World Literature

Andre Gide

 

BORN: 1869, Paris, France

DIED: 1951, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Marshlands (1895)

The Immoralist (1902)

The Counterfeiters (1927)

Theseus (1946)

 

 

Andre Gide. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 

Overview

Andre Gide, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, saw a writing career that spanned over six decades and ranged in style from symbolist to classical to biography to political tract. His work often focused on a central character, usually a thinly veiled version of Gide himself, who struggled with reconciling two vastly different sets of morals. Today he is chiefly remembered for his extensive journals and his frank discussion of his own bisexuality at a time when such subject matter was strictly taboo.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Divided Nature. Andre Gide was born in Paris on November 22, 1869, to Paul Gide, a professor of law at the Sorbonne, and his wife, Juliette. They were both of the Protestant upper middle class. After the death of his father when Andre was eleven, the boy grew up in a largely feminine environment. in later years Gide often attributed his divided nature to this mixed southern Protestant and northern Norman Catholic heritage. His fragile health and nervous temperament affected his education, which included both formal schooling and a combination of travel and private tutoring. At the age of fifteen he vowed a lifelong spiritual love to his cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux.

Symbolist Period In 1891 Gide published his first book, The Notebooks of Andre Walter. In it, dream is preferred to reality, spiritual love to physical. It did not succeed in winning Madeleine over, as Gide had intended. During this period he was introduced into the symbolist salons—intellectual gatherings of followers of the symbolist movement—of Stephane Mallarme and Jose de Heredia by his friend Pierre Louys. The influence of the salons and symbolist thought can be see in Gide’s next works, Treatise of the Narcissus (1891) and Le Voyage d’Urien (1893).

In 1893 Gide set out for North Africa with his friend Paul Laurens hoping to harmonize his sensual desires with his inherited puritanical inhibitions. Gide fell ill with tuberculosis there and was forced to return to France, where he was shocked to find the symbolist salons unchanged. He retired to Neuchatel for the winter and wrote Marshlands, a satire on stagnation that broke with symbolism.

Unconventional Lifestyle. After returning to France, Gide married his cousin Madeleine. Gide described their attachment as ‘‘the devotion of my whole life,’’ but the marriage was traumatic for them both. Gide expressed an overwhelming spiritual need to share his life with his cousin, and she provided him with a source of stability, but her strict Christian values often conflicted with his unconventional lifestyle. He specifically separated love and sexual pleasure.

In 1895 Gide returned to North Africa, where he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas. Wilde encouraged Gide to acknowledge his love of young men, and Gide passionately gave in. This was a pivotal year for Gide as it also brought the death of his mother and his marriage to Madeleine, who continued to symbolize for him the pull of virtue, restraint, and spirituality against his cult of freedom and physical pleasure. Gide’s life was a constant battle to strike a balance between these opposing imperatives.

Middle Years. Gide wrote his doctrine of freedom in 1897. Fruits of the Earth is a lyrical work advocating liberation through sensuous hedonism. Five years later, Gide published The Immoralist (1902), a novel consisting of many autobiographical elements. In it, the author dramatizes the dangers of his male protagonist’s selfish quest for freedom and pleasure at the cost of death to his pious wife. In this, perhaps Gide’s greatest novel, as in many of his other works, the portrait of the virtuous, devoted heroine was inspired by Madeleine.

Conceived at the same time as The Immoralist, Strait Is the Gate (1909) is a critique of the opposite tendency toward excessive restraint and useless mysticism. Also patterned after Madeleine, the heroine renounces her earthly love to devote herself entirely to God and the spiritual life. The final pages of her diary suggest the futility of her self-denial as she is left in solitude without God. The book was Gide’s first success.

