The Immoralist

by Andre Gide
Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084

Michel, the narrator, recounts his life to three friends. Michel is an archaeologist like his father, with whom he has worked and has lived an isolated life of research. His father treats him as an intellectual equal, and Michel is well accepted in the world of archaeology. Although his father is an atheist, Michel received a Huguenot religious upbringing from his mother, who died when he was young.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Michel’s father is dying and is anxious about leaving Michel alone. To please his father, Michel enters into an arranged marriage with Marceline. Their families have been acquainted for a long time; Michel has little interest in Marceline and simply accepts her. Although Marceline, an orphan, brings virtually nothing to the marriage, Michel’s inheritance from his father is substantial. The couple goes to Algeria on a honeymoon. Preoccupied by his father’s death and his archaeological investigations, Michel is scarcely aware of Marceline’s existence. On the boat from Marseille, he suddenly becomes aware of her beauty. He begins talking with her and realizes that she is intelligent. That night, he awakens with the thought that she actually exists and has a life of her own.

The newlyweds land at Tunis and set out for Biskra. While crossing the desert, Michel begins to vomit blood. He keeps the situation to himself for a while, but finally, unable to endure his condition alone, he tells Marceline about it. Marceline turns pale and faints. She revives and assumes her role of caretaker for her husband.

Michel has tuberculosis. At first, he is unconcerned about dying; then, as his health returns slowly, he develops an obsession with living. He begins to recall sensations from his childhood. Marceline tells him he cannot get well by himself and recommends that he pray. Michel refuses, explaining that he does not want to owe God anything. He tells Marceline that she will help him heal. Michel becomes totally occupied with his body and anything that is healthy. He rejects anything that does not contribute to health. He takes walks and eats heartily.

Marceline begins to bring young Arab boys whom she has befriended to see Michel. First Bachir comes, then Ashour, and finally Moktir. Marceline is interested in the sickly children. Michel finds the sickly ones disgusting and wishes to have only the healthy ones with him. He is particularly attracted to the dishonest, rebellious Moktir. When Michel and Moktir are alone in the room, Moktir steals Marceline’s scissors. Michel sees him take the scissors but says nothing. He is fascinated both by the physical appearance of Moktir—healthy, young, and strong—and by his personality—rebellious, dishonest, and disreputable.

Although Marceline continues to show concern and attentive care for Michel, he increasingly prefers to be away from her, to experience and to discover alone. Michel finds more and more sensual pleasures to enjoy. He delights in the golden skin of the boys, the sun’s warmth, the shade and luxuriant foliage of the gardens. He becomes steadily stronger and healthier.

Michel and Marceline leave Biskra for Italy, where Michel has a fight with a drunken coach driver. That night, he has sexual relations with Marceline for the first time. He becomes fascinated with his own body and engages in nude sunbathing. He develops an undressing ritual.

The couple returns to Michel’s country estate, La Morinière, in Normandy, where Michel believes his health will be totally restored. At La Morinière, he becomes involved in all aspects of the farm, consults with the overseer, Bocage, meets his son Charles, becomes friends with Charles, and becomes involved with increasing the farm’s productivity. He spends his time outdoors, riding and participating in farming activities. This life is the polar opposite of the bookish life he led before his marriage.

As winter approaches, Michel and Marceline take an expensive apartment in Paris. Michel has a lectureship at the Collège de France. They become involved in Parisian society again. Marceline is pregnant; she tires quickly but insists upon fulfilling her social obligations. Michel realizes that he is repulsed by social obligations and his continual interaction with bourgeois society. He also discovers that most of his course bores him; only the elements of barbarism and rebellion that he finds in the material hold his interest. He becomes fixated on Athalaric, a rebellious young Ostrogoth.

Michel encounters Mélanque, a man whom he previously disliked. Now Michel finds him pleasing and begins to socialize with him. Mélanque asks Michel to spend a night in conversation with him before Mélanque sets off on a long and dangerous trip. Although Michel is concerned about leaving Marceline, who is having health problems because of her pregnancy, he opts to join Mélanque. During the evening, Mélanque reveals his knowledge of Michel’s fascination with the Arab boys. He suggests that Michel is afraid to be who he really is and live accordingly. Michel returns home and finds that Marceline has had a miscarriage. Marceline begins to show signs of tuberculosis.

The couple returns to La Morinière. Marceline’s health steadily worsens. Michel plunges deeper into a life of dishonesty, violence, and destruction. He spends his time with Bute, the most disreputable of the farm workers, reveling in Bute’s stories of the incestuous Heurtevente family. Michel takes up poaching with Alcide on his own farm. He does everything possible to make the farm fail. Finally, he decides to sell it.

Michel and Marceline begin traveling again. They go to Switzerland for her health. Michel despises everything about Switzerland. He wants to return to Biskra and convinces Marceline that doing so will restore her health. As they journey, Michel leaves his wife alone with increasing frequency and indulges his need to interact with sailors and vagabonds. Marceline’s health steadily worsens, but he insists that they press on to Biskra.

The couple reaches Biskra, returning after a two-year absence. Michel finds that all of the children he knew are now ugly, except for Moktir, who has just been released from prison. Marceline is critically ill, but Michel takes her and Moktir to Touggourt. He leaves Marceline in the hotel, visits Moktir’s mistress, sleeps with her, and returns to the hotel just in time to witness Marceline’s death. Michel remains in Algeria but finds life worthless. He is free but has no purpose. He is counting on his friends to help him find a life he feels has not yet begun.

