Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Michel (mee-SHEHL), the narrator, a twenty-four-year-old archaeologist, brought up in a highly puritanical atmosphere. The product of an exclusively scholastic and bookish education, he marries Marceline only to please his dying father, without really knowing what he is doing. During his honeymoon in North Africa, he contracts tuberculosis. After having this brush with death, he recovers and sets out to mount an all-out war against anything that could threaten his health. He also starts experiencing all kinds of previously unsuspected physical joys and realizes that he carries within himself a precious and occult self that he is determined to free from the constraints of social and moral conformity. His attraction to young boys reveals his unconscious and repressed homosexuality. The harshness of his repression will determine the harshness of his individualism, which will sweep away and destroy anything and everything that stands in its path, including his wife. Marceline’s death, however, does not bring him the all-encompassing freedom for which his authentic self had longed. Michel illustrates the dangers and failures of excessive individualism.


Marceline (mahr-seh-LEEN), Michel’s wife. During their honeymoon in Africa, she nurses him back to health with a total and loving devotion. She embodies orthodox morality, honesty, and religion,...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

To understand the existential doctrine that Michel hungrily embraces after his brush with death is to understand a mercilessly self-serving and hedonistically Machiavellian idealogue. To a significant extent, Michel lived by this doctrine even before his illness. Regardless of what he says (for he is a masterfully duplicitous and thus unreliable narrator), his marriage to Marceline is as much a result of his selfish beliefs as her death later proves to be.

As Michel is recuperating from his illness, he decides that, in the future, “recovery alone must become my study; my health; I must consider Good, I must call Right, whatever [is] healthy for me; must forget, must repulse, whatever [does] not cure.” After he has recovered his health, however, the doctrine changes. He considers “Good” and “Right” whatever pleases his senses or makes him feel youthful, beautiful, and seemingly immortal. In short, he embraces a type of hedonism that is unethical, because it is Michel-centered and completely exclusive of the rights and well-being of others, particularly of Marceline. Indeed, he married her less to comfort his dying father than to provide for himself a surrogate protector with limited rights. When they marry, his health is “delicate,” and—even though he had “acquired ideas about the stupidity of women” and felt absolutely no love for Marceline—compared to him, she “seemed quite strong.”

It is Marceline’s strength and devotion to Michel that saves his life, but in his eyes, “my salvation depended on no one but myself.” When she tells him she has prayed to God for his recovery, he reproaches her and insists that he does not want her prayers because they would leave him “indebted” to...

(The entire section is 715 words.)