The Immoralist by Andre Gide book cover
The Immoralist (1902), L’Immoraliste in the original French, is the tale of one young scholar’s path to self-discovery, following a period of transformative introspection. Michel, the novel’s troubled protagonist, gathers together three of his closest friends to tell them the tale of his awakening. His story starts with his marriage to the gentle Marceline, a woman who he does not love, but whom he is pushed into marrying by his father, and by his own inkling that to take a wife at the age of 25 would be a respectable move for a young scholar who, up until that point, had spent his life with his head in books and his mind wandering through ancient ruins. On his honeymoon in Tunisia Michel falls seriously ill with tuberculosis, and whilst he is nursed by Marceline he develops the urge to experience more of life, to live a more sensuous existence. When he is returned to full health Michel befriends local Arab boys, finding a charm in them that he fails to see in his wife. But the honeymoon is short and as the newlyweds travel through Italy on their way home to Paris, Michel begins to appreciate his wife in a new way and even feels the stirrings of love towards her. Back in France Michel spends time on the Normandy estate that he inherited from his mother and once more strikes up friendships with the rough young men that live and work on his land. Marceline, who remains in Paris, and who is carrying Michel’s child, falls terribly ill and loses the baby. As her condition worsens Michel insists that he take Marceline south in search of warmer climates and the atmosphere that aided his own restoration. Whilst Marceline convalesces Michel goes out in search of liaisons with young Arab boys once more, failing to see the warning signs as Marceline slips from life. It is at this point that Michel calls his friends together in the hope that they will hear his story and restore life and purpose to him.

Gide was strongly influenced by Nietzsche and The Immoralist is an existential inquiry into the nature and purpose of being. Building on Nietzsche’s idea that creativity should be man’s highest aspiration, Gide considers what it costs a man to throw off the shackles of Christian morality. Michel’s struggle with the morals that are imposed upon him speaks to a wider quandary of man; that is, the extent to which one’s morals are shaped by one’s surroundings and social pressures, or by one’s innate sense of reality, and there is a constant grating between the will of Michel as the individual, and society as a whole. Gide uses Nietzsche’s interpretation of the Apollinian and Dionysian myths to shape Michel’s inner conflict: Michel represents a typically Apollinian character who has been educated and socialised so as to deny his Dionysian impulses. As he seeks the authentic, Michel moves towards the suppressed sensation-seeking side of his nature and embraces the Dionysian, albeit often vicariously through others. However, for all Michel’s desire to experience authentic existence, he turns to those who act against common morality and delights in their own non-conformity, rather than turning to and developing his own morality and transcending society’s standards. Throughout, his choices are based on reactions against the norm rather than towards his own accepted reality, and so the reader is never sure of Michel’s commitment to the experiences he seeks out.

For Michel, whose early life is shaped by the will of his father, there is a real sense that through the course of the narrative he steps away from the paternal shadow and establishes himself as a separate entity, disregarding the scholarly life for which his father provided the archetype. Beyond breaking from the shackles of society, he is breaking from his own father, as Freud would insist is a necessary part in a man’s evolution. By liberating his mind from the strictures of intellectual pursuit and allowing himself to be guided by sensation, Michel finds a more authentic experience, and embraces the moment rather than dwelling on the past. In this way Gide suggests that Michel’s scholarly pursuits have, as education will, forced him into conforming to narrow parameters, and that it is only through interacting with others that Michel is able to experience his epiphany. The book is concerned with the transition from ignorance to knowledge, but it is clear that Gide does not define this move down conventional lines. For Gide then, traditional education has its limits. Gide’s writing is economical, his easy prose belying the complexity of the themes woven into the narrative.  This is an intimate psychological study of a man in crisis, and Gide, who himself lived through a cold marriage and was tortured by his own homosexuality, reported that the emotional energy he put into writing The Immoralist took a great toll on him. The prose rarely drifts from Michel’s personal evolution and this intimacy and un-distracted attention is one of The Immoralist’s strongest points.

Michel’s voice is that of an academic, whose verbal style is drawn from classical textbooks and from written communications – Gide clearly inhabiting his character’s psyche and drawing a complete portrait as such. Marceline, on the other hand, is a barely developed character, and acts more as a symbol for Michel to act against. As Michel’s independence grows, Marceline, who represents strict Christian morality and society as a whole, grows weaker. Michel fails to appreciate this inverse relationship until it is too late, too caught up in his own hedonistic search for authenticity to appreciate the consequences for those around him.

Gide offers no solution or fixed viewpoint in The Immoralist - he does not revel in Michel’s rebellion against common morality nor does he condemn him for it; the novel’s conclusion leaves only a sense of emptiness. For Michel a life without morals in practice proves all but impossible, and certainly cannot fill the existential void – he has felt the consequences of a life lived against common morality and is left without answers. Unable to live with his freedom Michel instead looks to his friends to help him restore balance in his life. Through Michel, Gide asks simply if a life without restraint has any true value, the closest he comes to answering is through words he puts into Michel’s mouth, “The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task”.

This was a thought-provoking read. Possibly less potent than when it was first released, but still  interesting in the context of looking back at the existential literature that came out of France during the 20th Century.

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