Roger Martin du Gard, a dramatist as well as a novelist, was born into a professional middle-class family in 1881. He studied to be an archivist and paleographer, served with a motor-transport unit during World War I, and, for a brief period, worked in the theater. Most of his life, however, was spent in seclusion, wholly dedicated to his writing. Literature was Martin du Gard’s entire life. His closest friend was André Gide, about whom he eventually wrote a book. His last novel was never finished and remains unpublished, but Martin du Gard’s achievement and his influence on French fiction were formidable.
The eight-part novel cycle The World of the Thibaults was inspired by the author’s desire to emulate for his own time the accomplishment of Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). In fact, the work’s style and pessimism is closer to Martin du Gard’s countryman Gustave Flaubert than to the Russian author. Although the historical background of the action in the novel is of interest, it is the powerful depiction of human relationships that constitutes the book’s chief merit.
In many respects, the most influential character in the vast novel is old Monsieur Thibault, the patriarch of the Thibault family. A complete hypocrite, he announces to the world that his conscience is clear, yet he is concerned only with his own convenience and peace. Cloaking his craving for power and authority under a guise of fervent religiosity and philanthropy, he actually has no sense of either religion or generosity. He possesses no love for his sons, demanding only that they be completely docile. Any contradiction or sign of individuality throws him into a rage. For all of his big gestures, he is a petty man. Everyone automatically hides feelings from him, for one never can tell what his reaction might be. He forces his family into hypocrisy. By avoiding all introspection, Monsieur Thibault unknowingly condemns himself to a life of petty pride and cruelty, a life so alone that he must find his only consolation in public honors and the “knowledge” that he is a “good man.” As he grows older, however, the fact of approaching death terrifies him increasingly, and he desperately seeks some kind of immortality, as if he subconsciously realizes how futile his busy life is.
The volumes of the series are crowded with fascinating, well-drawn secondary characters. These include Monsieur Chasle, the middle-aged secretary of Monsieur Thibault, who is suddenly revealed to have his own life, his own preoccupations, fears, and miseries. The reader...
(The entire section is 1069 words.)