethic can only lead to a monstrous egoism and to destruction and that freedom must be responsible and tempered by discipline.

In 1909, he and several influential friends founded La Nouvelle Revue française, which was to become one of the most prestigious journals of the twentieth century. Open to modern literary and critical currents, the review welcomed young talents and introduced foreign authors to a wider public. (It boasted some three thousand subscribers on the eve of World War I.) Also in 1909, Gide published La Port Étroite (Strait Is the Gate, 1924), which he considered a complementary pendant to The Immoralist, since it underlines its heroine’s frustrated escape to the sublime. The best-selling La Symphonie pastorale (1919; The Pastoral Symphony, 1931) can be read in the same vein, for, by denouncing the all-too-subjective and self-deceiving interpretation of Scriptures, Gide points out morality’s triumph over human nature and passion.

Completely different in tone and themes is the 1914 Les Caves du Vatican (The Vatican Swindle, 1925; better known as Lafcadio’s Adventures, 1927). It is at once a humorous adventure story, a biting novel of manners, and a philosophical tale, in which the young and attractive Lafcadio is the embodiment of the “gratuitous act,” born of an aggressive thought, disinterested, spontaneous, without reason. Despite the book’s lack of success, the conservative Catholic right was offended by its apparent attacks on the Church and the papacy and by its satirical portrayals of the ridiculous Catholic faithful.

Gide’s marriage and oaths of reform notwithstanding, he continued to have homosexual encounters until one love affair too many, when a wounded Madeleine burned all the letters he had written her since childhood (1918). Because divorce was not possible, they lived separately until her death in 1938. Now free (some have said unanchored), Gide flaunted his life-style, even if scandalous to many of his friends, which included pederastic liaisons and an illegitimate daughter (1923) as well as a defense of homosexuality in general and of his own life in particular: Corydon (1911, 1924; English translation, 1950) and Si le grain ne meurt (1926; If It Die . . ., 1935), respectively.

He was in French Equatorial Africa—about which he would write eloquent anticolonialist reportages published in 1927 and 1928—at the time Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925; The Counterfeiters, 1927) appeared. Accompanied by a journal that discusses questions of technique, this “first novel” (Gide’s appellation) is a masterwork. Through its characters and themes, and through its seeming absence of structure and its concept of constant becoming, Gide re-created a lived reality. The Counterfeiters, while not initially successful, was to become influential for its innovative composition and the critique of the novel genre itself.

Increasingly involved in social and political issues, Gide proclaimed his growing sympathy for communism and the Soviet Union. His official visit to Russia disillusioned him greatly, however, and he showed this irreparable disappointment in Retour de l’U.R.S.S. (1936; Return from the U.S.S.R., 1937). Following the German occupation and his resignation from the then collaborationist La Nouvelle Revue française, he lived in North Africa until the end of the war. There, he composed Thésée (1946; Theseus, 1950), in which he again exalts any action that brings internal freedom.

The ailing Gide, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, continued to read and work, though at a reduced pace, producing correspondences, plays, translations, interviews, and nonfiction. He died of pneumonia in Paris on February 19, 1951, leaving behind Et nunc manet in te (1947, 1951; Madeleine, 1952), a frank and disturbing account of the torments he had inflicted on his wife.

Summary

Just as André Gide’s passing attachment for and ultimate rejection of communism, much like his contemplated conversion to Catholicism in the late 1910’s, was another means of being coherent with himself, this individualist had always sought to be true to his nature. His quest for self-understanding, fostered by a strong Protestant upbringing, paralleled similar quests by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Some critics have judged him less psychologically insightful or aesthetically original than his contemporary Marcel Proust. Yet in attacking ossified conduct and outmoded conventions, he presented to a young generation (for example, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Albert Camus) a fresh and daring plenitude of joy, along with new experiments in writing.

In the uncompromising integrity of his autobiographical works, Gide proposed a disciplined art of living that was rooted in his desire to preserve his freedom of thought. Furthermore, he influenced existential writers eager to confront the problems posed by the dyad man-God (or absence of God) by revealing his most intimate struggles and by acting as a disturber of the middle-class and religious status quo. It is no wonder, therefore, that enemies accused him of being a dangerous lawbreaker and that in 1952 the Vatican placed all of his works on the Index.

Bibliography

Brée, Germaine. Gide. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963. This study gives a fine interpretation of Gide’s entire oeuvre. Particularly good are the chapters on less well-known works.

Cordle, Thomas. André Gide. Boston: Twayne, 1969. A general but well-argued introduction to Gide. The bibliography is adequately representative.

Delay, Jean. The Youth of André Gide. Translated and abridged by June Guicharnaud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Despite its abridgment—in the English version—the book, written by a psychiatrist, is a penetrating analysis of Gide’s formative, crucial years, from his birth in 1869 to his mother’s death and his marriage in 1895. The index is very useful.

Gide, André. The Journals of André Gide, 1889-1949. 4 vols. Edited and translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947-1951. While not consistently fascinating, the journals are nevertheless essential to uncover Gide’s personality and concerns.

Hytier, Jean. André Gide. Translated by Richard Howard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. A brilliant book on Gide’s fiction and theater analyzed from an aesthetic perspective.

Littlejohn, David, ed. Gide: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. These essays, several contributed by French novelists and scholars, offer an excellent overview of Gide. Also interesting are the Decree of Prescription issued by the Holy Office and accompanying comments by the official Vatican newspaper.

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Critical Essays