André Gide Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)