Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

Throughout his literary career, Gide was especially concerned with the nature, consequences, and limits of potential human freedom. His short novels or recits, in particular, explore the limits of human identity and freedom in a frequently cautionary manner, rather like extended parables. The Immoralist , Gide’s first experiment in the...

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Throughout his literary career, Gide was especially concerned with the nature, consequences, and limits of potential human freedom. His short novels or recits, in particular, explore the limits of human identity and freedom in a frequently cautionary manner, rather like extended parables. The Immoralist, Gide’s first experiment in the genre of the short novel, describes the sensual and psychological awakening of an archaeologist recovering from tuberculosis. Never fully aware of life until his close brush with death, the bookish Michel thereafter pursues vitality with a vengeance, even refusing his wife’s prayers on the grounds that he does not wish to owe his recovery to God or to anyone else. In search of new adventures and sensations, Michel twice conspires with those who are out to steal his own property, then recklessly endangers the health of his wife, Marceline; as Marceline sickens and dies, Michel remains all but unmoved, secure in his proven “superiority.” In many ways, as Gide himself noted, Strait Is the Gate should be seen as a companion piece to The Immoralist, showing willful self-abnegation to be just as dangerous and ill-advised as willful self-indulgence. Regardless of whether sainthood can be attained, a question Gide leaves open, it surely cannot be striven for in the manner that Alissa chooses. Reminiscent, as is Michel, of Honore de Balzac’s notorious monomaniacs, Alissa is blinded by her idee fixe to such a degree that she displays few, if any, of the traditional Christian virtues, such as charity. Arguably, her quest is little more than a defense against her own sexuality; pushed to an extreme, however, that defense becomes in a sense a crime against humanity, especially her own, and her final lack of faith rings true with an ironic justice.

Born and reared as a Protestant, a distinct minority in France, André Gide would soon lose his faith, but never the theological patterns of his thought. Strait Is the Gate, like The Immoralist before it and La Symphonie pastorale (1919; The Pastoral Symphony, 1931) after it, is in essence a morality tale, although with a non-Christian or at least anticlerical moral. For Gide, even agnosticism was an intensely theological issue, carefully worked out after weighing the qualities and defects of both Roman Catholicism and his native Protestantism. Like Voltaire—among the earliest and most vocal of French anticlericals—Gide focuses primarily upon the human injustices perpetrated in the name of faith or the Church; unlike Voltaire, who cared most about social injustice, Gide in the recits and elsewhere concentrates upon perceived psychological injustice, the warping of human minds by biblical commands often misread or misinterpreted. Like the hypocritical, morally blind pastor of The Pastoral Symphony, Alissa is ultimately portrayed as a victim of Christian teachings and practice, although a most willing one. Nevertheless, a number of turn-of-the-century readers tended to see in Alissa a sympathetic character somehow undeserving of her fate even as she seems to have invited it; Gide himself admitted that he had initially planned a more bitingly satirical work, gradually changing his project as the character of Alissa asserted itself in his mind.

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