Critical Essay on The Immoralist

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281

Michel’s experience of personal rebirth in The Immoralist is characterized by an increased awareness of his physical being. His sense of touch, taste, and smell become heightened, and each new sensation represents a celebration of life. The more alive he feels, the more he seeks out sensual experiences. As he...

(The entire section contains 7701 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this The Immoralist study guide. You'll get access to all of the The Immoralist content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
  • Teaching Guide
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Michel’s experience of personal rebirth in The Immoralist is characterized by an increased awareness of his physical being. His sense of touch, taste, and smell become heightened, and each new sensation represents a celebration of life. The more alive he feels, the more he seeks out sensual experiences. As he explains, “The only way I could pay attention to anything was through my five senses.” Throughout The Immoralist, Gide uses sensual descriptions, particularly the sense of smell, as an important indication of Michel’s growing selfawareness and lust for life.

Michel first experiences his sense of smell as a celebration of life while traveling in North Africa and Italy on his honeymoon. The first instance in which he mentions the sense of smell is while he and Marceline are in Biskra, Algeria. As Michel recovers from tuberculosis, he finds himself more and more focused on his physical health. When he becomes well enough to take walks in the park near their hotel, Michel experiences a new sense of life welling up within him. During one of these walks, he enters the park “with a sense of rapture.”

The air was luminous. The cassias, which flower long before they come into leaf, gave off a sweet scent— or perhaps it emanated from everywhere, the light, unfamiliar smell which seemed to enter into me by all my senses and filled me with a feeling of exaltation.

This first powerful sensual experience of his heightened sense of smell represents for Michel a sign of the new life emerging within him. “Was this finally the morning when I was to be reborn?” he asks.

With Michel greatly recovered from his illness, he and Marceline leave North Africa to travel through Italy. In each new location, Michel experiences new fragrances that further awaken his growing lust for life. He frequently describes his experience of the smells around him as intoxicating and rapturous. In Salerno, he walks among a grove of lemon trees in a state of dreamy intoxication. His experience of the lemons is described in lush detail, exulting in their look, taste, and smell.

The fragrant lemons hang like thick drops of wax; in the shade they look greenish-white; they are within reach, and taste sweet, sharp, refreshing.

In Ravello, Michel becomes bolder and more adventurous in his new celebration of life through physical and sensual experience. He wanders in the woods by himself, enjoying his new physical strength, focusing on the aesthetic qualities of his own body. He finds a remote clearing in the woods where he sunbathes nude, experiencing the forces of life through the physical sensations of his skin. With the heat of the sun’s rays, he states, “my whole being surged up into my skin.” One day, he dives naked into a clear mountain stream and comes back to shore to bath in the sun. To enhance this rejuvenating physical experience, Michel adds the smell of fresh mint.

“There was some wild mint growing there,” he relates. “I picked some, crushed the sweet-smelling leaves between my fingers and rubbed them over my damp but burning body.”

While traveling from Ravello to Sorrento, Michel again experiences his sense of smell as a celebration of his excitement about life. As he describes their journey:

“The roughness of the sun-warmed rocks, the rich, limpid air, the smells made me feel so alive. . . . ‘Oh joy of the body!’ I exclaimed to myself.”

Upon returning home, Michel and his wife stay for the summer at La Morinière, their estate in northern France. While there, Michel spends most of his time out roaming in the fields and woods, where he experiences a whole new range of smells that further inspire him to pursue his natural desires. He describes with exaltation the smell of the sea air, the odor of wet leaves, and the fragrance emitting from the crops as well as the earth itself. During the apple harvest, he describes the rich fragrances filling the air: “A sickly sweet scent rose from the meadow and mingled with the smell of the ploughed earth.”

Interestingly, while Michel and Marceline spend the winter in Paris, Michel makes no mention whatsoever of any smells, odors, or fragrances, whether good or bad. This represents Michel’s feeling of sensory deprivation while in the city, where he finds the social atmosphere stifles his quest for natural, physical experiences. When they return to La Morinière the following spring, Michel once again celebrates his strong impressions of the smells of country life. During the hay harvesting season, he observes:

The air was full of pollen, of scents, and it went to my head like strong drink. It was as if I hadn’t breathed for a year, or else had been breathing nothing but dust, so smoothly did the honey-sweet fill my lungs.

As he spends more and more time with young peasant men on the estate, Michel begins to associate his sense of smell with his attraction to these vigorous youths. He becomes fascinated with the earthy existence of the peasants, and intrigued by their secret lives. The young man who fills him in on local gossip tells Michel stories that “gave off vapours of the abyss; I inhaled them uneasily, feeling my head spin.” Alcide, the young man whom he helps to poach on his land, sleeps in the barn, and Michel even enjoys the odor of Alcide’s clothes, which “still bore the warm smell of poultry.”

