André Gide World Literature Analysis
Gide’s earliest works were influenced by Symbolism and Decadence. Le Voyage d’Urien (1893; Urien’s Voyage, 1964), for example, takes the reader on a highly ironic journey to a series of perpetually changing landscapes. Gide’s sensual language and playful exploration of consciousness and perception in this work has been compared to the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Rimbaud. Gide later rejected what he termed the German mysticism of such early works in favor of a crisper, more precise style that he felt better suited the French language.
Gide’s first work, Les Cahiers d’André Walter (1891; The Notebooks of André Walter, 1968), though published anonymously, brought him into the literary circle of the famous French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Gide became acquainted with the major writers of his time, including Paul Valéry, with whom he maintained a literary correspondence throughout his life. In Paludes (1895; Marshlands, 1953), however, Gide satirized the artificiality of Mallarmé’s artistic credo and called for an art based on spontaneity rather than an abstract concept of artistic purity. Fruits of the Earth was Gide’s most successful attempt to put his new artistic beliefs into practice. It is a work that reads like a series of unrelated personal experiences; sensual language replaces metaphor and symbol. It was also the first work by Gide demonstrating the influence of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German apostles of titanic individualism. Though only five hundred copies of Fruits of the Earth were sold in the first ten years following its publication, the post-World War I generation embraced its call for an honest and spontaneous life and its apparent condemnation of conventional morality.
With the publication of The Immoralist in 1902, Gide’s works became increasingly psychological, almost appearing to be case studies of the nature of individualism confronting a series of polarities—sickness and health, asceticism and sensualism, relationship and independence, puritanism and paganism, Europe and Africa. The Immoralist tells the story of Michel, a young academic who revolts against repression and conformity as he strives to achieve what he believes to be a healthy, sensual, unfettered existence. It is often compared to two other tales, Strait Is the Gate and La Symphonie pastorale (1919; The Pastoral Symphony, 1931), written in similarly concentrated, journalistic styles with the same thematic polarities at their center. Strait Is the Gate tells the story of a young woman as excessive in her piety as Michel in his immorality. She literally tries to destroy herself in renunciation of the love she craves and out of fear that she might resemble the adulterous mother whom she despises. The Pastoral Symphony tells the story of a self-deluded Calvinist minister who falls in love with an innocent, blind child whom he has rescued from poverty. As a mature, married man who should be a model of morality for his community, he cannot at first admit the sexual nature of his feelings for her.
Together, these three tales portray a complex erotic drama performed against a backdrop of Puritan repression and self-denial. The stories of all three are variations on experiences from Gide’s own life—in particular, the repressiveness of his Protestant upbringing, his unconsummated marriage to his cousin Madeleine, his extensive travels in Africa, and his struggle to accept his homosexuality. All three are tightly structured; the second half of The Immoralist, for example, repeats the journey of the first half in reverse. In his Journal (1939-1950, 1954; The Journals of André Gide, 1889-1949, 1947-1951), Gide complained that all three were misread; middle-class French men and women failed to note the irony in Gide’s use of unreliable narrators. They condemned The Immoralist for its pagan hedonism and praised Strait Is the Gate for its Christian values, in both cases missing Gide’s critique of excessive behavior.
The last period of Gide’s long and rich literary life was dominated by the writing of his Journal and of The Counterfeiters, his most complex and ambitious work, the only one he called a novel. Si le grain ne meurt (1926; If It Die . . ., 1935), Gide’s chronicle of his youth and sexual initiation in North Africa, is, in effect, the preface to the Journal. With its publication, Gide’s contemporaries began to understand the close relationship between his life and his fiction. He himself spoke of his characters as representing possibilities within himself that might have become monstrous if left unchecked by the little bit of common sense he possessed.
In writing The Counterfeiters, Gide acknowledged his growing awareness of the individual’s relationship to a larger society and gave vent to his own fears about the impact of Fascist thinking on all aspects of French life. The Counterfeiters takes almost all the themes and characters found in earlier works and weaves them into a comprehensive study of French literary circles and middle-class life. It is, in a sense, a serious sequel to Les Caves du Vatican (1914; The Vatican Swindle, 1925; better known as Lafcadio’s Adventures, 1927), a farcical tale filled with complex plots and amusing coincidences. Lafcadio, its flippant young hero, who kills a complete stranger for no good reason other than the exercise of pure freedom, becomes, like Bernard in The Counterfeiters, the most positive of Gide’s protagonists. Bernard is...
(The entire section is 2359 words.)