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André Gide: L’immoraliste (The Immoralist)

Gide said that, though the hero of this story, Michel, is not him, there was certainly a part of him in Michel. Michel, an archaeologist, starts off as an innocent young man. To please his father, he marries the equally innocent Marceline though he does not love her. While on honeymoon in North Africa, he falls ill. He is seriously ill and nearly dies, despite Marceline’s caring for him. However, he determines to get better and be well and is, more or less, cured. However, he is now a changed person. What contributes to his health is of paramount importance and what does not is despised. He delights in the petty crime of the Arab children and despises the sickly ones. On their way home via Italy, he gets involved in a fight. In short, freedom without responsibility is what is now driving him.

Back home, he realises that he is now a stronger person. He keeps order on his estate but gradually the intellectual approach to life is replaced by the more physical. He is also concerned by his individuality and despises those who are like everyone else. Ménalque, whom we have met in Les nourritures terrestres (The Fruits of the Earth), who may have been based on Oscar Wilde and also resembles somewhat the devil from Faust, shows him that individuality is the key. He starts down the slippery slope. He even poaches from his own estate, to show his contempt for his gamekeeper. Meanwhile, Marceline has had a miscarriage and is now ill from the TB she may have contracted from Michel. They head off to Italy but Michel is more interested in Italian low life than in Marceline. By the time they get to North Africa Marceline is seriously ill and soon dies. Michel, still chasing the dark side, including little boys, tells his story to a group of friends and seeks their help.

Gide is, of course, examining the concept of unfettered freedom and has clearly read his Nietzsche. His exploration of homosexuality – still daring in those days – is, of course, reflected in his own life. The question then, as now, is do we follow our natural (and often base) instincts or do we follow convention? Gide raises this question but certainly does not give us a clear-cut answer.

Publishing history

First published 1902 by Mercure de France
First published in English in 1930 by Knopf
Translated by Dorothy Bussy (Knopf/earlier editions); Richard Howard (Random House); David Watson (Penguin); Stanley Appelbaum (Dover)