During Michel and Marceline’s second trip through Europe and North Africa, Michel continues to associate his sense of smell with his love of life. He hates being in Switzerland, because he finds the people lacking in vitality. However, as they leave Switzerland to enter Italy, he becomes aware of the vigorous sense of life associated with Mediterranean culture. He comments that traveling from Switzerland to Italy, “was like exchanging abstraction for life, and even though it was still winter, I thought I could smell scents everywhere.”

As they continue their travels through Italy, Michel continues to delight in the rich scents of the land and people. In Naples, he is drawn by the scent of the orange blossoms to go out prowling the streets at night, for “the slightest breath of wind carried their scent.” In Taormina, Michel is so charmed by a Sicilian coach driver, whom he describes as “resplendent, fragrant and delicious as a piece of fruit,” that he spontaneously kisses the man. In the ports of Syracuse, Michel finds that he is enchanted even by the unpleasant odors of life on the docks, “The smell of sour wine, muddy backstreets, the stinking market frequented by dockers, tramps and drunken sailors.”

While Michel associates a strong sense of smell with the love of life, he likewise associates those who are repulsed by smells with death and morbidity. During their stay in Florence, Marceline becomes increasingly ill while Michel finds himself more and more invigorated. One day, enchanted by their fragrance, he buys a huge bundle of almond blossoms to bring home to his wife. He excitedly arranges the flowers throughout their hotel room. But when Marceline returns and steps in the door, she is nauseated and upset by the odor of the flowers, “a faint, very faint, discreet smell of honey.” It is as if even this subtle fragrance of life is overwhelming to the dying woman.

The Immoralist has been widely praised for its elegant and affecting prose. Gide’s vivid descriptions of Michel’s sensation of smells, odors, and fragrances are brilliantly expressive of his celebration of life through sensual experiences.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on The Immoralist, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

The Moral Quandaries in a Novel

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1781

The title of André Gide’s novel, The Immoralist, refers to a protagonist who consciously experiments with his moral boundaries. In the beginning of the novel, this protagonist, named Michel, is prompted by a serious illness to find a new way of living. His strained efforts to get well lead him to loosen or discard the moral fabric which once enveloped him. By the end of the novel, Michel has so adopted a philosophy of personal freedom, and challenged his belief system, that he seems adrift in a sea of uncertainty and experiences an intense solitude that he calls an “empty liberty.” During the story, Michel gains firsthand experience of sickness and health, love and marriage, and life and death. During these deep experiences, the protagonist struggles both for his own truths and to affirm his life amidst his solitude and his increasing amount of freedom.

From the beginning of the story, the conflict between individual and culture is hinted at; the question arises, “In what way might Michel be useful to the state?” As Michel begins telling the story of his life, in retrospect, he shows the point of uncertainty to which he has arrived when he states, “I no longer understand anything.” The story Michel begins to tell is his personal quest for freedom, which includes freedom from accepted moral laws, and that quest has left him in a place where he acknowledges, “the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom.”

When describing himself at the beginning of the story, before changes have occurred to him, Michel portrays his life as normal to the point of being almost unnoticeable. He has been a man of placid emotions and calm passions. He marries Marceline because his father is dying, and he believes that the marriage will please his father during his last days. Michel states that he did not love his wife at the beginning, and instead of passion he felt “a tenderness, a sort of pity” for her. He is very aware of the intricacies of social convention when he notes that his wife was Catholic and that he is Protestant. Michel is a successful academic, although his work has been published under his father’s name. When speaking of himself, he notes how “the early moral lessons of childhood . . . exert an influence,” and mentions an “austerity” that he inherited from his “mother’s indoctrination” and his “puritanical childhood.” Michel points out that he has friends, but that he “loved friendship more than the friends themselves,” revealing the mental abstraction that permeates his bookish life. Michel notes his “thrifty habits” and the “detached” quality of his life. In short, Michel describes himself as influenced by the cultural rules in which he is immersed, so much so that he remarks that, “It never occurred to me that I could lead a different life.”

