excerpt from pp.253-257
GIDE and the Hound of Heaven, Harold March
University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1952
return to pastoral symphony index
return to critical studies index
Gide's celebrated Symphonie Pastorale, written during 1918, also has pertinence to self-loss and transfiguration. The story, conceived as early as 1893 (he told it to Paul Laurens in Biskra), had been increasingly on his mind since 1910.
Probably it was the skeleton of the plot, together with a perception of its possibilities, that he had in mind at Biskra.
A pastor gives the protection of his home and a name, Gertrude, to a blind, speechless, and brutishly ignorant girl of uncertain age but probably in early adolescence. With great care and effort he teaches her to speak and to read books with raised characters, and develops with phenomenal rapidity into a beautiful and intelligent young woman. Their relations are those of creator and creature, and the reciprocal bond brings love. With the naiveté of his profession the pastor is the last to understand what is going on in his own heart; he awakens to the situation when his son Jacques falls in love with Gertrude and he finds himself opposing the match by various rationalizations. Then Gertrude obtains her sight by an operation and discovers that Jacques has the face which she has imagined for the pastor; it was he, she believes, that she has loved without knowing it. Jacques, instructed by the errors of his father, becomes a Catholic and enters into priesthood. Gertrude too becomes a Catholic, but seeing no solution in her life commits suicide--not merely because she cannot marry Jacques but because she can now see not only the beauty of the world which during her blindness she had to imagine, but the marks of suffering on the faces of those around her, and in particular on the face of Amelie, the pastor's wife. That expression, she feels, is in part her doing, and she blames the pastor for not having prepared her for pain and evil.
Some of the multiple possibilities of this framework Gide exploits by telling his tale through the pastor's journal; in this way the reader can understand what is happening before the pastor does himself. Amelie too is subtly presented by this technique; at first, seeing her only through the exasperated but professionally charitable eyes of her husband, we find her wholly unsympathetic, but gradually and in spite of the pastor her solid virtues appear.
Another aspect of the novel is the contract Gide saw between the Catholic Church and an evangelical Christianity. For the pastor is not simply a naive deceiver of himself, he is also the spokesman of his creator's belief that the true Gospel of Christ is a doctrine of joy, freedom, and love; and he cannot believe that the love he bears Gertrude is anything but innocent and right, despite laws, rules and conventions. Jacques on the other hand is a literalist, a formalist, a disciplinarian; in Christ's time he would have been in his place as a Pharisee; in the present Gide sends him to the Catholic Church.
This was the aspect of the novel that concerned him in 1910, and a note in his Journal makes explicit his position between Catholicism and Protestantism: "I shall doubtless feel called upon to write a preface to my Aveugle (Symphonie Pastorale), without which it would be misleading. I would say: If being Christian without being a Catholic is being a Protestant, then I am a Protestant...But my Christianity stems only from Christ. Between him and me I consider Calvin and Saint Paul are two equally pernicious screens. Ah, if Protestantism had only been able to throw off Saint Paul at once! But it is to Saint Paul precisely, and not to Christ, that Calvin is related."
At this date, and indeed until the book was well on its way to completion, Gide called it L'Aveugle ("The Blind Girl," perhaps, but the indeterminate gender of the French title makes it equally applicable to a man or a woman and it is clear that the physical blindness of Gertrude is not the only blindness of the story). But in June 1918 for the first time he referred to the book by its present title of La Symphonie Pastorale, and it may well be that the change reflects the insertion of a new aspect, or at any rate a shift of emphasis. A "pastoral symphony" suggests a development of multiple themes in a rustic setting, but Gide is more specific than that. In an incident near the middle of the book he makes the pastor take Gertrude to a concert in Neuchatel where they hear Beethoven's sixth symphony, the "Pastoral". She knows that one movement is entitled "By a brook," and the pastor by his fumbling but spontaneously poetic attempts to make her understand what the world looks like has helped her to form an inner vision of its beauties:
Long after we had left the concert hall Gertrude was still silent and as if in ecstasy.
"Is what you see really as beautiful as that?" she said at last.
"As beautiful as what, my dear?"
"As that scene beside a brook."
I did not reply at once, for I reflected that these ineffable harmonies depicted, not the world as it was but as it might have been but for evil and sin. And never had I dared to speak to Gertrude of evil, of sin, of death.
"Those who have eyes do not know their good fortune."
Yet when she obtains her sight the world is quite as radiant as she had imagined and she cannot at first understand why others seem indifferent to it. Then she sees the unhappiness, the preoccupation on their faces, and realizes what it is that puts a screen between them and the ever-present paradise. She too will lose her spiritual vision now that she has the eyes of the flesh, she too will know suffering and preoccupation with self. And as a matter of fact in the short time she lives after receiving her sight she shows herself unjust in a way she would never have been in her blindness: by telling the pastor she was mistaken, that it was Jacques she loved all the time. This could not be true, for when she had no sight and could not compare the appearances of the pastor and his son, she loved the father for his voice, his mind, his gentleness to her. When she saw Jacques, youth called to youth, self awoke, and she became unwittingly unjust. But she did not know that she, like the others, would lose her vision of paradise, and she could not endure the prospect; she preferred to die.
Self-loss and transfiguration were very much on Gide's mind in 1918 when he was writing La Symphonie Pastorale; it was not so with the formally religious elements, which, faithful to his earlier intention, he put in. Or it might be more accurate to say that he did not want to have them on his mind; they belonged to a past that was too painful and still too close. "Today", he wrote on October 16, 1918, "I have the greatest difficulty in getting interested again in the state of mind of my pastor....and I fear that the end of the book will suffer for it. In the attempt to reanimate his thoughts (the pastor's) I have again taken up the Gospel and Pascal. I both want to get back a state of fervor and don't want to be caught by it; I am reining in and whipping up at the same time; which doesn't give worthwhile results."