Although The Immoralist contains much that is based on André Gide’s personal life, it is not an autobiographical novel. Gide stated that Michel was not a fictional representation of himself and that, if he and Michel were the same person, he would not have been able to write the novel. The story is an inquiry into the psychological and philosophical problem of self-realization. Through Michel, Gide explores how one comes to self-realization and what effects that process has on an individual and on those involved in that individual’s life. Gide also treats the problem of unconscious repression, which is closely tied to self-realization.
As he grows up and for much of his adult life, Michel represses his true self and does not realize it. His Huguenot education and his devotion to the intellectual life cause Michel to suppress his physical self. It is only as he recovers from his illness that Michel becomes aware of physical sensations and the pleasure that can be derived from them.
Gide uses the theme of the journey to reveal Michel’s experience of self-realization. The novel is a series of journeys, first to Algeria, then to Italy, then to La Morinière, then to Paris, then back to La Morinière, then to Switzerland, then to Italy, and finally back to Algeria. On each stop in the journey, Michel discovers something else about himself. In Algeria, Michel begins to discover his own body. He awakens to the pleasures of walking, of eating, of the sun’s warmth, of the coolness of shaded gardens, and of the visual beauty of the world around him. Michel’s first realization of beauty occurs even earlier, on the boat from Marseilles, when he discovers Marceline’s beauty.
At Biskra, Michel also experiences his attraction to males. He does not understand the sexual motivation behind this attraction. Even when he impulsively kisses the young Sicilian coachman, he fails to comprehend his own latent homosexuality. This element is an important aspect of the text, both as it defines Michel as a victim of repression of the self and as it suggests that he may not have opened himself to total self-realization. After Marceline’s death, Michel encounters Ali and his older sister, a prostitute with whom he was sleeping until Ali discovered them and became angry. Now, the prostitute jokes that Michel wants Ali and does not leave because of him. In his last sentence, Michel admits that she might be right, just a little.
In addition to the problem of sensual repression as a part of the refusal or inability to achieve self-realization, Gide addresses the need to renounce all obligations to become totally free from any restraints on the self. Michel has several obligations; as Marceline’s husband, he is obligated to her; as a teacher, he is obligated to his field and to his students; as a member of the bourgeois class, he has social and moral obligations; as proprietor, he is obligated to La Morinière and the people employed there; as a wealthy individual, he is obligated to his possessions and his money. The obligation may be based on duty or on love, but it remains an obligation and prevents him from freely following his own inclinations and desires.
It is the character Mélanque who expresses these ideas explicitly in the text. He also states that each moment must be lived as a moment that is then abandoned in order to live the next one. What is most important according to Mélanque is to know what one wants and to be open to all experience. The introductory pages, in which one of the friends...
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writes to his brother, reveals the inability of those with principles to comprehend the individual who seeks self-realization. The friend believes that securing a position that makes Michel useful to society will solve the problem. In other words, Michel simply needs to conform once again, to accept the self defined for him by society.
It is through Michel’s interaction with Marceline and the characters involved with La Morinière that Gide illustrates the destructive effects on others of the search for self-realization. His poor management of the farm and eventual sale of it severely disrupt the lives of everyone who depends on the farm for subsistence. His insistence on traveling when Marceline is ill causes her death. Marceline is more of a presence in the novel than an actual character. She is the opposite of Michel. Passive, accepting, religious, and self-effacing, she lets him destroy her, yet even after her death she limits his freedom because he feels responsible for her death. Michel must renounce any sense of guilt for his actions and accept them as the enactment of his self.
The greatest strength of the novel is its ambiguity. Gide neither approves nor condemns Michel, nor does he present Michel’s failure as complete. At the end of the novel, Michel is disgusted with living, which he finds worthless, yet he feels he has not yet lived his real life. His final sentence may indicate the way to this authentic life and total self-realization, but Gide provides no definitive answers.
The novel is an important contribution to the history of the modern novel. It is one of the first novels to address the dilemma posed by the possibilities open to the individual for self-discovery and self-creation through the acceptance of the self and the making of choices in accord with that acceptance.