Michel’s illness produces deep inner questioning in him. The illness takes him to the edge of life and death, where he has to affirm his desire to live. In the throes of sickness, he realizes a “wild, desperate drive towards existence.” The illness is representative of how restricted and contracted his life has become, and his efforts to overcome the sickness become efforts also to find a new and more vital way of living. Michel becomes so debilitated that he has to learn to do basic tasks again, and he feels a “thrill of discovering life afresh” as he makes slow steps toward recovery. During his recovery, Michel organizes his life in order to “concentrate solely” on his cure, and he “would identify as good only those things that were salutary,” a new change in his moral system. Michel decides that survival is simply a “question of willpower,” and he begins living his life in a way that enables him to exert his will over his situation. Michel is exiled from his homeland by illness and by choice. Leaving his culture behind during his convalescence frees him from cultural constraints, and he realizes that he must seize this freedom. In his new situation, he states that his “salvation depended on myself,” while the new life he envisions will be “an exaltation of the senses and the flesh,” quite different from his previous life.

Michel’s illness forces him out of his dualism between mind and body; he claims he does not have the “strength to lead a dual life,” and that he would “think about the life of the mind later,” when he is better. He abandons intellectual activity and begins a willful and organized program to strengthen his body and overcome his illness. As his body heals, he experiences a transformation. Michel discovers a “newfound awareness” of his senses; he delights in the feeling of sunshine on his body and of taking cold plunges in water. The countryside of North Africa becomes beautiful to him, which he describes with poetic and graceful language. He cuts off his beard and allows his hair to grow longer to reveal his “new self,” and his body becomes muscular and tanned. He becomes “no longer the pale, scholarly creature,” but a person who is determined to allow a “voluptuous enjoyment” of himself and “of everything that seemed . . . divine.” Michel also changes how he views his body, seeing it “no longer with shame” that he perhaps inherited from his culture, “but with joy.” By the second part of the novel, Michel’s belief system has changed in the way that he views his mind and body; before, the life of the mind had precedence, but his transformative illness forces him to prioritize the health of his physical body.

Michel, throughout the story, strongly attests to the transformation that the illness brings about. He emphasizes the change in himself when he states that, “Everything that was painful to me then is now a delight.” When he returns to France, he is “constantly reminded” of the change that has occurred to him, and he states that he “had only just been born.” He further abandons his old life when he declares he would prefer to adopt a “provisional mode” of living, and he begins to experience life as “nothing more” than the “passing moment.” Michel becomes a more advanced immoralist when he begins to rebel intellectually against his old way of thinking. He claims, “I started to despise the learning,” and he made efforts to “shake off these layers” that he had acquired from his culture. He comes to believe that underneath a “secondary” layer of himself, put there by culture, there is an “authentic being” that is primal and vital, and that by getting back to that more essential part of himself he can make his life more “harmonious, sensuous, [and] almost beautiful.” His personal philosophy becomes one of both striving for perfection and ridding himself of cultural programming, and he states, “How could I be interested in myself other than as a perfectible being?”

The transformation affects other areas of Michel’s belief system. In one instance, Marceline prays for Michel during Mass, to which Michel responds, “There is no need to pray for me.” He rejects an appeal to God because he claims he does not want any obligations, while Marceline refuses to believe that he can heal without divine help. In another scene, further delineating the change in Michel’s moral system, he observes one of the children, with whom he has made a friendship, steal a pair of scissors from his room. Assuming the boy has no idea that he has been observed, Michel allows the incident to pass without comment or reproach. Instead, this boy, named Moktir, now becomes Michel’s “favourite,” and this incident becomes “a strange moment of self-revelation.” The scissors also have an interesting symbolism; this incident, of tolerating and even admiring the act of stealing, represents a break, or a cutting away, of some of Michel’s morals.

Michel also questions his love for his wife. He analyzes his love for her, and he tries to will himself to love her more. Love becomes an act of selfcreation for Michel, when he makes a promise to force his love to “grow with my health.” He shields his inner reality from his wife, stating, “it was important that she didn’t interfere with my new selfawareness.” He mentions how he has to lie to Marceline about his feelings for her, and that he began to “enjoy this dissimulation” at the same time their love “deepened,” a strange contradiction but one that tests his “new, unknown faculties” of pushing his moral edge. At one point, Michel declares that his “veneration” for his wife grew in “inverse proportion to my self-respect.”

Michel also tests his morals when he goes to his family farm and interacts with the farm workers. Michel finds out that one of them is poaching from him, and rather than stop the illegal act, he becomes interested in it, condones and assists it, and eventually even pays one of the perpetrators unknowingly. By transgressing long-held agreements and codes of conduct, Michel gets taken advantage of and the workers become exasperated with him. In the end, the farm becomes uninteresting to Michel, he becomes alienated from the people who had been close to him, and he flees as “everything was unraveling” around him.

