Historical Context

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France: The Third RepublicThe Immoralist takes place in France, Europe, and North Africa during the 1890s. Michel’s family estate is located in Normandy, a province in northern France. While teaching as a professor, he lives with his wife in Paris. The French government at this time was in the...

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France: The Third Republic
The Immoralist takes place in France, Europe, and North Africa during the 1890s. Michel’s family estate is located in Normandy, a province in northern France. While teaching as a professor, he lives with his wife in Paris. The French government at this time was in the era of the Third Republic, which began in 1871, adopting the Constitution of the Third Republic in 1875. France’s colonial holdings increased during the era of the Third Republic, and by 1900 France was the second greatest colonial power in the world, after Great Britain. The Third Republic was dissolved with the invasion of France by Germany during World War II, and French colonial holdings were greatly reduced during the post–World War II era.

North Africa
Many of the important events in The Immoralist take place during Michel and Marceline’s travels in the region of North Africa. North Africa encompasses the modern nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya. This region is also sometimes referred to as the Maghrib, which in Arabic means “West.” The Atlas Mountains in the north, the Sahara desert in the South, and coastal regions along the Mediterranean Sea characterize the terrain of North Africa. The inhabitants of North Africa are primarily Arabic Muslims, who were subjugated and dominated by French and other European colonial powers beginning in the 19th century. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, France invaded, conquered, and colonized much of North Africa. France conquered Algeria in 1830. Tunisia came under French control between 1881 and 1883. France did not conquer Morocco until 1912. Libya, which had been within the domain of the Ottoman Turks since 1835, was invaded and occupied by Italy in 1931. Thus, the events of The Immoralist are set in the French controlled areas of Algeria and Tunisia. Biskra, the city in which Michel befriends a number of Arab boys and makes important discoveries about his own nature, is located in northeastern Algeria.

The political and national conditions of North Africa have changed greatly since the 1890s. In the post–World War II era, French colonial control gave way to national sovereignty. Libya, which had come under Italian and then British control, was granted national independence in 1951. Tunisia and Morocco were granted sovereignty by the French government in 1956. France at this point hoped to maintain control of Algeria. However, Algerians wishing to attain the same national independence granted to their neighbors had begun a rebellion against French rule in 1954. Finally, in 1962, after eight years of civil war, France admitted defeat and granted national sovereignty to Algiers.

Tuberculosis
During the course of The Immoralist, both Michel and his wife Marceline suffer from tuberculosis. While Michel recovers from the disease, Marceline, who becomes infected while nursing him, eventually dies from it. Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that reached epidemic proportions during the nineteenth century. Tuberculosis affects the lungs, making breathing difficult. One of the most dramatic symptoms of tuberculosis is the coughing up of blood, which Michel in The Immoralist describes in graphic detail. During the nineteenth century, there was no known cure for tuberculosis, and lengthy bed-rest or staying in temperate climates was often recommended. The bacteria which causes tuberculosis, bacillus Mycobacterium tuberculosis, was identified in 1882 by the German physician Robert Koch. Beginning in the 1940s, antibacterial drugs that can effectively treat and cure tuberculosis first came into use. However, tuberculosis continues to be a widespread disease today, killing some three million people per year, many of them in developing or third world countries where sanitation and medical care are inadequate.

Literary Style

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Preface
The Immoralist was first published in 1902 without a preface. However, in later editions of the novel, Gide included a brief “Preface” in response to the reactions of readers and critics to certain aspects of his story. In this preface, Gide explains that many people have misunderstood The Immoralist and criticized it unfairly. He states that he has been blamed for not ending his story with a clear moral condemnation of Michel’s behavior. However, Gide insists that it was not his intent to provide moral conclusions to his tale, but to pose a problem. He asserts that the problem represented in The Immoralist is one commonly experienced by many men of his day. He states, “I don’t pretend to have invented this ‘problem’—it existed before my book came along,” and that, regardless of the fate of the character in the novel, “the ‘problem’ continues to exist.” Finally, Gide notes, “I am not trying to prove anything, merely to paint my picture well and set it in a good light.”

Frame Narrative and Point of View
The narrative structure and point of view of The Immoralist is somewhat complex. The novel begins with what is called a frame narrative, meaning a brief explanation of the context of the central narrative. Thus, the first two pages of The Immoralist are written in the form of a letter from an unnamed man to his brother, a Monsieur D. R., explaining that Michel summoned his three longtime friends—Denis, Daniel, and “I”—to travel to his hotel in Sidi, North Africa, on an urgent matter. The letter states that Michel told his story to these three friends one night while lounging on his terrace. The letter writer indicates that he has written down Michel’s story as it was told to these friends, and that this transcript of the story is enclosed in the letter.

Within this frame narrative, the main body of The Immoralist is a first-person narrative from the point of view of Michel. Michel thus opens his story by addressing his three listeners as “My dear friends,” informing them that he is at a point of crisis, and that he is going to tell them the story of his life. Michel explains that he no longer understands anything about life, and that he needs this opportunity to talk with loyal friends about what he has experienced. Thus, the remainder of the novel is narrated in the firstperson “I” form; except at several points Michel again addresses his three listeners in the secondperson “you” form, in commenting on his own story.

