Critical Evaluation

(Essentials of European Literature)

JEAN-CHRISTOPHE is a two-thousand-page novel originally published in ten volumes; it is the painstaking record of the artistic development of a musical genius. Romain Rolland set out to portray the adventures of the soul of his hero and succeeded magnificently; in addition, he broke down the artistic barrier between France and Germany. The experiences of Jean-Christophe are those of every genius who turns from the past to serve the future. In 1915, Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in great part for JEAN-CHRISTOPHE.

The subject matter in JEAN-CHRISTOPHE is more important than the technique. The style of composition and manner of construction are straightforward and plain; with few exceptions, the narrative moves smoothly forward, like a river, carrying Christophe through his life. The first sentence establishes the continuous symbolism of the river. Days, weeks, and months are seen as a tide, ebbing and flowing, always beginning anew. First the Rhine and then the Seine dominate the setting. Christophe’s first experience of lovemaking, with Ada, is on the river, and his father drowns in the river. When Christophe dies, the image of the river recurs.

The importance of honesty and integrity forms a continuing theme in the novel. Only one thing is asked of a baby, Christophe’s grandfather says at his birth: that he grow into an honest man. Old Jean Michel, one of the finest characters in the novel, has a fondness for spouting aphorisms; he suggests many of the thematic beliefs—honesty, duty, industry—that will later be developed in the book.

Rolland effectively attempts to reveal the world from the point of view of the baby and tiny child. From infancy, music has a special, magical effect on Christophe, whether it is the ringing of church bells or the playing of the church organ. He does not understand the feeling, but it foreshadows the dominant influence in his life. An old piano becomes a source of magic and joy to the child and soon is the most important power in his life. Christophe dreams and muses through childhood. The first crisis of his life occurs when he realizes that some men command and others are commanded. Injustice torments him all of his life. The name Jean-Christophe suggests Jesus Christ, and he later thinks that to create music is to be God on earth.

The maturing process is shown in great detail; the reader is spared none of the pains and joys of Christophe’s development. Christophe’s grandfather set him on the path of composing, and his Uncle Gottfried taught him to respect music. He saw the faults of the composers around him and labored to avoid those faults in his own work. He struggled always to make his work true. He was torn between the instincts of his family and those of his genius; this struggle is at the heart of the novel. Christophe’s “progress” seems to...

(The entire section is 1181 words.)