Told in the first person by Michel, the central character, The Immoralist is a retrospective account of the three years of his life directly preceding the opening of the novel—three years during which his father dies, he marries Marceline, he nearly dies from tuberculosis and undergoes a profound psychological transformation, and Marceline dies. Although Michel tells his own story, the reader receives it secondhand from a friend to whom he has told it; thus Michel’s narration is framed, at beginning and end, by this friend’s voice as he writes to his brother, an important French official, and pleads with him to secure for Michel a position in the French government. The friend’s plea seems charitable, coming as it does before he recounts Michel’s narration; by the end of the novel, after the reader has witnessed the murderously shrewd, calculating, and self-centered Michel “the immoralist” (he would call himself an amoralist), the idea of him working for any government seems, without question, immoral.
A published, polyglot historian and self-professed “learned Puritan” at the age of twenty-four when his father becomes fatally ill, Michel says that he decided to marry Marceline because it would comfort the old man to know that his son would not be alone in the world (Michel’s mother had died when he was fifteen). Michel says, furthermore, that he did not love the twenty-year-old Marceline when he married her, but “at least I had never loved any other woman. That was enough, I assumed, to insure our happiness....” His lack of love for her explains, in part, why their marriage is not consummated until several months after the wedding. Married in Paris, they set out on what is to become a three-year journey, interrupted only by relatively brief sojourns in various places of Michel’s choosing. Unfortunately, in her goodness and naivete, Marceline fails to see that Michel does not love her and that he forces her into the latter half of their journey, at least, because he knows that it will kill her. Initially, their travels are for the purpose of Michel’s historical research at various ancient ruins, but Michel’s interest in the past diminishes in direct proportion to the growth of his increasingly intense and ultimately hedonistic involvement in the present.
From Paris, Michel and Marceline travel to Marseilles, where they board a ship bound for northern Africa; they are traveling to Sousse by way of Tunis. As the couple nears Sousse late at night, Michel begins coughing up blood so profusely that his handkerchief and hands are covered with it. He decides not to tell Marceline, who is asleep beside him, yet, when she awakens and notices nothing abnormal (he has hidden his handkerchief from her), he is overcome by an irrational anger because she has not also had to suffer. Once they are situated in a hotel room, his anger compels him to make her suffer too, so he tells her in a brutally direct way about the blood; the news causes her to faint. Suddenly he is sorry to have upset her, and he asks himself, “Wasn’t it enough that I should be sick?”
He has already answered this question with his actions, as well as proved to himself and the reader that Marceline is totally malleable beneath the force of his will—even when he is seriously ill with tuberculosis. Indeed, she becomes his servant not only during his illness, but also after he recovers determined to be a different person and “make the thrilling discovery of life.” One significant discovery that he makes, after she begins to bring children from the streets of Sousse to their room to keep him company, is that he prefers the companionship of young males far more than that of his wife—so much more, in fact, that, even before he is completely recovered from his illness, he begins to see Marceline as an impediment to his sensual, essentially homosexual quests.
While before his illness Michel devoted himself to intellectual pursuits, one significant result of his infirmity is that he becomes obsessed with his physical being, with “voluptuous...
(The entire section is 1670 words.)