Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

When André Gide’s The Immoralist was first published in 1902, many of its readers vilified Michel. As Gide stated in his preface to the novel, much of the public’s indignation “overflowed” onto the author, because many readers identified Michel with his creator (a frequent consequence of first-person narration). Gide claimed,...

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When André Gide’s The Immoralist was first published in 1902, many of its readers vilified Michel. As Gide stated in his preface to the novel, much of the public’s indignation “overflowed” onto the author, because many readers identified Michel with his creator (a frequent consequence of first-person narration). Gide claimed, furthermore, that he took care not to pass judgment on Michel. That might, if the author’s efforts at neutrality were successful, partly explain why readers could transfer their negative reactions so easily. Within Michel’s narrative, Gide succeeds in remaining unobtrusively neutral, but he did choose to frame his protagonist’s story with Michel’s voice of the unnamed friend who is writing to his brother. As powerfully engaging and believable as Michel is, Gide did not need to use a narrative frame. So why did he do it?

The most obvious reason involves the extent to which moral principles are essential not only to sustaining civilization but also to making civilization possible. The novel is entitled The Immoralist, which both explains and justifies Gide’s use of the frame, as it is not the author himself who calls Michel the immoralist but Michel’s friend. Nevertheless, with both the title and the frame, Gide primes his readers with a preconception about the story’s “hero.” He anticipates his readers’ indignation over Michel’s essential inhumanity, and with the incorporation of the friend’s voice, Gide goes one step further and allows one of the story’s readers (although an imaginary one) to speak and pass judgment.

By providing the verdict as a deductive premise and then drawing his readers into a masterfully duplicitous narrative that both undercuts the verdict and requires readers to rely upon inductive rather than deductive reasoning, Gide forces thinking individuals to ask questions of Michel and themselves. One of the hardest of these questions concerns principles and the extent to which the existence (needs, desires, and interests) of Self can supersede the existence of Other before civilization completely collapses.

Michel’s specialty is, significantly, ancient and failed civilizations, and he proves by his seemingly aimless and clearly self-serving wanderlust that he feels neither fidelity nor responsibility to his own civilization, whose future, as in any society, depends upon familial continuity. Indeed, Michel indirectly destroys his own child before deliberately destroying his wife, the mother of that child. Superseding the well-being and survival of other human beings, and civilization itself, according to Michel, is the libido-driven Self: “I had been born to make undreamed of discoveries; and I grew almost fanatical in my quest, for whose sake I realized the seeker must abjure, must disdain culture, propriety, rules.”

Finally, one should not overlook the implicit irony of the novel’s title, which Michel’s friend presumably pens: While he is obviously disturbed and unaccepting of the “cruelty” he faces in Michel’s narrative, he is nevertheless pleading with his brother, a powerful official in the French government, to secure a job for “the immoralist.” Isn’t the friend also an immoralist? After all, the man is depending upon a person of power to provide for Michel, whose own will to power has destroyed both human life and moral principles in order to validate itself. The friend, then, in the face of his knowledge and his own moral reaction to it, also turns his back on principle to help Michel find a secure position in the government. Thus Gide’s professed neutrality is hardly that at all, especially with Michel’s friend and the reading public. Both constitute Michel’s audience, and both are implicitly judged immoral as long as they disregard the inhumanity of an individual such as Michel.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708

The central theme of The Immoralist is the growing self-awareness of a repressed homosexual whose natural inclinations are at odds with societal conventions. Gide’s narrative is based partly on his own experiences as a young man whose sexless marriage came into conflict with his homosexual tendencies. Written nearly a century ago, The Immoralist describes Michel’s process of selfrealization in subtle, veiled terms. There is no direct reference in the novel to homosexuality, but only indirect hints regarding Michel’s physical attraction to adolescent boys and his general lack of interest in maintaining a sexual relationship with his wife. However, the closing lines of the novel are the most direct indication of Michel’s homosexuality: Michel loses interest in a female prostitute, and indicates that he prefers the “odd caress” of the girl’s brother Ali.

Michel’s narrative describes a journey of selfdiscovery. Until his marriage, Michel had lead a very limited and sheltered life as a young scholar living under the wing of his father, who was also a scholar. Michel’s honeymoon travels with his wife to North Africa, however, open up new vistas to him, and he becomes increasingly aware of his own body and of physical, sensual experiences. As time passes, Michel discovers the emergence of his true inner self, which had previously been repressed. With his increasing awareness of his true nature, Michel finds that he must present a false outer appearance to his wife. Michel’s late-night discussion with Menalque encourages his conviction that it is more important to live according to one’s natural desires than to stifle the true inner self in accordance with societal conventions. By the end of the novel, however, Michel finds that his journey of self-discovery has left him feeling confused and uncertain about his life. As he tells his friends, “Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom.”

Mind versus Body
As a studious scholar, Michel before his marriage had lived a life of the mind. In North Africa, as he is recovering from tuberculosis, however, Michel becomes increasingly focused on the life of the body. His interest in his physical being begins when he sees the fresh and healthful bodies of the young Arab boys. This inspires him to devote himself to improving his own physical health through diet and exercise. As he recovers from his illness, Michel becomes increasingly aware of physical and sensual experiences. One day he goes off by himself in the wilderness and sunbathes nude, then dives into a mountain stream, thus acting upon his desire to engage in physical experiences and to celebrate his physical being. As an expression of his newfound sense of self, he decides to shave his beard and let his hair grow long, thus outwardly demonstrating the profound change that has come over him. Michel’s interest in physical health is also indicated by the fact that he finds himself drawn to the most healthy and attractive looking Arab boys, while his wife tends to prefer the sickly and homely looking children.

Life versus Death
Life and death are also central themes of The Immoralist. During the course of the novel, Michel and then his wife are brought to the brink of death. While on their honeymoon, Michel becomes gravely ill from tuberculosis. Although he eventually recovers his health, Marceline later becomes ill from tuberculosis, which she had contracted while nursing him through his illness. Marceline’s illness causes her to have a miscarriage, and she herself soon dies. Michel, in recovering from sickness, discovers a new sense of physical health and passion for life. Michel is a scholar of ancient civilizations, and so has spent most of his life studying dead peoples and dead cultures. With his new love of life, Michel loses interest in studying a dead past. As his story progresses, he finds himself desiring more and more to experience life to its fullest extent. He describes his new appreciation for life as a process or rebirth. Ironically, though his baby dies before it is born, Michel experiences a feeling of rebirth in his own life. As his wife is dying, Michel finds himself embracing and celebrating life.

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