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The Immoralist Penguin Classics cover
|Translator||Dorothy Bussy (1930)|
|Publisher||Mercure de France (French, 1902); Alfred A. Knopf (English, 1930)|
|Published in English||1930|
|Media type||Hardback and paperback|
The Immoralist (French: L'Immoraliste) is a novel by André Gide, published in France in 1902. When it was first published, it was considered shocking. What some see as a story of dereliction, others see as a tale of introspection and self-discovery.
While traveling to Tunis on honeymoon with his new bride, the Parisian scholar Michel is overcome by tuberculosis. As he recovers, he re-discovers the physical pleasures of living and resolves to forgo his studies of the past in order to experience the present—to let "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."
This is not, however, the Michel his colleagues knew—not a Michel that will be readily accepted by traditional society—and he must hide his new values under the patina of what he now reviles. Bored by Parisian society, he moves to a family farm in Normandy. He is happy there, especially in the company of young Charles, but he must soon return to the city and academe. Michel remains restless until he gives his first lecture and runs into Ménalque, who has long outraged society, and recognizes in him a reflection of his torment. Michel returns south, deeper into the desert, until, as he confides to his friends, he is lost in the sea of sand.
Gide's story is filled by his descriptive prose, which evokes the exotic nature of Michel's inner and outer journey: "I did not understand the forbearance of this African earth, submerged for days at a time and now awakening from winter, drunk with water, bursting with new juices; it laughed in this springtime frenzy whose echo, whose image I perceived within myself."
The Immoralist is narrated by Michel, and he is the central protagonist. The story follows Michel through his near death experience with tuberculosis and into his 'rebirth'. When he recovers from the tuberculosis Michel turns from his previously academic life into a more physical and sensual existence. He feels as if his true self has been revealed, and he turns to his senses, describing how things look or smell. He also becomes much more aware of the young boys around him, savouring their youth, health and perfection. This zeal for life puts him at odds with the conventions of the society he grew up in.
Marceline is the wife of Michel. She and Michel do not know each other very well when they get married. She is religious, and this contrasts with Michel's lack of religious faith. When Michel is ill, and after this, Marceline is very attentive and caring towards him. She cares for him and nurses him back to health.
Marceline follows Michel on his travels, even when she becomes ill as well. She hardly complains about anything that she is put through. Before she dies, she comments on the new doctrine that has taken hold of Michel.
Ménalque is an acquaintance of Michel's. He has a reputation for being disaffected with society, and this draws Michel, who is in a similar position. Ménalque lives for the present and does not require possessions. He is tired of society and the people who follow it, and he talks to Michel about his views.
In his book Culture and Imperialism, Edward Saïd uses The Immoralist as an example of imperialism's effects on the colonizer. Saïd puts Gide's work in the context of Africanism, which deals with African peoples and cultures in a Eurocentric way. The architecture critic Stephen Games sees The Immoralist as illustrating the self-deception of literary writing. Games argues that Gide's wish to portray Michel's (and Gide's own) efforts at self-realisation idealises what is more truly a losing battle to defend selflessness and defy selfishness. He speculates that literature's subsequent Romantic embrace of selfishness in this and other novels contributed to the artistic excusing of narcissism - inter-personal, social, and political - later in the 20th century. He also sees Saïd's view of The Immoralist as an entanglement with what it seeks to criticize, on account of Saïd's presentation of the wish to possess Arab boys as a narrowly colonial insult rather than a broader humanitarian affront.
The novel was adapted into a play of the same name by Augustus Goetz and Ruth Goetz. The play had a Broadway-theatre production at the Royale Theatre in New York City, New York, from February to May 1954; it was directed by Daniel Mann and starred James Dean, Louis Jourdan and Geraldine Page.