(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 571 words.)