Characters Discussed

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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...

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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, all values that represent a threat to Michel’s surging authentic being; hence, he will fiercely reject them. She must therefore disappear. Her miscarriage symbolizes the failure of their union. The ensuing progressive deterioration of her health runs parallel to Michel’s recovery. Acting as a sacrificial scapegoat, she falls victim to Michel’s harsh theories and dies in the inhuman aridity of the desert, at a time when Michel can no longer restrain the violence of his primitive instincts.


Ménalque (may-NAHLK), a former acquaintance of Michel who spends most of his time traveling in distant lands, engaged in some kind of exploration. An anticonformist, he antagonizes most people with his unconventional and haughty attitude. When Michel meets him again on his return to Paris, their previous reciprocal dislike turns into mutual attraction. Ménalque freely verbalizes Michel’s new hidden feelings and brings to light the discrepancy between the latter’s alleged “authentic being” and his adopted lifestyle. Rather than being Michel’s corrupter, Ménalque personifies Michel’s inner voice and puts him face to face with his predicament. He also represents the free individual who, in contrast with Michel, has the courage to live the life corresponding to his innermost tendencies.


Moktir (mohk-TEER), one of the young Arab boys whom Marceline brings to Michel’s room in Biskra. He soon becomes Michel’s favorite, after Michel catches him stealing a pair of scissors belonging to Marceline. Far from trying to stop him, Michel is fascinated by the act of transgression, which reveals primitive and free instincts and uncovers a nature rich in possibilities.


Charles (shahrl), the son of Michel’s caretaker, Bocage. He is a handsome, disciplined seventeen-year-old whose pragmatic intelligence Michel admires. He embodies for Michel the pleasure derived from the deliberate and organized exploitation of one’s own resources. He tries to prod Michel into better cultivating his estate, but to no avail.


Bachir (bah-SHEER), a young, handsome Arab boy. Michel interprets his intense physical attraction to Bachir as a love for animal health.

The Heurtevents

The Heurtevents (ewr-teh-VAH[N]), a family of primitive, immoral farmhands whose incestuous relationships fascinate Michel.


Alcide (ahl-SEED), a young Heurtevent whom Michel joins in poaching on his own estate.

The Characters

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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 God: “It makes for obligations; I don’t want any.” Marceline, unfortunately, fails to see the extent to which Michel’s denunciation of obligations might affect her, just as she fails to see the real man behind her ideal image of Michel.

Ironically, at the moment that their marriage is consummated, it is also symbolically ended, for Michel regards the act as proof that he has become stronger than his wife and has “possessed” her. After this moment, she seems to him “delicate,” all of her grace “a kind of fragility.” Even in the best of health, she is barely tolerable to him as he pursues “delicious” sensations. Once her health truly begins to fail, she becomes repugnant and “like rest to a man who is not tired.” Michel never acknowledges the fact that her health is broken by carrying his child; not once does he offer, or even seem to feel, any sympathy, when she is nearing death at the age of twenty-three. Instead, he literally rushes her toward death, demanding that they move more and more frequently the weaker she becomes. When Marceline tells Michel that his “doctrine” for living “eliminates the weak,” he replies, “As it should.” He absolutely believes that “only the strong deserve sympathy.”

Just as Marceline has value for Michel only as long as she can serve his needs or desires, the same is true of the other characters to whom he is attracted. His homosexual yearnings are stimulated by the “animal grace” and physical beauty of Bachir, by the beauty and cunning of Moktir, and by the “supple and well built” body of Charles. Because Menalque is an educated embodiment of Michel’s amoral doctrine of existence, Michel needs the older man as both a teacher and an intimate strong enough to force him to prove that he is capable of denouncing all principles. (Menalque is the ultimate hedonist and has been banished from France’s polite society for his life-style. “I create each hour’s newness,” he tells Michel, “by forgetting yesterday completely.”)

Michel proves himself to be deserving of Menalque’s society when he leaves Marceline, pregnant and seriously ill, and accepts his mentor’s invitation to spend the night. Thus, after his encounter with Menalque, the qualities Michel finds attractive in certain males, and for which he chooses to become intimate with them, go beyond mere physical attractiveness. For example, he becomes attached to Pierra because the farmhand is not only handsome but also “guided solely by instinct; he did nothing save on the spur of the moment, yielded to every passing impulse.”


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Alcide is the youngest son of Bocage, the caretaker of Michel’s estate at La Morinière. When Michel learns that Bocage has been poaching on the estate, he decides to join the young man in secretly poaching on his own land.

Ali is a little Arab boy whom Michel befriends during his second visit to Biskra. Ali introduces Michel to his sister, who is a prostitute. After Marceline dies, Michel sleeps with Ali’s sister several times, but soon notices that Ali seems to get jealous of his sister. Michel thus decides to stop sleeping with the girl in order to maintain his relations with Ali. When Ali’s sister teases Michel that he is more interested in Ali than in her, Michel reflects, “Perhaps she is not altogether wrong . . .”

Ali’s Sister
Ali’s sister is an Arab girl who works as a prostitute. On his second visit to Biskra, Michel befriends Ali, who introduces him to her. Michel sleeps with Ali’s sister several times after his wife’s death. However, Michel decides not to sleep with her anymore, in part because he is bored by her, and in part because he feels that Ali gets jealous of his attentions to the sister. After this, Ali’s sister teases Michel that he prefers the little boy to her, and that Ali is the reason Michel continues to stay in Biskra. Michel confirms that she may be right about this.

Bachir is a little Arab boy whom Michel and Marceline befriend during their first visit to Biskra. Bachir is the first of the boys whom Marceline brings home to Michel to cheer him up while he is recovering from tuberculosis. On their second visit to Biskra, Michel learns that Bachir has gotten a job as a dishwasher.

Bocage is the caretaker of Michel’s estate in Normandy. Michel finds Bocage irritating because of his incessant demands on Michel’s attention in reporting to him about the managing of the estate. Michel eventually realizes that Bocage is not altogether honest in his running of the estate.

Charles is the seventeen-year-old son of Bocage, the caretaker of Michel’s estate at La Morinière. Michel takes an immediate liking to Charles, and the two of them spend their days together riding horseback around the estate. When Michel and Marceline return to La Morinière a year later, Michel finds that Charles has changed, and he is no longer attracted to the young man.

Daniel is one of the three friends Michel summons to visit him in North Africa after Marceline dies, so that he may confide in them by telling his story.

Denis is one of the three friends Michel summons to visit him in North Africa, so that he may confide in them by telling his story.

Marceline is Michel’s wife. She is twenty years old when she marries Michel. Although their families had been friends when they were growing up, Michel and Marceline do not really know each other. While they are traveling in North Africa on their honeymoon, Michel becomes gravely ill with tuberculosis, and Marceline is very attentive and caring in nursing him back to health. When he starts to feel better, she brings Bachir, a little Arab boy, back to their hotel to play, as a means of cheering Michel up during his recovery. While the couple eventually befriend a number of Arab boys, Marceline prefers the sickly and weaker children, while Michel prefers the strong and healthy ones.

After they return to France from their honeymoon, Marceline becomes ill with tuberculosis, which she contracted while nursing Michel. While they are staying at La Morinière, Marceline announces that she is pregnant. When they move to Paris, she becomes increasingly ill, soon losing the baby in a miscarriage. While she is still very sick, she and Michel take off again to travel in Switzerland, Italy, and North Africa. Michel insists that they are traveling to areas where the climate will help to improve her health, but Marceline grows increasingly ill as they travel. After they arrive in Biskra for the second time, Marceline dies.

