Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181
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 move inevitably from the horror of his grandfather’s death, to the importance of his first friendship at age fifteen with Otto, to the civilizing influence of Frau von Kerich, and to the beauty and pain of his first love for Minna.
Occasionally, the reader wonders if it is really necessary to learn about each and every quarrel in which Christophe is involved or to see every suffering moment and witness every betrayal and agonized failure. The catalog of pain is somewhat excessive. The moral growth of the protagonist is shown with special sensitivity, beginning with the religious crisis that he experiences in his late teens. Before then, he does not have time or education enough to consider philosophical or religious questions. Sabine’s sudden death teaches him another painful lesson about the injustices of life; but it is perhaps Ada who teaches him the most of the inconsistencies of the human heart and the treacherousness of life. Ada, ignorant and vain, petty and jealous, with nothing appealing about her but her physical appearance, is particularly well drawn. She hates Christophe’s music because she hates anything that she cannot understand, but Christophe is captivated by her until he catches her in an affair with his brother. The least sympathetic characters, such as Ada, are often the best drawn in the book.
The narrator holds up Christophe as an example of a man who refuses to give up in the face of defeat, a man who is made stronger by setbacks. The theme of endurance, survival at all costs, is important in the book. If Christophe can be said to possess any one outstanding characteristic, it is tenacity. Perhaps it begins when his Uncle Gottfried tells him that what men will and what they do are seldom the same, but the important thing is never to give up either. Christophe becomes disillusioned with both German and French music, because he feels it is filled with cheating and superficialities. He realizes that honesty must be everything to him. The novel, in large part, is the story of this honesty confronting the sham and lying of the world. Life is always a struggle for Christophe; without his music and friendships, he would not be able to endure the hardships that he faces. The theme of the importance of friendship runs through the many volumes of JEAN-CHRISTOPHE; Olivier recalls Otto of so many years before. Christophe, however, realizes that he is a man alone; it is the man who counts only on his own efforts in life and does not lean on others who wins the author’s respect. Rolland does not moralize, but he makes his opinions clear. JEAN-CHRISTOPHE is more than the romantic story of a struggling young musician; intellectual and moral beliefs play an important part in the narrative.
The account of the world of the arts, and particularly music, as no more than a great marketplace is superbly detailed. A better indictment of Philistinism has never been written. Christophe’s futile efforts to find an unmercenary musician or writer are poignantly described. The section of Christophe’s confrontation with the artistic establishment of Paris is well written, although at times it turns into a diatribe. The book is filled with many intellectual conversations about the arts, politics, science, and philosophy, as well as about psychology and human nature. Christophe is amazed and horrified, in particular, by French politics. The descriptions of Christophe’s first impressions of Paris and later efforts to succeed in the French capital are fascinating, filled with both humorous and pathetic details. Vast numbers of characters pass through the book, many only slightly touching Christophe’s life; this device stresses Christophe’s immersion in the world. He moves in a complex and real society, and he cannot retreat into isolation.
The frustrations and ultimate successes of the protagonist are detailed fully, but Christophe is one of those true artists who creates without hope of glory. Despite loneliness, illness, and poverty, Christophe is patient; he feels that suffering purifies the soul, a romantic notion that runs throughout the book. JEAN-CHRISTOPHE is an immense achievement, perhaps somewhat dated in its romantic attitudes but nevertheless impressive.
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