I’m cheating a little bit here, as The Immoralist takes us two years into the twentieth century and is by a writer who, while born in 1869, lived well into the next century, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947. Yet reading and writing about Gide seemed a natural next step after reviewing some Flaubert and Huysmans recently, and, in terms of literary interest and personal life (including a relationship with Oscar Wilde), Gide has a foot firmly in each century.
The Immoralist is the story of Michel (an erstwhile scholar of History), his life subsequent to his father’s death, his marriage to Marceline and his travels around Europe and Africa. The novel charts the development of Michel’s moral philosophy, his increasing prioritisation of sensation and pleasure and his exploration of his own sexuality – from admiring the ‘health’ of an Arab boy’s ‘little body’ which ‘was a beautiful thing’ (the first stirrings of his pederastic impulses) to apparently enjoying an MMF threesome, as his devoted wife lies dying in the novel’s final pages.
For general readers: The Immoralist isn’t a novel which makes it easy for you to know what to think or how to judge its protagonist. Michel’s worst crimes – potential paedophilia and disregard for his wife – are difficult to pin down precisely. His apparently candid narrative stops short of telling us the exact nature of his relationships with the many boys and young men he comes into contact with (including the Arab boy Bachir, his steward’s son Charles and the child Ali he lives with at the end), although what he does admit to is increasingly physical and suggestive of sexual consummation. And Marceline’s consumptive illness cannot be blamed on Michel, even if his own tuberculosis and insistence on continual travel are certainly contributory factors in her ill health.
The lack of narrative certainty and conclusion can be unsettling. This is deliberate and reflected in the frame narrative, where Michel’s friend, who has listened to the ‘confession’, says:
We did not speak either, for we each of us had a strange feeling of uneasiness. We felt, alas, that by telling us his story, Michel had made his action more legitimate. Our not having known at what point to condemn it in the course of his long explanation seemed almost to make us his accomplices. We felt, as it were, involved.
The use of Michel’s voice makes this feeling of involvement inevitable. Without the guiding light of a third person narrator we feel closer to Michel than any of the other characters – even Marceline – and so sympathetic towards his selfishness. This means this is a novel which makes you think and allows you to judge for yourself at which point, if any, Michel crosses a line, and to make a call about the value of conventional morality.
For students: Gide’s lack of narrative commentary and concentration on the development of an individual’s consciousness, where other characters are almost incidental, is very reminiscent of Flaubert and the two styles, particularly in passages where the protagonist elucidates their current ideological position in dialogue with other characters, are worthy of more detailed comparison.
Michel’s Nietzschean philosophy could also be of interest, as could Gide’s treatment of same sex desire, but there is most here perhaps for those investigating colonialism in the period and the novel’s African context is difficult to overlook. Sexual power is of course a large part of this – and Michel’s status as a white man in Africa is in some ways similar to the dominion he enjoys over workers on his country estate in Normandy – but it is Michel’s first trip to Africa, after the intense emotions surrounding his father’s death, and lack of emotion at his own wedding, which is the catalyst for the selfish, destructive and dominant behaviours he goes on to exhibit in all areas of his life:
Tunis surprised me greatly. At the touch of new sensation, certain portions of me awoke – certain sleeping faculties, which, from not having as yet been used, had kept all their mysterious freshness.
The Immoralist then is a wonderful study for those looking at the effects of colonialism on those who colonise and at Africa as shorthand for exoticism and permissiveness in the later nineteenth-/early twentieth-century novel.