In the years between these two novels, Gide cofounded La Nouvelle revue frangaise. After publishing another highly polished though less autobiographical work in 1911, Gide was ready to challenge the principle of order in art. He accomplished this with The Vatican Swindle (1914), a humorous satire on middle-class complacency, relativism, and chance. The work evolved the notion of the ‘‘gratuitous act,’’ an expression of absolute freedom, unpremeditated, seemingly unmotivated. It is clear he was influenced by his reading of Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Religious Crisis and Homosexuality. In The Pastoral Symphony (1919), a pastor’s interpretation of Christ’s words to legitimize his love for the heroine is pitted against his son’s orthodox adherence to the restrictions of St. Paul. This work is a reflection of Gide’s religious crises of 1905-1906, which had been precipitated by his disturbing meetings with the fervent Catholic poet, playwright, and diplomat Paul Claudel. This religious crisis also inspired Numquid et tu... ?, which retraces Gide’s effort to seek and find his own truth in the Gospels.

In 1924 Gide risked his reputation by publishing Corydon, a defense of homosexuality, and, two years later, If It Die..., his well-known autobiography that focuses on the years 1869-1895, the period of his homosexual liberation.

The Counterfeiters. Gide’s The Counterfeiters appeared in 1926. The culmination of thirty years of meditating on two aspects of literary freedom—freedom from subjective, autobiographical fiction and freedom from the limitations of the traditional novel—the novel conveys a true impression of life perceived subjectively and individually. In it, Gide devised a technique of disorder. The Counterfeiters marked a general revolt against realism by defying the reader’s conventional expectations. Instead, the reader is forced to reflect on the technical problems facing the modern novelist.

Later Years. In 1925-1926 Gide traveled in the Congo with Marc Allegret. Gide was deeply distressed by the colonial exploitation of the natives that he witnessed there. When he returned to France he published accounts of his trip and issued a call for action. This experience facilitated his conversion to communism in the 1930s. However, disillusioned by a visit to the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1936, he admitted his mistake in Return from the U.S.S.R. (1936) and Afterthoughts on the U.S.S.R. (1937). Former associates bitterly criticized Gide for these books.

Gide no longer felt at ease with intellectual conformity. In 1931 he insisted in the play Oedipus on the individual’s obligation to draw his own ethical conclusions rather than follow the path of blind discipleship.

In 1935 Later Fruits of the Earth reiterated the ideal of liberation tempered by consideration of others, a sense of social duty, and self-discipline. During the German occupation of France during World War II, Gide was forced to flee to Tunisia. In Theseus (1946) the adventures and accomplishments of the original Theseus parallel Gide’s own. The following year Gide was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Widely considered the most important publication of Gide’s later years was his Journal, 1889-1939, released in 1939. The final volume (1950) carries the journal through 1949. Considered by some his best work, the Journal is the moving self-portrait of a man whose mind mirrors the crisis of the modern intellectual. It contains precious information on his platonic marriage to Madeleine, who quietly endured her husband’s homosexual adventures by taking refuge in a world of piety and domesticity. Her mute suffering was a tremendous source of guilt and pain to Gide, who loved her deeply. Et nunc manet in te, published posthumously in 1951, is Gide’s testimony to that love and an honest account of their unspoken tragedy. Gide died in Paris on February 19, 1951, and was buried at Cuverville in Normandy.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Gide's famous contemporaries include:

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): German philosopher who critiqued contemporary views of religion, morality, science, and culture. He achieved his greatest notoriety after he had already begun a descent into syphilis- induced madness.

Henri Bergson (1859-1941): French philosopher of metaphysics, his works touched on freewill, memory, and evolution. His thinking had a profound influence on modernist writers.

Philippe Petain (1856-1951): Petain made a name for himself as a victorious general in World War I only to earn the undying resentment of his countrymen after he assumed leadership of Vichy France, the puppet state set up by the victorious Germans in 1940.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): A major figure in English literature and the post-World War I London literary scene, Woolf, whose bisexuality influenced her writing, is considered one of the foremost modernist authors.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): Novelist, playwright, poet, irrepressible wit, and professional celebrity, Oscar Wilde was one of the most celebrated figures of his time. His homosexuality led to a conviction for ''gross indecency'' and led to his early death.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Gide stirred considerable controversy for featuring gay or bisexual characters in his fiction. Other works that broke ground in their portrayals of gay characters include:

The Miracle of the Rose, an autobiographical work by Jean Genet. Published in 1946, Genet's autobiographical, nonlinear work describes the homosexual erotic desire he feels for his fellow adolescent detainees in the Mettray Penal Colony and Fontevrault prison.