Menalque is an acquaintance of Michel who shows up at one of his university lectures in Paris. He and Michel immediately strike up a friendship. Gide based the character of Menalque on his friend Oscar Wilde, a well-known Irish playwright of the time. In The Immoralist, Michel mentions that there had recently been a public scandal and lawsuit regarding Menalque; this refers to a widely publicized trial in which Oscar Wilde was accused of homosexual relations with the son of a wealthy Englishman. In The Immoralist, Michel asserts that the lawsuit and scandal against Menalque were absurd and unfair. When he greets Menalque after his lecture, Michel makes a point of hugging him in front of everyone, demonstrating that he is not ashamed to be associated with him.

While in Paris, Michel and Menalque have several late-night conversations. Menalque tells Michel that he had traveled in North Africa, following the path that Michel and Marceline had taken on their honeymoon. Menalque explains that he had questioned many of the Arab boys they befriended in Biskra, and that he became intrigued by Michel’s behavior there. One day, Menalque hands Michel the pair of scissors that had been stolen by the boy Moktir. Menalque tells Michel that he believes in following one’s natural impulses, regardless of the judgments of society.

Michel is the narrator and central protagonist of The Immoralist. Michel’s mother died when he was fifteen. His father, a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman culture, raised Michel to follow in his footsteps in devoting his life to scholarship. When Michel is 25, his father becomes gravely ill, and Michel marries Marceline, a young woman whom he hardly knows, in order to please his dying father. Michel and Marceline spend many months traveling in Italy and North Africa on their honeymoon. However, they sleep in separate bedrooms and their marriage is not consummated until two months after their wedding. During the course of their travels, Michel becomes gravely ill with tuberculosis, but recovers under the loving care of his wife.

As his health improves, Michel finds himself focusing on his physical body and sensual experiences for the first time in his life. He experiences this profound change in himself as a sort of rebirth, an emergence of his true, natural self that had previously been concealed from him. At the same time, Michel finds himself attracted to healthy young men and boys in North Africa as well as at home in France. Although Marceline has a miscarriage and becomes increasingly ill with tuberculosis, Michel convinces her to travel with him through Europe and back to North Africa. Soon after they return to Biskra, Algeria, where they had spent much of their honeymoon, Marceline dies. Finally freed from all obligations to others, Michel remains in Biskra for several months. He sleeps several times with a girl prostitute, but soon discovers that he prefers the company of her little brother, Ali. Torn between his natural homosexual inclinations and the traditional societal values with which he was raised, Michel finds himself in a state of personal crisis. He contacts his three closest friends from childhood, begging them to come to his home in North Africa. When the three friends arrive, Michel proceeds to recount to them the story of his experiences of personal transformation, and to express his feelings of distress about how to proceed with his life.

Moktir is a little Arab boy whom Michel befriends during his first visit to Biskra. One day, Michel spies on Moktir as he steals a pair of sewing scissors belonging to Marceline. Michel is fascinated by this incident, and decides not to reprimand the boy or take the scissors back. Instead, he lies to his wife about how the scissors were lost. After this incident, Michel finds that Moktir is his favorite of the boys. Later, when Michel is back in Paris, his friend Menalque hands him this pair of scissors, which had been recovered from Moktir. When Michel and Marceline travel to Biskra the second time, Michel learns that Moktir has become a criminal and has recently been released from prison. One night, Moktir takes Michel to a prostitute; when Michel returns home from this encounter, he finds that his wife is dying.

Monsieur D. R.
Monsieur D. R. is the addressee of the letter written by an unnamed friend of Michel to his brother. This letter opens the novel and serves as the frame narrative of the central story.

Unnamed Friend
The Immoralist begins with a letter, addressed to a Monsieur D. R., written by one of the three friends whom Michel had summoned to North Africa in order to tell them his story. The unnamed author of the letter, addressing the recipient of the letter as “my dear brother,” explains that he has written Michel’s story down on paper, as it was narrated to the three friends, and included his transcription with the letter.

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Critical Essays