In the end, Michel meets suffering and illness again as his wife’s health deteriorates. He seems to play a disturbing part in her decline, pushing them to repeat the exhausting journey that Michel had made to overcome his own sickness. In his quest to find what “man is still capable of,” he becomes driven by an “irresistible demon.” His narrative contains contradictions that reinforce his sense of confusion toward the end. He asks, “how many . . . conflicting thoughts can coexist within a man?” and decries his “insufferable logic.” Of his wealth, he “grew to hate this luxury and yet enjoy it.” Of people, he states that “the worst instincts . . . seemed to me the most sincere.” He keeps his distance from other people, claiming that “the very things that separated me . . . were what mattered.” His loneliness is palpable when Marceline dies; he states, “I no longer know the dark god I revere.” Michel acknowledges his predicament and confusion in the end, when he states that consistency in thinking is “what makes a real man.” Instead of seeing the potential of the future, which he once proclaimed, he ends his story by remarking on the “intolerably long, dreary days” that lie ahead of him, as he has freed himself from both constraints and safety nets.

Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on The Immoralist, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Gide’s Use of Natural Imagery

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1392

André Gide’s The Immoralist is a novel of exploration and discovery, albeit within a psychic realm. Michel, an accomplished archaeologist and scholar, embarks upon a journey of self-exploration that is guided by his subconscious as much as it is by any willful decision to abandon the social mores that have imposed themselves upon him. As the novel progresses, Michel’s spirit remains rebellious, unbridled, and this spirit gathers in intensity with each layer of his former self that he casts aside. Throughout The Immoralist Gide incorporates natural images that mirror Michel’s psychic state, especially the process of psychic renewal that results from stripping away the patina of education, family relationships, and respectability that have provided Michel with a foundation and direction for his life.

For Michel, a man whose mentality is tied to his physical surroundings (a fact attested to by his incessant wandering), environment plays a key role in shaping his attitude toward life, and for this reason much of the imagery Gide uses to represent Michel’s psychic state is associated with nature. Early in the novel, after a brief stay in Paris, Michel and Marceline journey to Michel’s farm, La Morinière, near Lisieux, which is, according to Michel, “the shadiest, wettest countryside” he knows. The farm, which had formerly been the domain of Michel’s father, who is now deceased, offers Michel an opportunity to put his imprimatur upon the family’s history.

With the aid of Charles, the caretaker’s son, Michel tours the farm, inspecting its pastures and orchards and formulating a plan for the future. From this orderly abundance, from this happy subservience,

from this smiling cultivation, a harmony was being wrought, no longer fortuitous but imposed, a rhythm, a beauty at once human and natural, in which one could no longer tell what was most admirable, so intimately united into a perfect understanding were the fecund explosion of free nature and man’s skillful effort to order it.

This plan is nothing less than grand in design, but Michel, his “old turmoil” having been displaced by a feeling of serenity, must assess the amount of energy he will bring to the task of reshaping the farm. He must plumb the depths of his psyche and determine his ability to combat the forces of nature, much less the sense of family history associated with the farm, if he wishes to demonstrate a “disciplined intelligence” over the land and all it produces.

With a characteristic transition that fosters a strong connection in the novel between actions and the ideas that motivate them, Gide employs imagery that places his protagonist’s psychic state in bold relief. For example, when Michel finds Bocage, the caretaker who has known him since he was a child, beside a pond that must be drained and cemented to repair a leak, Gide describes the scene with images that are laden with symbolic meaning. According to Michel, the pond had not been drained in “fifteen years,” thus indicating a certain neglect that has resulted from the inexorable progress of time as well as human indifference. The pond is full of “very large” carp and tench (another bottom feeder) that had “never left the deepest parts” of the containment. The fish, like Michel’s memories of La Morinière, are firmly established and will not give way easily. “Occasionally a great shudder ran over the surface, and the brown backs of the disturbed fish appeared,” says Michel as memories, like the denizens that have surfaced, rise from deep within his subconscious. Moreover, the fish represent Michel’s desire to master the “powerful savagery” that exists within nature and within himself, for he wishes to control the land with that “disciplined intelligence.”

By wading in and joining the farmhands and their children in an impromptu “fishing party,” Michel physically immerses himself in the land he claims as his own. Water, long a symbol for the unconscious because of its translucent qualities and interminable depths, becomes a medium for exploration as Michel and Charles, with mud-splattered faces, wade into deep holes and attempt to catch a large, slippery eel, itself a symbol for Michel’s nascent freedom once the eel emerges from the pond’s murky depths into the light of day. Gide’s choice of imagery and symbolism may lack subtlety, but they nevertheless bind the novel’s ideas with actions that the reader can easily interpret.

