Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
In this novel, depicting the aborted Communist Revolution in China in 1927, André Malraux presents three types of revolutionaries. Each is attracted to the revolution for different reasons and reacts to the events in a distinctive manner. Ch’en, the terrorist, is shown in the opening scene of the novel in the process of committing his first murder. This experience is so intense that he feels himself separated from those who have been killed. His sense of isolation leads him to believe that individual acts of terrorism are superior to any other form of revolutionary action. He ultimately comes to the conclusion that the only way to have the revolution is to kill Chiang. He initially attempts to perform this act with the aid of two comrades, but the attempt fails. He then decides to perform the deed alone. Ironically, he is killed while throwing himself with a grenade on a car he believes to be occupied by Chiang. Although Chiang is not in the car, Ch’en has died a death consistent with his beliefs, a death that has given his life meaning.
Kyo is the theorist who finds it difficult to reconcile his belief in Marxist theory with the realities of the revolution. For example, although he theoretically believes that no person can be the property of another and that love is free, he is jealous when his wife, May, tells him that she has slept with another man. Kyo is drawn to the revolution because of his belief in the need for human dignity. He loses faith in Communist theory when he finds out (during a trip to Hankow) that the leaders of the party are willing to betray the people on orders from Moscow. Kyo believes that Communist theory is only of value if it helps the masses to live a more dignified life; he cannot reconcile his beliefs with the political machinations that confront him. During a brief stay in jail, he sees human beings submitted to degrading humiliation. When offered a choice of life or death, he chooses death with dignity (suicide by taking cyanide) rather than life with humiliation. His death, although very different from that of Ch’en, is consistent with his life.
Katov is the most experienced of the three, for he fought in the Russian Revolution. Unlike Ch’en, who cherished his solitude, Katov cherishes his solidarity with his comrades. Like the others, his death is consistent with his life. Although he, like Kyo, has a cyanide pill, Katov chooses to share his pill with two young frightened comrades. Since there is only enough cyanide to kill two men, his gift of the capsule is the supreme sacrifice, for Katov faces death by being thrown alive into the boiler of a train engine. He believes that his sacrifice gives his life meaning, for through his sacrifice he achieves the fraternity for which he fought in the revolution.
Although these three men are very different, they are similar in their desire to join the revolution as a way to give meaning to their lives. Each man acts as a revolutionary and dies as a revolutionary in a manner consistent with his beliefs.