Roger Martin du Gard Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Roger Martin du Gard, who admired such novelists as Tolstoy, attempted in his works to depict an individual or a family in as comprehensive a cultural and historical context as possible. This explains his continued attempt to embrace a large historical period in its totality. He uses antithetical characters (for example, Antoine and Jacques in The World of the Thibaults) as a structural device to illustrate the two sides of his principal views. Dominant among Martin du Gard’s ideological preoccupations is the concept of the liberation of the individual—most important, liberation from religion and from family—and from social taboos such as those concerning homosexuality. Although he enjoyed the advantages of his birth into the high bourgeoisie, he was keenly interested in socialism; his social concerns, especially his leanings toward socialism and pacifism, correspond to those of many leading French intellectuals of the day. That he received the Nobel Prize in 1937, when France was governed by the Popular Front, may be more than coincidental.

Martin du Gard’s first two works, Marise, part of which was published under the title L’Une de nous (one of us), and Devenir!, provide insight into the literary beginnings of the author of The World of the Thibaults. According to Albert Camus, Devenir! is the story of an individual who wants to become a writer but fails for lack of character. Although in Devenir!, Martin du Gard draws too directly upon his own experience, already the author expresses his deterministic view of the human condition and senses the tragic in human destiny.

Jean Barois

Jean Barois was written at the apogee of a period during which positivism and scientism held sway. The year of its publication, 1913, was also the eve of the catastrophe that was to bring about an anguished and nihilistic questioning of the premises of scientific positivism. Fittingly enough, Jean Barois has the appearance of a scholarly text. Camus remarked that this novel “consists of dialogues and documents. It is the only novel of the scientist age.” While writing this work, Martin du Gard was very much under the spell of the theater, as he was several times later during his career. Earlier, he had considered writing a novel consisting of dialogues connected only with comments similar to stage directions in a play. Several novels of this type had been written during the early part of the century. What led Martin du Gard to choose such a structure was his concern with verisimilitude more than literary fashion. He was striving to remove the voice of the narrator in order to present characters and ideas impersonally. This led him to employ the cinematographic technique that was widely used in the 1930’s.

The themes of Jean Barois can be summarized as a human’s evolution from his (or her) traditional faith to a faith in science, provided the reader realizes that this individual evolution is associated with and brought about by that of history. Human liberation from religious belief is a recurring theme in Martin du Gard’s works. Socialism is seen as one of the most dynamic forces of contemporary history, and it separates itself from religion. It enables humans not to expect any hope or help from God. The hero, Jean Barois, is carried quite far by those historical forces, but because of his heredity and the imprint left on him by the milieu in which he grew up, he dies ironically in the end, reconciled with his church as his father had been before him. As a child, Jean Barois is the object of opposition between positivism and religion: Medicine is rejected by his grandmother in favor of faith healing. As an adolescent, he questions his spiritual adviser, Abbé Joziers, about the problem of evil. Several years later, the young man is troubled by the contradictions between science and faith as well as by contradictions within Christianity. Soon he is in conflict with Cécile, his thoroughly faithful wife.

The second part of Jean Barois is dominated by the Dreyfus affair. A primary concern of theprotagonist as well as the author, this crisis in French political, intellectual, and moral life was described by Martin du Gard in a way that is accurate, authentic, and yet artistic. By temperament and by training, Martin du Gard meticulously gathered, analyzed, and synthesized lengthy documentation, which he incorporated into his novel. Among Martin du Gard’s contemporaries, all major parties, groups, ideologies, and institutions were involved on one side or the other of this issue. Having become an unbeliever and a liberal—a member of a group of humanistic Socialists—Jean dedicates himself to Dreyfus’s cause. The reader is able to follow the unfolding of the drama as the author alternately focuses on both sides of the issue and on all major adversaries. In spite of his desire to be objective, Martin du Gard does favor his own Dreyfusard point of view.

