Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564
Published in 1914, Lafcadio’s Adventures presented for the first time in Western literature the concept of a “gratuitous act,” a motiveless crime for which the perpetrator suffers neither a guilty conscience nor a sense of moral responsibility. Previously, important writers had described crimes of passion and violence; crimes committed for flimsy or even absurd reasons; crimes premeditated or sudden. Before Gide’s novel, writers had not concerned themselves with a crime committed solely for caprice, for no purpose except amusement—an act against a victim hitherto unknown to the criminal, simply to satisfy a curiosity about what might happen as a consequence. In Fyodor Dostoevski’s classic analysis of murder in Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), the student Raskolnikov imagines himself to be a superior person who can commit a crime with impunity, but he later suffers from guilt and is punished for his crime, as much through his own conscience as through imprisonment. In another classic crime, that exposed in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907), Mr. Verloc attempts to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, an utterly absurd action that would create havoc among civilized people. At least Verloc’s intended crime has a motive: He is an anarchist and has been ordered by his superiors to commit the act.
Lafcadio’s crime, in contrast, is motiveless as well as meaningless. Although he believes himself to be morally superior in committing murder, he suffers no subsequent guilt. Thus his action is philosophical as well as capricious. Only within the framework of a society lacking a moral law can such a gratuitous act be imagined. Because Gide’s novel takes place in such a society which operates according to loose principles of ethical relativism, his protagonist’s actions are pre-existential. Lafcadio makes a decision that he believes is a correct one for him, no matter what other people may think. In a sense, he is a perfectly “free” man—one bound neither to circumstances of birth nor to nationality; neither to religious affections nor moral principles. Because he is a bastard who feels equally at home in any nation, he is not tied to place or condition of class; because he lacks religious or moral scruples, he is free to act as he wishes. He defines his own morality.
In addition, as a comic character who is mobile within a closed society, he counterpoints his respectable, conventional half brother, the humorless Julius. As a writer, Julius is concerned with art and life, but he confuses the two. After he learns from Lafcadio the concept of a gratuitous crime, Julius wishes to apply that theme to his next novel, but he fails to connect Lafcadio with the crime itself. Thus Julius’ projected novel is a parody of a metafiction: a novel that tells the reader how the author wrote his book.
Indeed, the whole of Lafcadio’s Adventures is a parody of the traditional novel. Unlike conventional fiction of the time, Gide’s novel lacks a genuine hero, lacks romantic involvement, lacks a “moral.” Lafcadio is at best a rogue-hero; his romance with Genevieve is contrived; and his fate is left up in the air. Will he agree to marry Genevieve, burying the evidence of his crime in order to live the life of a reconstructed bourgeois? The reader is free to draw his own conclusion—but beware Lafcadio’s leer.
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