Themes and Meanings

Just as Gide counterpoints fools and sophisticates, so in his themes he contrasts religion with science, conventional morality with immorality, reality with illusion. A skeptic, he treats religious excess as a metaphor for irrationality. Anthime vacillates between the false gods of scientific and religious fanaticism. As a scientist, he is cruel; as a devout Catholic, he is self-abnegating. In both devotions his zeal is excessive. To Gide, science is suspect, because intelligence itself lacks moral direction. The intelligent Julius mistakes appearance for reality, and the cunning Lafcadio uses intelligence as a weapon, supposing himself to be a superman exempt from moral laws. Finally, the near-knave (for in Gide’s world, no absolute evil exists) Protos manipulates ignorant people with the most outrageous, absurd swindle conceivable—he pretends that the Pope in Rome has been kidnapped by Freemasons and other rogues. Master of protean disguises, he conceals reality so that only the illusion (the hoax) appears to be true. He befuddles the hapless Amedee but confounds others as well. In Gide’s world of ambiguous moral choices, conventional religion offers no sure guide. Every man is on his own. Every man is either a potential victim of swindle or a potential swindler.