In the third part of the novel, after having experienced disappointments and especially a confrontation with his eighteen-year-old daughter, who has decided to become a nun, Jean, the protagonist, tired and ill, begins to see the shortcomings of his summary rejection of religion. He is also shaken by the reactions of his rising generation to his own beliefs—especially the response of those who returned to Catholicism. Though his character Jean returns to the religion of his youth, throughout the novel, Martin du Gard strongly favors rationalism over Christianity—especially Catholicism—and attacks religion or shows it in a poor light on all traditional controversial points. The author was fully aware of this dominant aspect of his novel, aware that he had not achieved impartiality. His first readers, Gide and Jean Schlumberger, who held similarly anti-Catholic views, were delighted by it at once.

In 1920, while deeply involved in Copeau’s Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier—a venture in regenerated theater—Martin du Gard first conceived of writing a novel about two brothers as different as possible from each other. Yet they were to be “deeply marked by the hidden similarities which a powerful common heredity creates between two beings of the same blood.” Again, one notices the great importance Martin du Gard attributed to heredity throughout his writings, expressed with special clarity in his unfinished Souvenirs de Colonel de Maumort and his letters. He decided to place his characters in the turmoil of powerful forces and in a society headed toward a catastrophic war. Martin du Gard clearly stated his growing interest in various types of ideology and his preoccupation with the challenging problems of his time. Significantly, while planning his new work, he wanted to entitle it “Good and Evil.”

The World of the Thibaults

The structure of The World of the Thibaults is that of a roman-fleuve, a long, multivolume novel. It is divided into eight parts of uneven length covering periods of various durations. The author focuses on certain events and scenes within rather brief periods of time, leaving long intervals between them, which he then connects withnarrative. Description, exposition, and summarization of events and ideas abound. Thus, Martin du Gard chose a time-tested fictional structure, although at first he had attempted to adapt the purely dramatic technique that he had used so successfully in Jean Barois. He explained his rejection of the dramatic approach based exclusively on the use of dialogue, saying that, for the work he was contemplating, it would have required excessive and ultimately unrealistic circumvolutions. By employing conventional rather than innovative techniques of dialogue and narration, Martin du Gard revealed his artistry within an otherwise conservative framework.

The World of the Thibaults is essentially the history of a family of several individuals belonging to different generations, interacting with one another and various members of a society caught up in the movement of history. Using this combination of factors, Martin du Gard seeks to give his novel a deep philosophical meaning. The existence of numerous characters, however, poses the problem of point of view. Martin du Gard solved it by playing the role of an omniscient narrator whose presence is intermittently eclipsed by the characters. This technique was all the more practical because it enabled him to dramatize the lives of principal characters Antoine and Jacques and to create the impression of psychological truth. Martin du Gard’s characters are as unusual as some of those of Gide or Proust. They are strongly individualized and realistic representatives of society, yet they are common members of the upper middle class who would realistically come in contact with one another. They are studied, however, not as members of a class but as individuals, and this method is reinforced by each character’s inclination to self-study.

The first part of The World of the Thibaults depicts a short crisis lasting only a week. It is caused by Jacques Thibault and Daniel de Fontanin, two adolescents who run away from home one fine Sunday under the pretext of having to attend a special class. Soon they are caught and returned to their families. Daniel is welcomed home by his mother with understanding and affection, whereas Jacques is sent to a reform school by his father for having failed to show any repentance. Through the reactions of the two families, Martin du Gard presents his protagonists along with their particular milieu and ethos. Madame de Fontanin, a Protestant, is a person of integrity, and she is stronger and calmer than the bigoted, self-righteous, and authoritarian Monsieur Thibault. Martin du Gard’s lifelong anti-Catholic bias, of which he was perhaps the strongest exponent since Voltaire, is only weakly balanced by Madame de Fontanin’s implausible belief in her pastor’s faith-healing powers.

Le Cahier gris

Through Le Cahier gris, Jacques’s private notebook, which is a lyric expression of adolescent friendship, the reader becomes acquainted with Jacques and Daniel. There is nothing abnormal or reprehensible in this friendship, as the priests in Jacques’s school wrongly suspect. From their flight, the reader...

(The entire section is 4245 words.)