Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

The first printing of The Immoralist in 1902 consisted of 300 copies, of which the majority were circulated among Gide’s friends and his intellectual circle. While it caused a small scandal among this limited readership, subsequent editions of the novel brought Gide increasing controversy. Many critics regarded Michel’s narrative as...

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The first printing of The Immoralist in 1902 consisted of 300 copies, of which the majority were circulated among Gide’s friends and his intellectual circle. While it caused a small scandal among this limited readership, subsequent editions of the novel brought Gide increasing controversy. Many critics regarded Michel’s narrative as a celebration of behavior which society in general deemed immoral. These early reviewers regarded Michel’s behavior in terms of selfish “individualism,” thus avoiding all reference to homosexuality. Nonetheless, Gide was widely criticized for endorsing Michel’s behavior, rather than condemning it. Gide, however, defended his narrative in a “Preface” to later editions of the novel, asserting that, as an artist, his intent was not to judge his character, but to represent a set of experiences common to many men. In the latter half of the twentieth century, as homosexuality became a more acceptable subject of public discussion, critics came to view The Immoralist as the tale of a repressed homosexual struggling to come to terms with his sexual orientation in a societal context of late-Victorian values. Albert J. Guerard, in André Gide (1951), asserted that The Immoralist “is one of the first modern novels to deal at all seriously with homosexuality.” Alan Sheridan, in an “Introduction” to a translation of The Immoralist, published in 2000, observed that Gide’s novel:

. . . examines the case of a man with wife and child, means and career, a man caught up therefore in a complicated network of overlapping relations and responsibilities, who comes to see his whole life as a hypocritical sham and, in pursuit of his true, authentic, homosexual self, abandons everything.

Thomas Cordle, in André Gide (1993), similarly remarked, “The central strategy of L’Immoraliste is . . . the dissolution of the heterosexual relationship and its replacement by a homosexual one.” Cordle added, “The essential action of the story is this protracted conversion from the normal, socially sponsored sexual relationship that is inimical to Michel’s nature to the forbidden relationship that satisfied his native desires.”

However, Cordle pointed out, “Michel never fully recognizes that he is a homosexual.” In the late-twentieth-century, The Immoralist became identified with a larger body of gay and lesbian literature. In 1999, the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian news magazine, listed The Immoralist as fifth on a list of the “100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels,” while in 2000, the Lambda Book Report named The Immoralist among the “100 Best Lesbian and Gay Books of the 20th Century.” Following a different line of literary criticism, postcolonial critics in the late twentieth century criticized The Immoralist as an expression of European colonial attitudes toward the cultures of the Middle East. These critics argued that Michel’s sexual attraction to young Arab boys in colonial North Africa must be seen in a broader cultural, political, and historical context of European subjugation of Arabic peoples. Regardless of judgments of the cultural, social, and political implications of The Immoralist, most reviewers agreed that Gide’s prose style in this narrative is admirably spare and elegant. The Immoralist is further regarded as an important work in the development of the psychological novel. Gide’s skillful use of first-person “confessional” narration has been widely praised for its subtlety and complexity.

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