Later in the novel, once Michel has returned to La Morinière after a series of journeys abroad with Marceline, who now lies gravely ill, Gide employs nature’s stark contrasts to underscore Michel’s growing frustration and impatience at the responsibilities he must uphold. Once again, Michel, lord of the manor, inspects his property in an effort to distract himself from what he calls his “disheveled life,” only to find that the farm now exhibits laxity instead of the organization he had witnessed there before. Burdened by the constant demands that have been placed upon him, Michel seeks the ordered harmony a farm embodies as an ideal, a harmony arrested from the surrounding wilderness, as well as the organic hierarchy that exists within nature itself.

Instead of finding woodlands that have had their timber cut according to a long-standing agreement, one that leaves no doubt as to how the wood should be cut, divided, and sold, Michel discovers that Heurtevant, the contractor, has allowed trees felled in winter to occupy the lot well after spring, the traditional time for harvesting, so that the forest’s new growth must overcome these obstructions if the forest is to revive and replenish itself. Similarly, Michel feels trapped by the responsibilities he must bear, especially those that result from other people’s negligence. Though Michel breaks with the past, he cannot assert his independence completely because obstacles remain in his path. The new Michel cannot emerge because the old Michel, the one who was encumbered by family obligations, stands in the way.

Gide’s use of these natural images attains greater symbolic importance when one considers that Michel, in search of “the old Adam” within him—an entity who cannot be suppressed by family, education, nor by Michel himself—has decided to abandon the past. In removing the “encrustations” that have, in his view, prevented him from becoming an “authentic being,” Michel compares himself to a palimpsest, a piece of writing that, upon close examination, reveals previous drafts or texts underneath. Each layer builds upon the other to form a composite text, a complete entity. Michel understands that, in order for him to uncover his true self, the one that lies beneath the “text” his life has composed thus far, he must remove each outer layer of his being until he reaches the core. “In order to read it,” he muses, extending this metaphor, “would I not have to erase, first, the more recent ones?”

When considered in light of Michel’s selfimage, Gide’s use of imagery from nature mirrors the idea of a palimpsest, for layers of soil, water, and timber are removed to reveal a landscape that represents a new beginning; layers are uncovered so that others may push through. The pond is drained so that it may be repaired and replenished; like the formal education that Michel rejects, the dark, murky waters of the pond are drained away to reveal what is at the core: a primal, pristine state represented by the large fish that swim along the bottom. Similarly, the felled trees in the woods around La Morinière represent a thinning, or removing, of old growth so that new growth may emerge. Combining ideas with actions that resonate throughout the novel, Gide presents the reader with images that create visually Michel’s process of psychic renovation.

More than one hundred years after its initial publication, The Immoralist remains a novel of startling ideas and confessions. Gide’s use of strong visual imagery, particularly that found in nature, serves as a metaphor for Michel’s transformation from aesthete to debauched and broken hedonist. Thus, by mirroring his protagonist’s psychic state with images from the natural world around him, Gide marks Michel’s existential journey indelibly for the reader with each page turned and each layer of being uncovered.

Source: David Remy, Critical Essay on The Immoralist, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Romantic Resurgence

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3247

L’Immoraliste (The Immoralist) (1902) is the first representative of that most remarkable category of Gide’s work, the psychological novel. Gide did not invent the genre, but he did revive it in a period when prose fiction was more or less divided between the pseudosociological chronicles of the Naturalists and the delicately perverse romances of the Decadents. Gide’s models, we may reasonably presume, were La Princesse de Clèves, Manon Lescaut, René, Adolphe, and Dominique. But there was something in this type of fiction that was more important for him than any model, and that was the kind of action that the narrative represented. In “Un Esprit non prévenu” (An unbiased mind) Gide made a distinction between two sorts of novels, “or at least two ways of depicting life”:

The one, exterior and commonly called “objective,” which visualizes first of all the other person’s gesture, the event, then explains and interprets it.

The other, which seizes first of all emotions and thoughts, then creates the events and characters most fitted to bring these out and runs the risk of being powerless to depict anything that the author has not first felt himself. His inner riches, his complexity, the antagonism of his too diverse possibilities, will allow the greatest diversity in his creations. But everything comes out of him. He is the only guarantee of the truth he reveals, the only judge. The hell and the heaven of his characters is in him. It is not himself that he depicts, but what he depicts he could have become if he had not become precisely himself.