Extended Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075

Part 1
Michel, the protagonist of The Immoralist, has spent his early adulthood as a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. He describes his marriage at the age of twenty-five to Marceline, a twenty-year-old woman whom he hardly knows. Shortly after their engagement, Michel’s father dies. The newlyweds travel on their honeymoon to North Africa, a region that at the time was colonized by the French. During their travels, Michel becomes ill from tuberculosis. By the time they arrive in the city of Biskra, Algeria, he is gravely ill and close to death.

Throughout his illness, Michel and Marceline stay at a hotel in Biskra, where Marceline nurses him. Michel is so ill that he does not even leave their hotel room for a long time. As he begins to recover, Marceline brings Bachir, a local Arab boy, to play in Michel’s room and cheer him up. Eventually, Michel recovers enough from his illness to go out for a walk with Marceline in a park near their hotel. When they meet a group of local Arab boys in the park, Michel feels that he would prefer to go there without his wife. He realizes that, as a scholar, he has been living the life of the mind, while neglecting his physical being. Finding a renewed sense of life and a new awareness of his physical senses, Michel determines to devote himself to improving his health.

As Michel’s health continues to improve, he begins to take walks alone among the orchards of a nearby oasis, where he meets and befriends more Arab boys. He and Marceline begin to invite the Arab boys to their hotel lodgings to play and eat sweets. One day, Michel sees one of the boys, Moktir, steal a pair of his wife’s sewing scissors. Instead of reprimanding Moktir, or taking the scissors away from him, Michel lies to his wife about why the scissors are missing. After this incident, Michel finds that Moktir is his favorite of the children.

After staying in Biskra for several months, Michel and Marceline decide to leave. They continue to travel in North Africa, Italy, and the Mediterranean region, passing through Tunis, Malta, and Syracuse. With his newfound health and excitement about life, Michel finds himself losing interest in his scholarly research. While staying in Salerno, Michel spends many days off on his own exploring the area, leaving his wife behind at their hotel. He becomes very focused on his body and his physical health. He soon finds himself leading a double life. Away from his wife, he continues to focus on his newly emerging sense of self and renewed excitement about life. In his wife’s presence, however, he presents a false persona as a loving and attentive husband.

One day, Michel gets into a fight with a drunken coach driver, who had been driving recklessly while Marceline was a passenger in the coach. That night, two months after their wedding, Michel and Marceline make love for the first time.

Part 2
In the spring, the newlyweds return home to France. They spend the summer at Michel’s childhood home in Normandy, in northern France, where he has inherited a large estate called La Morinière. Michel becomes acquainted with Bocage, his estate manager. When Charles, Bocage’s seventeen-year-old son, arrives at La Morinière, Michel is immediately drawn to the young man, and the two of them go horseback riding together every day. Michel becomes increasingly involved in the management of his estate. Marceline informs him that she is pregnant.

In the fall, Michel and Marceline move back to Paris, where he begins his teaching post at the College de France. In Paris, Michel is bored by the demands of their social life. One day, he meets Menalque, a former acquaintance, with whom he strikes up a friendship. Menalque explains that he has traveled to Biskra and met many of the Arab boys whom Michel had befriended while on his honeymoon. One night, Menalque hands Michel the pair of scissors that Moktir had stolen from Marceline. Michel arrives home that night to find that Marceline has had a miscarriage and is gravely ill from tuberculosis.

When the academic year ends, Michel and Marceline return to La Morinière for the summer. Marceline becomes more and more ill. Michel, meanwhile, spends more and more time with the peasants on his estate. He even joins Alcide, the youngest son of Bocage, in secretly poaching game on his own grounds. He finds himself intrigued by the lives of the peasants, particularly those whose behavior is morally questionable. Although Marceline continues to be very ill, the couple decides to leave La Morinière and travel.

Part 3
Michel and Marceline travel throughout Switzerland, Italy, and North Africa. Marceline becomes more and more ill, while Michel finds himself increasingly full of health and vigor. They return again to Biskra. Michel cares for Marceline during the day, but after she goes to sleep, he goes out prowling the streets at night. He meets many of the children they had befriended two years earlier. However, the boys have become young men, and have gone on with their lives. Some of them have married and found work, while others have become criminals and spent time in jail. Moktir, the boy who once stole the pair of scissors, has recently been released from prison. Michel is disappointed that these boys have lost the health and freshness that had first drawn him to them.

One night Moktir takes Michel to a prostitute. Michel returns home from this encounter to find that Marceline is dying. After Marceline dies, Michel remains in Algeria for three months. During this time, he befriends an Arab boy named Ali. Ali eventually introduces Michel to his sister, who is a prostitute. Michel sleeps with Ali’s sister on several occasions. However, Michel soon becomes bored of her, and feels that Ali seems to be jealous, so he tells the girl he no longer wants to see her. Ali continues to spend time with Michel, and to do various errands for him, “in exchange for the odd caress.” Afterward, when Ali’s sister encounters Michel on the street, she teases him that he is more interested in her brother than in her, and that Ali is the reason he stays in Algeria. Michel’s response, which is the closing line of the novel, is “Perhaps she is not altogether wrong . . .”

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access