Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2359
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 ultimately the only one of Gide’s characters who seems capable of both true individualism and social responsibility, and whose authenticity allows him to be faithful both to himself and to others.
Gide spent six years writing The Counterfeiters; it was the last major fiction of his career. For the remaining twenty-five years of his life, he continued to work on his journals, a variety of short stories, literary essays, and even political exposés of French colonial practices in Africa. At his death, he was honored as one of the great moral voices of the twentieth century; a year later the Holy Office of the Vatican ordered that his entire work be placed on the index of prohibited books. Corrupter of youth or model of sincerity and authenticity? The paradox is appropriate; no writer has ever been more aware of the contradictions within himself and his world.
First published: L’Immoraliste, 1902 (English translation, 1930)
Type of work: Novel
A young anthropologist journeys from sickness to health to debauchery in rebellion against his repressive Protestant upbringing.
The Immoralist was the first of Gide’s famous series of quasi-autobiographical, psychological tales. It is narrated as if it is a confession made to three friends of the protagonist, Michel. He has summoned them together to hear his story, not to pass judgment, but simply to listen. Strangely, he wishes that their friendship may “resist” the accounting of his life that he is about to make. In the end, however, the friends believe that they have been unwittingly turned into “accomplices,” that Michel’s confession is a veiled attempt to legitimize his “immorality” rather than to express remorse at the pain and suffering he has caused.
The framing context of the story is significant in that it helps the reader appreciate Gide’s irony. The novel has been misread as a call for a Nietzschean individualism that revels in its own freedom. The only clue to an action’s propriety, according to such a philosophy, would be the pleasure the individual takes in it, irrespective of its impact on others. Ménalque, the Nietzschean apostle of pure freedom in the novel, mocks the “man of principles” as “the most detestable kind of person in the world” and warns Michel that as a married man with responsibilities he must choose between his freedom and his happiness. In attempting to heed Ménalque’s advice and to satisfy his own sensual desires, Michel proves at least indirectly responsible for the declining health and ultimate death of his wife, Marcéline. As he concludes his story, Michel begins to wonder if his nights of debauchery were as freely chosen as he wants to believe or if he had, in fact, become the victim of the “brutality of passion.” His friends are “struck dumb” in the end by the confession they have just heard. Gide must have expected that his readers would feel the same; “Drag me away from here,” Michel begs, “I can’t leave of my own accord.”
This novel, like most of Gide’s work, is highly structured. It divides neatly into five sections. The first and last sections take place in Africa, the setting for Michel’s recovery from tuberculosis and Marcéline’s ultimate death from it. The second and fourth sections are set in Normandy, where Michel first involves himself in the management of his inherited property and then later almost consciously sets out to destroy it. The middle section is set in Paris, where Michel presents lectures on his new philosophy, exalting the savagery of the Goths and condemning Latin culture as antithetical to life. It is there that Michel feels most attracted to Ménalque, who alone seems to understand why Michel is now “burning what he once worshipped.”
Perhaps the most striking example of the tale’s conscious symmetry is the contrast between two highly symbolic scenes. Early in the novel Michel experiences the healing power of sensuality as he delights in “the circumspect call of turtledoves” and the sight of a naked child tending a herd of goats. Toward the end, Michel goes to sleep among a group of young boys lying in the open air and wakes up covered with vermin. This second “baptism” marks the final stage of Michel’s journey, which has taken him from sickness to health, from impotence to debauchery, and from a passive observer of the immorality of others to an active participant in the seamiest of existences.
First published: Les Faux-monnayeurs, 1925 (English translation, 1927)
Type of work: Novel
The Counterfeiters juxtaposes several complexly interwoven plots with the journals of a would-be novelist.
The Counterfeiters is Gide’s most complex and ambitious work, the only one he called a novel. There are at least a dozen characters and almost as many subplots surrounding a group of families, some of whose children are involved in a ring of counterfeiters. On its most coherent level The Counterfeiters is a study of adolescents attempting to discover who they really are and how they may achieve authentic, “sincere” lives in the face of all the false, counterfeit attitudes and social forms that dominate their middle-class lives.
The two major characters, Olivier and Bernard, share a love of literature and an enthusiasm for life. Bernard, however, is by far the stronger of the two; he alone is capable of true authenticity, of discovering his own internal law and living by it. In terms of one of the novel’s major metaphors, Bernard is the fish who sees with his own light; Olivier is the fish who becomes the prey of others because he swims either too high or too low. Olivier at his best is capable of true lyricism; at his most vulnerable he falls under the influence of Robert de Passavant, a literary counterfeiter who is guilty of claiming the ideas of others as his own.
Olivier is ultimately rescued from Passavant’s pernicious influence by his uncle Édouard, whom he has always adored but whom he has been too shy to approach. Édouard functions in a sense as the center of the novel. His notebooks are juxtaposed with Bernard’s and Olivier’s narratives; they provide most of the key subplots and a running commentary on the nature of the novel viewed in terms of the same problem of authenticity at work in the lives of the main characters. Édouard is not the implied author of the novel but rather a character in his own right understood to represent the opposite of Passavant. He would like his art to be absolutely “true,” “unedited,” and “original.” His particular dilemma is how to move beyond observation and journal writing without falsifying his material, a dilemma Gide sees as endemic to the novel, the “freest” of literary genres.
The novel turns on the passing of Édouard’s mentorship from Bernard to Olivier, Édouard’s nephew and lover. This transfer of influence occurs the night of the Argonaut dinner, one of the major set pieces of the novel in which key characters, both real and fictional, and key plots from both the narrative proper and the journals all intersect. For Passavant, it is a night of celebration turned to ridicule. For both Bernard and Olivier, the night brings a coming-of-age. Bernard’s sexual initiation marks his growing independence; Olivier’s encounter is followed by a failed suicide attempt proving his continued vulnerability.
By this point in the novel Bernard emerges as one of Gide’s true heroes, the only character in The Counterfeiters strong enough to live a potentially productive life, both free of hypocrisy and morally good. Bernard’s story is a variation on the classic pattern of the hero’s journey: He progresses from the discovery that he is a “natural” child, hence free from the genetic curse of following in his father’s footsteps, to the influence of a sympathetic surrogate father (Édouard) under whose wing he experiences both pure and spiritual love, to the passing of his baccalauréat examination (a required rite of passage for French schoolboys), to a return home in recognition of the true love that the father he rejected has always felt for him.
In one of the most explicit message chapters of the novel, “Bernard and the Angel,” Bernard longs “for dedication, for sacrifice,” for some noble cause outside himself to which he could offer his newly won freedom. Unfortunately, most of the ready-made causes he sees around him strike false notes. As he struggles with his Angel, Bernard wonders if it is possible to live without a goal and still not coast aimlessly through life. Christopher Columbus, he thinks, did not know where he was going when he discovered America: “His goal was to go ahead. . . . Himself was his goal.” Bernard fears that without a goal he may live badly. Gide clearly believes that it is a risk worth taking.
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