Strait is the Gate had been evolving in Gide's mind since long before 1905. It had been called variously Treatise of the Good Death, or The Death of Mlle Claire, was to tell of 'a soul that thinks it has not adored properly,' and was first suggested by the lonely extinction of Miss Anna Shackleton. She had died in May 1884, ten days after the fourteen-year-old Gide and his mother took her to a nursing-home. 'l imagined,' he writes in his autobiography, 'the desperate cry of this loving soul, abandoned of all save God; and it is the echo of this cry that sounds in the last pages of Strait is the Gate.' He wrote part of his novel before the mirror of Miss Shackleton's dressing-table, inherited from his mother. But it was a very different spinster who in Strait is the Gate was to die in the bare cell of a nursing-home, and even God was to desert her.
At the opening of Strait is the Gate we are on the familiar ground of Gide's youth. Jerome, a serious young Protestant, is in love with Alissa Bucolin his cousin at Le Havre. One evening lie steals up to her room, finds her kneeling in tears, and dedicates his life to her happiness. Alissa has discovered the infidelity of her mother, who shortly after absconds with a lover. Next Sunday Pastor Vautier, the family friend, 'no doubt intentionally,' preaches a sermon on the text from St Luke: 'Enter ye in at the strait gate, for wide is the gate that leadeth unto destruction, and many there be that go in thereat: But strait is the gate that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. And the lives of the cousins are ruled by their differing interpretations of this text.
Jerome imagines the strait gate as very like the door of his cousin's room, and the narrow way as just wide enough for two; but to Alissa it is only wide enough for one. At first she says they are too young to be engaged, then she discovers that her sister Juliette is also in love with Jerome, and effaces herself Juliette finds happiness in a second-best marriage, but still Alissa will not accept Jerome. She has turned, it seems, from him to God, and has offered their love as a sacrifice for their salvation.
There is a last meeting at the little gate in the garden wall of the Bucolins' country house, Fongueusemare (a gate which exists to this day at Gide's Cuverville) - it is the earthly form. of the narrow gate of heaven, through which they cannot enter side by side. 'To have forced the gate,' says Jerome, 'to have entered by any means whatever into the house - no, even today, when I look back to the past and live it over again - no, it was not possible to me, and whoever does not understand me here, has understood nothing of me up to now.' Alissa goes to a Paris nursing-home to die alone, and leaves Jerome her journal, in which lies the secret of her sacrifice, for which, like him, we have now to search. Strait is the Gate is a mystery novel, and one that remains mysterious however often it is read. But the customary view, that it is a tragedy of young love ruined by religious austerity, is nearly as shortsighted as that of Francis Jammes, who saw Jerome as the villain of the piece, whose efforts to seduce Alissa from divine union were happily thwarted.
Jerome, as is artistically necessary, is something of a nonentity. With less resignation he would have forced Alissa to surrender, or have found some other interest in life, and in either case the novel would have had a different unhappy ending. As it is, Alissa is able so to play on his chivalry, and a love of sacrifice inferior only to her own, as to keep him always at a safe distance; and yet she never discourages him so completely as to drive him away before the sacrifice is ready, and she can offer up to God both her love and his. And Jerome believes to the end that each fending-off is a trial, which will be rewarded by her surrender. 'Against the snare of virtue I remained defenceless" he says - 'heroism attracted me, because I could not separate it from love.' He follows her upward, thinking to corner her at the mountain-top - but Alissa foils him even there, by hurling herself from the summit, possibly to, soar to heaven, probably not.
Alissa's journal shows that her love for Jerome was even greater than Jerome's for her, and at her moments of severest rigour she was nearest giving in. She loved Jerome more than God, and herself more than Jerome, and her virtual suicide is a last attempt to hide this from herself. But it is also an unconscious revenge on her lover. Wiser than Jerome, she knows that he loves not her, but the personality, so like his own, that he has imposed upon her. 'Our letters were a huge mirage,' she tells him, 'and we were writing not to each other but to ourselves.' In wounded pride she takes revenge by raising herself still higher, to a peak of virtue far above the ideal he has invented for her. But, in renouncing her lover, she has destroyed her will to live, and has lost moreover the recompense she hoped to find in after-life. On her deathbed she realizes too, late that she is unready to die, and that God, who will not be mocked, had not accepted her sacrifice. The strait gate, she truly foresaw, will not admit two together: but it will not admit even one who clings still to the burdens of earth. It is too narrow for the rich man with his wealth, and too narrow for a soul that has refused to, lay down its pride.
Poor Alissa has reached, by going the other way round the world, a damnation very similar to the Immoralist's - indeed, Strait is the Gate might be called The Moralist. Hers is a greater perversity than Michel's, who, after all, was only doing as liked. Alissa is doing what she does not like, and at each act of monstrous virtue her anguish increases, till at last it kills her. And yet, her vision of heavenly joy is so surpassingly beautiful as almost to justify its means. In the limited sense in which the Immoralist was right in sinning for earthly joy, Alissa was justified in sinning to achieve her Pisgah view, however false, of heaven. And each pays the exact price - spiritual death for Michel, bodily death and worse for Alissa. 'Whom can I persuade that this book is the twin of The Immoralist,' Gide wrote in his journal, 'that the two subjects grew up together in my mind, the excess of the one finding a secret permission in the excess of the other, so that the two together form. an equipoise?" (1.) Possibly his wife may have seen this intention, without being persuaded of its validity. 'I wrote all my books before The Coiners,' he recorded long afterwards (2.) ' under the influence of Madeleine, or in the vain hope of convincing her.' Strait is the Gate taps the unassuaged memory of Gide's unsuccessful wooing of his cousin between 1888 and 1891 -it is André Walter with a new assessment of the guilty party. Gide is telling his wife that, if the message of The Immoralist is 'There, but for the grace of God, go I,' then the message of Strait is the Gate is, equally, 'There, but for the grace of God, go you'; or, 'if I admit that my position has its potential dangers, then you should realize that so, too, has yours.'
The public saw none of the complexities that lay beneath the classically simple surface of this most immediately charming of Gide's novels. It is the most exquisite example in French literature of that favourite idyll, love in the château. The formidable Alissa has the enchanting innocence of a Turgenev heroine, and Gide's feeling for nature in Normandy never surpassed the beauty of Fongueusemare and its seasons, of which Jammes quaintly remarked: 'I cannot describe it all here, for I should have to, enumerate every leaf, and the book contains three hundred.' To the consternation of all, the book began to sell; and Gide's publishers, the Mercure de France, were not least taken aback. Having printed the unusually large edition, for Gide, of a thousand copies, they had distributed the type; but in two months a new edition was needed. Perhaps the desire to avoid similar contretemps entered into, the founding of the N R F's own publishing house, under Gallimard, in 1911. The new firm became Gide's exclusive publishers, beginning in the same year with Isabelle; and Gide became, if not a popular author, an unpopular author who sold well.
(1.) Journal, 7 February 1912.
(2.) Journal, 9 June 1928.