What the psychological novel offered Gide was a means of dramatizing his inner turbulence in terms appropriate to it. The action of these books is in the conflict between desire and inspiration on the one hand and the restrictive force of pain and obligation on the other hand. Physical encounters and displacements are to be interpreted as symbolic inventions employed to reflect and enrich the psychological action. This does not make them any less important: indeed, one of the outstanding qualities of Gide’s psychological novels is to be found in the suggestive power of these secondary effects of scene and situation. (Such effects, we must remember, were the primary value of his symbolist tales.)

The central strategy of L’Immoraliste is one that we have already seen in Gide’s work: the dissolution of a heterosexual relationship and its replacement by a homosexual one. The difference here is that the strategy is neither concealed nor abbreviated; it is the subject of the story from beginning to end, and the course of its development is punctuated with peripeties and discoveries. Gide found the way to involve all the motives and countermotives of his personality in this one plot. The result is a story that is at once direct and clear in its depiction of the growth of a desire and complex and ambiguous in its thought about the demands of that desire.

The attack upon heterosexuality (which for Gide was always an attempt to be rid of the frustration oedipal relationship) begins on the first page of Michel’s story when he says of his bride Marceline: “I had married her without love, mainly to please my father, who, dying, was worried at leaving me alone” (Romans, Récits et Soties, Oeuvres lyriques, hereafter cited as RRS). The illness that strikes him on their wedding journey to North Africa is not an accident but rather a defense against the undesired relationship.

Michel begins his recovery by refusing Marceline’s attentions. He avoids her and seeks health in the company of a band of Arab boys. When he sees one of these steal Marceline’s sewing scissors he is delighted to be a silent accomplice in the theft. He does not understand his joy, but its reason is not to our eyes impenetrable: the scissors are an emblem of feminine power, an instrument of castration. When the child takes them he disarms Marceline and displaces her as an object of erotic interest. Michel not only recovers from his illness, he becomes a new man whose strength and vitality are based upon his acknowledgment of the claims of his fundamental being—what he calls, in biblical language, “the old man.” As a sign of rebirth he shaves his beard. (So did Saül, and so did Gide.) At this point there occurs a reversal in the process of homoeroticism. In southern Italy, on the way home, he finally accomplishes his conjugal duty to Marceline—but it is of the utmost importance to note that this act takes place after he has wrestled with and thrashed a drunken coachman.

At home on his Norman farm Michel puts his new strength to work practicing in all things what he calls “a science of the perfect utilization of self through an intelligent restraint” (RRS). He is relieved of his marital obligations by Marceline’s pregnancy, and he enters into a warm virile relationship with the 17-year-old son of his farm manager. Together they plan to carry out certain projects in agricultural economy. Michel’s latent homosexuality finds a sort of symbolic expression and a partial satisfaction when, one day, he paddles around barefoot in a pond helping Charles catch the eels that have been exposed by draining the pond.

The next major episode of the novel is the turning point in Michel’s history. He meets Ménalque, a godlike figure who manifests and professes a doctrine of risk, expenditure, and egoism. Ménalque is a notorious homosexual. (His name, of course, recalls Les Nourritures terrestres, and still more pertinently Virgil’s Bucolics.) In token of his authority over Michel he brings the scissors that Moktir stole from Marceline. In a single conversation he undermines the prudent plan of Michel’s life and teaches him to despise his possessions and his expectations. On the night of their meeting Marceline suffers a miscarriage and becomes very ill. The accident marks the end of her ascendancy in Michel’s life. Ménalque plays no other role in the story than this one of being the means through which Michel discovers a little more of his hidden and repressed nature. He is a kind of demonic intercessor who could better be called a force, or an idea, than a character.

When Michel and Marceline return to the farm, Michel no longer has any thought for productive economy. He poaches game on his own lands with the disreputable young son of his farm manager. This relationship has the same homoerotic character as the one with Charles, but the setting of Michel’s encounters with Alcide endows them with an illicit and clandestine value. Finally, restlessness overcomes him and, abandoning the farm, Michel drags the ailing Marceline away on a journey that leads them step by step back to Africa.

Michel’s conduct this time is the reverse of what it was coming north out of Africa. He is no longer prudently building his health and strength but recklessly expending and risking both by drinking with the riffraff of Naples and Sicily, and sleeping in their company on tavern floors. On one occasion he frankly embraces and kisses his carriage driver. Back in Africa, he seeks out his former companions and, freeing them from want and subservience, he indulges their appetite for pleasure, as well as his own. Marceline, weakened by his demonic pursuit of satisfaction, dies; Michel consoles himself with the little boy Ali. It is in this manner that the heterosexual marriage is definitively destroyed and the homosexual encounter put in its place.

