George D. Painter
André Gide, pp. 41-44
Atheneum, New York, 1968.
It might have seemed that the possibilities of Fruits had now been fully examined and exhausted; yet one, and the most important, still remained. In prose-poem, drama, and satire Gide had kept the problems of self-realization always at one remove - it remained to show them at work no longer in fantasy, but in their actual terror and beauty, as they would appear in real life, and as Gide himself had wrestled with them during the past seven years. Is it in fact possible to live according to the philosophy of Fruits, and what are the consequences of the attempt on oneself, one's fellow-creatures, and in particular one's wife? To answer these questions a novel was required, and Gide wrote The Immoralist (1.)
To please his dying father, Michel, a puritanical young scholar, marries Marceline, who is, like himself, innocent and orphan. His acquiescence in a loveless marriage is quickly punished. No sooner have they reached North Africa on their honeymoon than he falls gravely ill, has a haemorrhage, and accepts the idea of death. Marceline nurses him devotedly but unskillfully, and a second haemorrhage retards his convalescence, just as he begins to see the potential beauty of the life he is in danger of leaving. 'I want life, I want to live,' he cries, and henceforth takes charge of his own cure - it is the first of many acts of will. Health, he decides, is good, and anything that does not conduce to health is evil.
Michel returns again to life, this time by his own efforts. They are at Biskra, and spring is beginning. He ventures into the public gardens, then as his strength increases, explores the whole oasis. Marceline introduces him to some Arab children, and Michel gets to know more on his own account. His wife prefers those who are good and ailing, Michel prefers the others, and most of all one whom he watches stealing his wife's scissors. This miniature crime fills Michel with joy, no doubt because he too has robbed Marceline - but the scene is full also of a more Freudian symbolism.
They return home via Syracuse and Italy. On the road to Sorrento Michel has a fight with a drunken carriage-driver, (2.) and that night, for the first time, he consummates his marriage. He feels love for Marceline, but more pity than love; he realizes that he has become stronger than she. They enter a period of short lived calm and joy, and at La Morinière, Michel's country house in Normandy, Marceline finds she is pregnant. Michel interests himself in the work of his farm, in riding, and in Charles, son of his steward.
They spend the winter in Paris, where Michel is disgusted by the lack of individuality of everyone he meets. 'But you cannot expect everyone to differ from everyone else,' says Marceline. In Ménalque Michel meets one who demands precisely that. Ménalque has been to Biskra, and hands Michel the stolen scissors, which prove that Michel, at least, differs from others; for the boy Moktir has told Ménalque all. Michel leaves the sick Marceline in order to spend the last night of Ménalque's sojourn in Paris in a final conversation. 'One must choose,' says Ménalque, 'but the important thing is to know what one wants' - and he advises Michel to keep his 'calm happiness.' When Michel returns home next morning he finds his wife has had a miscarriage and is dangerously ill. It is Michel's turn to nurse her.
Marceline seems to recover, and they return to La Morinière. Michel becomes more engrossed in his farm workers than in his farm. Displeased by Charles, now a gentleman with side-whiskers, he joins the local bad boys in poaching his own game. Charles finds him out, and Michel, annoyed and embarrassed, announces that he is selling La Morinière. 'Let us travel again,' he tells Marceline, 'and you will find that I still love you as I did at Sorrento.'
Their second honeymoon follows the route of their first in reverse. Michel persuades himself that Marceline needs the warm south; but in reality he is seeking a renewal for himself of his re birth in Tunisia. 'What she called happiness I called rest, and I did not want to rest.' 'I understand your doctrine,' Marceline tells him. 'It is beautiful, perhaps, but it suppresses the weak.' (3.) He drags his dying wife ever southwards; they reach Touggourt, and she dies of the tuberculosis she had contracted in nursing him. Michel sends for his friends to hear his story and give him help. 'I want to live,' he had cried two years before, and now he says, 'Take me away and give me some reasons for existing.' 'I have searched for my individual value, and found it consists in an obstinate pursuit of the worst,' he confesses. But he is impenitent: 'I feel nothing in myself that is not noble.'
