Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

When Gide’s The Immoralist was first published, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was enjoying great popularity in France, and Gide’s journals indicate that he wrestled intellectually with Nietzsche’s thinking for many years. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of Michel’s thinking duplicates that of Zarathustra, the main character in...

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When Gide’s The Immoralist was first published, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was enjoying great popularity in France, and Gide’s journals indicate that he wrestled intellectually with Nietzsche’s thinking for many years. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of Michel’s thinking duplicates that of Zarathustra, the main character in Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896).

Zarathustra expresses only contempt for Christianity, morality, conscience, and altruism. He, like his creator, considers these things to be human weaknesses, and he deplores weakness of any kind, claiming that “the will to power” is the highest good. Since Nietzsche’s philosophy is essentially optimistic, one can understand how it came to be popular in France, where idealism and optimism were strong and would remain so until 1914, when the German empire was destroyed and France was devastated. Furthermore, since Nietzsche advocated the cultivation of a race of “supermen,” individuals physically powerful, unscrupulous, and merciless, one can perhaps understand how his writings could be used as a philosophical justification for Nazi doctrines of racial and national superiority.

Addressing the “herd” devoted to a “slave morality,” Zarathustra says that “my will to power walks with the feet of your will to truth!” Gide wrote in one of his journals that he was often “torn” by what he called an ongoing “conflict [within himself] between the rules of morality and the rules of sincerity.” In The Immoralist, the conflict is resolved by Michel’s “sincerity” to his “perfectible being,” to his will to power, and to his disdain for essentially Protestant moral precepts (embodied in Marceline) which limit the self-actualization of the individual. Yet, although Gide accomplished an artistic resolution of the conflict between puritanically intolerant attitudes and the individual’s search for his own nature, he remained ambiguous about the ethical ramifications of Michel’s philosophy. At the end of the three years, the narrative recounts, Michel tells his friend, “I am at a moment in my life past which I can no longer see my way.” As for Gide, after The Immoralist, he would go on to project the conflict between the wish for self-fulfillment and the barriers of convention into semiautobiographical fiction: La Porte etroite (1909; Strait Is the Gate, 1924) and Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925; The Counterfeiters, 1927). While Gide is never as ambiguous in his writing as is Nietzsche, philosophically both writers are forerunners of the existential movement, which emphasizes, among other things, the complete freedom of the will, as well as the individual’s ability to create his own destiny.

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