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 satisfies his native desires. The knowledge of who and what he is, and of what he must do to become who he is, comes in the form of impulses rather than decisions. The powers of clear vision and determination are stifled in him by his moral and intellectual culture, which has proscribed the solution that he is unconsciously striving to find.

It is in the conflict between the hero and his culture that Gide develops his accompaniment to the main action. This secondary conflict seems at times to override the major one because its terms are clearer and franker. Being more verbal than imagistic, and conscious rather than unconscious, it tends to seize tonal control of the narrative.

At the very beginning of the novel Michel is referred to as “the very learned Puritan,” and as he begins to tell his story he mentions “the grave Huguenot teaching” given him by his mother. This is his moral capital: a stock of austere, inflexible precepts. To his father he owes a similarly dogmatic training in classical philology, which has taught him to regard Athens and Rome as the two foci of human history.

Michel’s bondage to his culture is symbolized by his marriage to Marceline, who represents the Christian ideal at its most excellent. Her virtues of devotion, abnegation, restraint, and pity are all expressions of the triumph of human weakness. To complete the image of submission Gide makes her a Catholic.

In going to North Africa, Michel crosses the frontier of his culture, and when he loses its protection and guidance he fails ill. His recovery is owed entirely to the assertion of a primitive power within him that is independent of traditional and collective values. This “authentic being” is discovered only when the veneer of acquired knowledge peels off. “There was more here than a convalescence; there was an augmentation, a recrudescence of life, the inflow of a richer, warmer blood which was to touch my thoughts, touch them one by one, penetrate everything, stir, color the most remote, delicate, and secret fibers of my being” (RRS).

Michel’s first task is to create physical strength, but concurrently he must reshape his moral and intellectual being to conform to that strength. The first stage in his moral revolution culminates in that “perfect utilization of self through an intelligent restraint” that he formulates in the midst of work on the farm and the preparation of the course that he will give at the Collège de France. This course entails a complete revision of his historical studies. He is no longer interested in the “abstract and neutral knowledge of the past.” Philology is now a means of approaching the human personality of an earlier time. He is drawn more and more to the rough, uncultured Goths and especially to the rebellious and debauched young King Athalaric (A.D. 516–534). The thesis that he subsequently proposes is that culture, born of life, ends by stifling life and preventing the contact of mind with nature.

Michel’s critical thought has in fact preceded and opened the way to a new conduct. His prudent, economical way of living is in conflict with this new conception of man. When he meets Ménalque after his first lecture his thought is: “The life, the least gesture of Ménalque, was it not a thousand times more eloquent than my course?” (RRS). This new man enunciates a doctrine of radical individualism, sensualism, and consumption that makes the ground give way under Michel’s feet, as he puts it. From that moment forward, his thought and conduct are directed toward a new end: to discover what man is yet capable of. “And each day there grew in me the obscure feeling of untouched riches, covered over, hidden, smothered by cultures, decencies, moralities” (RRS).

When Marceline says to him: “I understand your doctrine—for it is a doctrine now. It is fine, perhaps . . . but it suppresses the weak,” Michel replies: “That is what is needed” (RRS).

Up to this point, Michel’s “immoralism”—his rejection of conventional Christian, middle-class morality and his effort to found a vital and authentic ethic on the acknowledgment and pursuit of desire and possibility—bears a close resemblance to the Nietzschean “revaluation of all values.” Gide was familiar with Nietzsche’s work and had written about it in 1898 in his “Letters à Angèle.” In later years he attempted to minimize the influence of Nietzche on the book, and in a sense he may have been justified in doing so. Ménalque could be called a genuine Nietzschean hero: his life is a risky pursuit of his own unrealized possibilities; he refuses the restraint of principles and retrospective judgments; and still he sublimates his more aggressive instincts, finding in ascetic self-denial a pleasure superior to that of indulgence and satisfaction. Michel is another matter. He is very unsure about the grounds of his revolt. With Marceline very near death, he reflects: “Ah, perhaps there would still be time . . . Shall I not stop?—I have sought, I have found what makes my value: a sort of stubborn commitment to the worst” (RRS). And to the friends who have answered his call for aid after his wife’s death he says: “It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not yet begun. Drag me away from here now and give me reasons for existing. I no longer know how to find them. I have freed myself, possibly, but what difference does it make? I am suffering from this unutilized freedom. Believe me, it is not that I am overcome by my crime, if you choose to call it that—but I must prove to myself, that I have not overstepped my rights” (RRS).