Psychological and Confessional Literature
The Immoralist is considered one of the greatest early psychological novels. A psychological novel is focused primarily on the internal life and development of the individual, stressing thoughts, emotions, and character over plot and external events. The Immoralist is also regarded as one of the great novels in the confessional mode. A confessional novel is a first-person narrative in which an individual character, whether fictional or autobiographical, describes personal experiences expressive of some internal moral or psychological conflict or dilemma. Michel in The Immoralist “confesses” to a group of three close friends the intimate details of his psychological development as a young man, and the conflicts he experiences between the expectations of his marriage and his yearning for personal freedom.

The Récit
Gide referred to the novel form of The Immoralist as “récit,” meaning a “narrative” or “account.” A récit is a brief novel with an essentially simple narrative focus in which a first-person narrator explores deep psychological and social dilemmas through a personal reminiscence. Gide’s short novel La Porte etroite (1909; Straight is the Gate) is also regarded as a récit, as is the novel La Chute (1956; The Fall), by the French existentialist writer Albert Camus.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Cordle, Thomas, André Gide, Updated Edition, Twayne, 1993, pp. 67, 69, 71–72.

Gide, André, The Immoralist, translated by David Watson, Penguin Books, 2000, pp. 15, 34, 45, 47, 50, 69, 89, 95, 97, 98, 111, 114, 115.

—, The Immoralist, translated by Richard Howard, Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Guerard, Albert J., André Gide, Harvard University Press, 1951, p. 106.

Sheridan, Alan, “Introduction,” in The Immoralist, by André Gide, translated by David Watson, Penguin Books, 2000, p. x.

Further Reading
Ahmida, Ali Abdulolatif, ed., Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in the Maghrib: History, Culture, and Politics, Palgrave, 2000. Ahmida provides a collection of critical essays by various authors on the history, culture, and politics of North Africa and Egypt in the nineteenth century.

Barnes, David S., The Making of a Social Disease: Tuberculosis in Nineteenth-Century France, University of California Press, 1995. Barnes offers a cultural, medical, and socioeconomic history of tuberculosis in France during the nineteenth century.

Benjamin, Roger, Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa, 1880–1930, University of California Press, 2003. Benjamin discusses the influence of North African culture on French art during the period of the French colonial occupation.

Fryer, Jonathan, André & Oscar: Gide, Wilde, and the Gay Art of Living, Constable, 1997. Fryer examines the friendship between André Gide and Oscar Wilde in terms of homosexual identity and lifestyles during the late-nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries.

Hayes, Jarrod, Queer Nations: Marginal Sexualities in the Maghreb, University of Chicago Press, 2000. Hayes examines representations of homosexuality in North African literature.

Merrick, Jeffrey, and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., eds., Homosexuality in Modern France, Oxford University Press, 1996. Merrick and Ragan provide a collection of essays on the history of homosexuality in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France.

Walker, David, André Gide, Macmillan, 1990. Walker provides a critical analysis of narrative techniques in Gide’s novels.

Bibliography

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Ames, Van Meter. André Gide, 1947.

Brennan, Joseph Gerard. Three Philosophical Novelists: James Joyce, André Gide, Thomas Mann, 1964.

Cordle, Thomas. André Gide, 1969.

Fowlie, Wallace. André Gide: His Life and Art, 1965.

Ireland, George William. André Gide: A Study of His Creative Writings, 1970.

Mann, Klaus. André Gide and the Crisis of Modern Thought, 1943.

O’Brien, Justin. Portrait of André Gide: A Critical Biography, 1953.

Weinberg, Kurt. On Gide’s “Promethee”: Private Myth and Public Mystification, 1972.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: The French government is in the era of the Third Republic, under the Constitution of 1875. France is a parliamentary democracy with a president and prime minister. Voting privileges are extended to all adult men.

Today: The French government is in the era of the Fifth Republic, under the Constitution of 1956. France remains a parliamentary democracy with a president and prime minister. Voting privileges are extended to all adult men and women.

1890s: The region of North Africa includes colonial territories of several European nations. Algiers and Tunisia are French colonies, while Libya and Morocco are colonial holdings of the Ottoman Turkish empire.

Today: The former colonies of the North African region include the four sovereign nations of The Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria (Algeria), the Republic of Tunisia (Tunisia), the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Libya), and the Kingdom of Morocco (Morocco). All of these nations are members of the League of Arab States, a multi-nation alliance of Middle Eastern countries sharing economic, political, and cultural interests.

1890s: France is a major colonial power, second in size only to Britain.

Today: In the post-colonial era, most former French colonial holdings have been granted national sovereignty. France is a member of the European Union, a multination alliance sharing many social, economic, and political interests.

Media Adaptations

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The Immoralist was adapted as a play written by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, first staged on Broadway in 1954. This production starred James Dean as an Arab teenager, Louis Jordan as Michel, and Geraldine Page as Michel’s wife Marceline.

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