To what extent is The Immoralist the story of Gide's own marriage? The parallels are very close, but very deceptive. The route, illness, recovery, and initiation of Michel's first journey come not from Gide's own honeymoon, but from the North African trip with Paul Laurens in 1893-4, two years before Gide's marriage. Gide's actual calmer and happier honeymoon in 1895-6 resembled the desperate race towards death of Michel's second journey in route only. In real life Madeleine Gide never had to nurse her husband in a dangerous illness; it was he, on the contrary, who devotedly nursed her. Their trips to Switzerland in May 1897 and to Algeria in spring 1898, both in search of health for Madeleine have already been mentioned. In August 1898 came more sulphur baths at Losdorf, and in the spring of 1899 they had to hurry home from another visit to Tunisia - 'our exhausted wills could prolong no more the agony of this journey." (4.) In July 1900 Madeleine Gide broke both arms in a carriage accident, and with her recovery from this mishap her general health seems to have improved. She resembled Marceline in goodness and innocence, but not in fate.
Gide's journal, in these crucial years from 1896 to 1901 is not available; (5). but from retrospective entries in the resumed journal of 1902 and from the letters may be gathered several hints for the figure of Michel. The dread word 'inquietude', Gidian for 'Angst', appears more and more frequently, and will dominate the next decade. Gide suffered for a time from his nerves, and in the October of 1899 and 1900 went alone to Lamalou, in Provence, to recuperate. 'I think something in my life is about to change,' he wrote thence to Jammes, 'I feel like a clock on the point of striking.' (6.) In 1900 and 1901 he developed an obsession - this is very like Michel - for night-prowling on the boulevards, (7.) which he partly cast off after The Immoralist was written. And in the summer of 1900 came an incident that seems like some chapter of The Immoralist, rejected because stranger than fiction. In 1985 he had proposed to bring Athman to Paris, but was prevented by the horror of his mother, and her old servant Marie, who said, 'If that Negro comes, I go.' But now his new accomplice Henri Ghéon escorted the Arab youth from North Africa, and together with Gide they frequented the Tunisian quarter of the Universal Exposition, where J. E. Blanche painted them, sitting in a mock native café with Eugène Rouart and Chanvin. Ghéon liked to trace a growing cynicism in Blanche from this date! Michel's La Morinière is of course, Gide's La Roque; and in 1900 Gide, like Michel, put this, his mother's home, up for sale. He visited it occasionally on business, but was never to live there again.
Once more Gide had written a work which portrayed not so much his own state of mind, as a danger from which he wished, by describing it, to save himself He wrote it 'in sweat and tears,' 'lived it for four years and wrote it in order to pass beyond'; 'if I had not written my Immoralist I risked becoming him.' (8.) In real life Gide, or a transitory part of him, was Michel, but without Michel's crimes. He was able to seek joy without final spiritual disintegration, and without killing his wife.
The Immoralist is a cautionary tale of a cruel individualist; but it is too nearly, also, his glorification. Gide, most readers will feel, does not sufficiently condemn his villainous hero; he even shows him an oblique complaisance. Michel's final unhappiness is not enough to counterbalance his virtual murder of wife and child, and he lacks, being insufficiently punished, the saving pathos of Saul and Candaules, who are punished too much. As is always the case when a work of art chooses to set an ethical problem with bias and leaves it unresolved, the moral flaw is felt as an aesthetic flaw.
If The Immoralist is immediately recognizable as a masterpiece, it is not for its sinister depths, but for its delightful surface. Gide never wasted effort on making his works difficult to enjoy. In The Immoralist his narrative reaches an ease and charm, his prose a limpid perfection, which he had previously only hinted, and then with irony, in his satires. These qualities he was to vary infinitely in mood and complexity, but rarely, perhaps never to surpass. But the chief impressions that we carry away from The Immoralist, apart from the ugly memory of Michel, are the joys of Gide's own life in the 1890's: the idyll of convalescence at Biskra, the georgic of La Morinière, the eclogue of Ménalque's conversation. These episodes owe something of their ideal beauty to the fact that they are also elegies: on the oases of Tunisia to which Gide's next visit was to be a farewell, on the woods and waters of La Roque abandoned to the steward, on the gilded voice of Wilde now stilled for ever. Gide's good-bye has perpetuated them.
(1.) First conceived at Biskra in 1894, later intended as a 'Life of Ménalque', cormnenced probably in October 1900, finished 25th October 1901, published in May 1902.
(2.) Gide had a similar experience with a runaway carriage and a drunken driver in Brittany, alone, in 1889.
(3.) The opposite of Saul's saying of his demon-desires 'They have suppressed me completely.'
(4.) Letter to Jammes, April 1899.
(5.) We do not know whether it was unwritten, destroyed with pre-1890 diaries in 1902 or later, or suppressed.
(6.) Letter to Jammes, October 1900. He had taken baths at Lamalou after his hysterical seizure in 1881.
(7.) Journal for 8 January 1902 and May 1905.
(8.) Letters to Jammes.