This speech, and indeed the whole development of the moral countercurrent in the novel, imply that Michel’s erotic impulse has not been able to conquer altogether his moral resistance. The erotic has achieved its end but at the cost of painful division within the hero’s soul. He feels that he was right to follow his own desire and Ménalque’s teaching, but the puritan in him is still alive, and he has not been proven wrong. It is on this ambiguous note that Gide ends his story. The erotic conflict provides the basic energy of the novel. That is the problem that has to be solved. Unlike Gide, Michel is unable to create and play two lovers’ roles. One has to be sacrificed to the other. But there is ambiguity in this, for Michel never fully recognizes that he is a homosexual, and that his conduct is inspired by distaste for the heterosexual relationship he has passively accepted and by desire for love with a boy. Instead of seeing his problem for what it is, he does something extravagant: he poses it in terms of the entire moral and intellectual order of his world. He effects a transference that makes his personal dilemma appear, in the first place, to be directly related to the revolution in Western moral thought that is represented principally by Friedrich Nietzsche, and in the second place he assimilates it to the revolution in historical thinking that established philosophical anthropology as a rival to antiquarian historiography (another development in which Nietzsche played a primary role).

It is this elevation and expansion of his personal anomaly that makes Michel a hero. He attacks the very heart of the ideology of his society, and he offers himself as an example of the new thought that he is advancing. But his heroic rebellion, by its very vigor and honesty, turns Michel into a satanic figure, for it leads him to destroy a gentle and unprotesting victim who is sacrificed as a representative of her culture. The immolation of Marceline casts a deep shadow over Michel’s entire venture, obscuring its value and making it profoundly questionable.

The result is, as we have seen, a downcast hero, one who has asserted his notion of the truth and had it strike back at him in its consequences. However, there is no inscrutable fate working against him, nor any vengeful god. His difficulty is located entirely in the human condition, and more specifically in the fact of human freedom. The problem is one of conflicting rights among persons, and Michel’s action in attempting to resolve it becomes an episode in a continuing drama within Western civilization. He illustrates with great force and clarity the manner in which the conflict may appear to a particular man in a set of particular historical circumstances.

Gide’s artistry is abundantly displayed in L’Immoraliste, and nowhere more impressively than in the narrative style. The story that he invents is a romantic one in all essential respects—in its glorification of self, of desire, and of will; in the excesses of action and thought that it depicts; and in the ironies that it sustains from start to finish, the irony of Michel and the irony of freedom. But the narrative is the work of a symbolist who foregoes all rhetorical effects in order to make his language a purely descriptive instrument. The voice that recounts is that of Michel, not that of Gide.

The haughty tone, so often stiff and artificial, is precisely that of a scholarly puritan who is trying to set forth his turbulent inner experience without knowing quite what it is all about. This austere, insensitive voice is Gide’s primary means in making the character of Michel. It is an unceasing evidence of what he is, a man whose action and thought are governed by impulses that he either fails to comprehend or misrepresents to himself.

The symbolical representation of ideas in the story is extraordinarily rich, and so too are the symbols that reveal the constant presence of the erotic motive. The composition of the narrative mirrors both the Gidean personality division and the antithetical character and action of Michel. Half the story is allotted to the productive, or angelic, phase of Michel’s reform and half to the consumptive, or demonic, phase. The encounter with the mythical, archangelic Ménalque stands at the midpoint. The effect of this perfect division can hardly be overestimated. It gives the book an air of equilibrium and resolution that is at odds with the ambiguous sense of the story. Perhaps it is to this aspect of his work that Gide was alluding when, after declaring in his preface that he had intended to pose a problem and not to judge it or solve it, he added: “I use the word ‘problem’ here with reluctance. To tell the truth, in art there are no problems—of which the work of art is not a sufficient solution” (RRS).

However important a work L’Immoraliste may appear to be today, at its publication it found few readers, and among those few some greeted it with hostile indignation. Gide felt that this reaction was wholly unjustified since he had not sought to make Michel’s excesses seem anything but ignoble. The indignation, however, was probably provoked by something deeper than Michel’s conduct. What he does is easy enough to judge and condemn. What he is would have been harder for Gide’s indignant readers to get at. Michel’s arrogance, anarchism, and insensitivity are essentially class attributes, and the readers of the novel were mostly of Michel’s class. Their outcry was provoked really by Gide’s association of their guilty being, which they had felt was adequately hidden, with guilty deeds that could not be concealed.

Source: Thomas Cordle, “Romantic Resurgence,” in André Gide, updated ed., Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 48–98.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Immoralist Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Critical Overview