The Immoralist ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
French author André Gide lived from 1869 to 1951. His novel The Immoralist, published in 1902, is one of his most famous and enduring works. Gide was known for his homosexuality, and, not surprisingly, his protagonist in The Immoralist, Michel, is also homosexual, although it is never referred to in those words. (There are no descriptions of sexual activity here, but Michel’s attraction to members of his own sex is repeatedly implied throughout the novel.) Michel is the first-person narrator. He is telling his story to some old friends, not so much to explain himself but to help him to better understand his own nature. He is, after all, a seeker after truth.
Michel seems to be independently wealthy, although he mentions several times about not having enough money. He is some kind of a scholar or philologist but this is never fully explained. He marries a woman named Marceline, who loves him much more than he loves her. They leave their native France and travel to Tunis in Northern Africa (we are never told why Tunis in particular of all the places in the world they might have gone). Michel is entranced by Tunis and particularly by Arab boys, some of whom he pays to stay with him to keep him company. When he realizes he is the early stages of tuberculosis and is spitting blood, he believes he will die. It’s up to Marceline to take care of him the best she can.
After Tunis, Michel and Marceline travel restlessly from place to place in foreign lands. Michel’s health worsens, improves and then worsens again. During one of their happier moments, Michel and Marceline begin sleeping together for the first time. Marceline soon becomes pregnant, but the pregnancy doesn’t go well and she ends up losing the baby. Michel is torn between his tender regard for her and the selfish pursuit of his own ends.
At one point, Michel and Marceline return to France, where he manages some farms that he owns, inherited from his family. He discovers he doesn’t care about the day-to-day running of a farm, which involves dealing with tenant farmers and other mundane tasks. He finds during this time that what he most enjoys is spending time with the “handsome, well-built” young men who work for him. He begins spending all his time with them, while leaving Marceline alone to her own devices.
When Michel decides he no longer likes living on a farm and managing it, he and Marceline begin traveling again in foreign lands. His health has miraculously improved and he wants to pursue pleasure and discover the truth about himself that has for so long eluded him. (While traveling in Sicily, he tells a young carriage driver how beautiful he is and impulsively kisses him.) Michel finds that he prefers “low” people (men), people without breeding and customary “good manners,” to people of his own “class.” They are much more authentic and are not bounded so much by convention and rules of acceptable behavior.
While Michel’s health improves, Marceline’s health declines. As they continue to travel, she becomes sicker and more dependent on Michel. Her failed pregnancy took its toll and she develops tuberculosis that she caught from Michel when she was nursing him back to health. Eventually she dies in a foreign land. We don’t know what happens to Michel after Marceline’s death, but we assume he continues his quest for self-knowledge on his own, or possibly with a male companion he picks up along the way (now that he is no longer burdened with a wife). Will he ever find what he’s looking for? Does he even know what it is?
The Immoralist is a fascinating study of one man’s psyche. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. Gide’s style (translated from French to English, of course) is accessible and easy to read. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been ponderous and bloated. On another level, it’s frank for the time in which it was published (1902). It’s impossible to imagine an American novel of this time with the same tone and subject matter.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp