Before Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, there was Andre Gide.
Always a figure of controversy, Andre-Paul-Guillaume Gide was born in Paris on November 22, 1869. He grew up in a circle of women, his father having died when Gide was quite young. Although he developed a passionate interest in literature at a young age, he despised school. Its rules and conventions repelled him. He felt such organized education stifled enthusiasm. As he wrote in If It Die, "I experienced an unspeakable distaste for everything we did in class, for class itself, for the whole system of lectures and examinations, even for the play hours...."
He did, however, have a finely developed love of nature. He took the family's maid on long walks, and later wrote of his raptures at seeing a eucalytus tree in flower (see If It Die ). Gide did not begin writing until the age of eighteen, and his first works were prose poems. He may have been influenced by the literary circle he was a member of by that time--a group of young Symbolist writers including the poet, Stephan Mallarme.
Gide's first noteworthy achievement, The Fruits of the Earth, (1897), which he published at his own expense, is about a young man, Nathaniel, who rejects the common notions of morality in order to devote himself to a life of sensuality and pleasure. This hedonistic lifestyle is one that Gide personally endorsed. For, although he had been raised in a religious environment, he was anxious to throw off the shackles of Christianity. In The Immoralist (1902), Gide returns to the theme of defying convention. The protagonist, Michel, is very much a personal portrait of Gide. Like Gide, he marries a woman whom he is not in love with and suffers a tedious bout with tuberculosis. Like Gide, he finds the rigid ideas that society holds about life and religion stifling. He longs to find a "new self," and it is during his convalescence that this self comes forth, rather like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Gide implies that, to a large extent, Michel's awakening is brought about by his illness, writing, "to the man whom death's wing has touched, what once seemed important is so no longer; and other things become so which did once not seem important or which he did not even know existed. The layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there." One of the repressed desires Michel becomes aware of is an attraction to men. He first becomes cognizant of this when his wife, Marceline, brings a young Arab boy home. He is beguiled by the beauty of the boy's body and by his radiant good health. As time goes on, Michel finds it infinitely more pleasurable to spend his leisure hours around young boys than around his wife, whose very presence often seems to annoy him. There is a revealing scene in chapter four (Part One) of the book when Michel sees his favorite of his wife's young boy "protegees," Moktir, steal a pair of scissors-- yet says nothing.
Apparently, Gide was attempting to suggest not only Michel's homosexuality, but also his attraction to health and unsubmissiveness in his strong fascination for the Arab children. Never is this admiration for good health and aversion to illness more clear than when Marceline (Michel's wife) becomes sick. Although he demonstrates caring and pity towards Marceline, he is inherently apathetic. At one point, when she tells him, speaking of his "doctrine" of new ideas, "It may be beautiful, but it eliminates the weak," he callously responds, "As it should." For me, one of the most memorable--and yes, even poignant--scenes in the book takes place near the end when Michel brings his wife a basket of almond blossoms. Assuming the flowers will bring her pleasure, he is astonished when, instead, the scent of them makes her ill. Frustrated and furious, he concludes, "there are strong joys for the strong, and weak joys for the weak who would be injured by the stronger ones."
The Immoralist is a novel embracing radical philosophy and passionate ideas. When I first read it, some 10+ years ago, I was too young to appreciate it. I found the story offensive, and the character of Michel unlikeable. However, re-reading it now,
many years later, I have a renewed appreciation for Gide as an artist. I admire the fervor with which he elucidates his ideas. Unlike some writers, he is not afraid to paint his philosophies in strong colors--there are no shades of grey in Gide's writing. I see, once again, why I found the other three books by Gide I have read, Strait is the Gate, Two Symphonies, and The Counterfeiters, so remarkable. Gide is not merely a brilliant writer of fiction--he is, perhaps more importantly, an extraordinary thinker.
As for Gide's personal literary influences, he claims to have always felt a strong affinity for Dostoevsky. Even as a child, he was mesmerized by the Russian author's work. He once said, "I present my own ethics under the cover of Dostoevsky."
Personally, having read almost all of Dostoevsky's major work, I fail to see the similarity between him and Gide. At the same time, I realize that it is often not easy to perceive the influence that one writer has upon another. After all, we do not know on what level Gide was affected by Dostoevsky. Perhaps it was in the formation of his ideas and the psychological aspects of his characters rather than stylistically. Again, who knows? What is of note is the momentous impact Gide has had on French literature. It is doubtful if Sartre, Camus, or de Beauvoir would have been quite the same writers had Gide not come before them. Over his lifetime, Gide, always fearful of being "classified," accepted only one prize: The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947. Gide died on February 19, 1951.
Major works by Gide:
The Immoralist (1902)
Strait is the Gate (1909)
Isabelle/The Pastoral Symphony (1911/1919)
The Counterfeiters (1926)
The Vatican Swindle (1914)
There is a fabulous site dedicated to Gide here:
For those of you who have not yet familiarized yourself with the writings of this master of French literature, I hope this new thread will pique your interest. Perhaps there are a few Gide fans here already?
"Envying another man's happiness is madness: you wouldn't
know what to do with it if you had it. Happiness isn't
something that comes ready-made, to order."
~The Immoralist, Andre Gide