The Diary of Anal's Nin: Vol. 1 (1931-1934), a memoir by Anais Nin. Published in 1966, Nin's diary explores, among other topics, the author's experiments with bisexuality. The published version made Nin a feminist icon of the 1960s.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a memoir by Gertrude Stein. Written in 1933, this is actually Stein's autobiography, written from the perspective of her partner Toklas. This work, despite its homosexual subject matter, brought Stein worldwide fame and recognition.

Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, a biography by John Lahr. Published in 1978, the biography reconstructs the life and death of British comic playwright Joe Orton, who was widely considered a successor to Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Orton was murdered by his homosexual lover at the age of thirty-four.

 

Works in Literary Context

Symbolist and Classical Influences. Throughout his literary career Gide adapted his style to suit his subject matter, resulting in an unusually wide variety of works. Such early efforts as The Notebooks of Andre Walter and The Fruits of the Earth are rich in metaphor and lyric beauty, as befits works featuring an impressionable young man’s first encounters with life. The poetic prose contained in these books reveals Stephane Mallarme and the symbolists’s influence on the author. Gide abandoned symbolism, however, in favor of a simpler, more classical style when he began experimenting with themes and forms drawn from the Bible and Greek mythology. Gide also discovered the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and was influenced by his classicism. All of these factors played an important part in the development of Gide’s mature style. For example, he made use of ancient myth in such works as Prometheus Misbound (1899), and Theseus, his celebrated study of the problems of the mature artist. His drama, meanwhile, especially Saul (1903) and Numquid et tu ...? (1926), is based on biblical materials. Critics have also noted logical and formal similarities between Gide’s recits, or psychological narratives, such as Strait Is the Gate and The Pastoral Symphony, and biblical parables. Some believe that his farces, including Marshlands and Lafcadio’s Adventures (1914), are derived from the same source.

The Counterfeiters. Gide’s most ambitious and stylistically elaborate achievement was the novel The Counterfeiters (1917), a work that owes a great deal to Fyodor Dostoyevsky. An experimental novel, The Counterfeiters takes its form from patterns in music. In it, Gide attempts to reproduce the unstructured chaos of everyday life through the use of meaningless episodes, conversations, and Dostoyevskian interruptions of action at moments of great intensity. Linear narrative is abandoned as several unrelated stories occur simultaneously. Although Gide’s innovations in The Counterfeiters were important to the development of the French novel, he did not continue to pursue the experiment. Later works, such as Oedipus and Theseus, are written in a severely classical style that abandons the inventive audacity of Gide’s earlier works.

Autobiography. The characters in Gide’s fiction, even though they are based in part on himself, often distort the image of the artist as they disclose it. This is because Gide’s fictional technique was to create a character abstracted from a single aspect of his personality. Thus the nature of his characters often varies widely from work to work. Gide was also constantly reexamining his assumptions, so it is not uncommon for successive novels to portray contradictory beliefs and situations. Still, Gide’s shifting concerns do not reflect indecisiveness, as early critics charged. Rather, they exhibit external evidence of his continual dialogue with himself.

Influence. Although he was well known and respected among his fellow writers, Gide remained unrecognized by the general public until the 1920s, when his involvement as founder and editor of the prestigious La nouvelle revue francaise led to his discovery. His influence on the Albert Camus, Jean Genet, and their generation was significant. Although he rejected existentialism, he is widely recognized as a forerunner of the existentialist movement.

 

Works in Critical Context

Credited with introducing modern experimental techniques to the French novel, Gide is highly esteemed for the autobiographical honesty of his work, which depicts the moral development of a modern intellectual. His work is recognized for its diversity in both form and content, yet critics have also noted that his characters consistently reflect his own moral and philosophical conflicts. For this reason, commentators on Gide’s works often attach as much significance to biographical detail as they do to artistic method.

One of Gide’s primary artistic and philosophical concerns was authenticity. He discussed his life in a way that has been called exhibitionistic by some critics, while others discern religious overtones in his ‘‘unremitting search for self-correction and self-purification.’’ Alfred Kazin, in discussing the psychology of Gide’s highly confessional works, observed that ‘‘he would like to be both free and good, and failing both, had compromised by being honest.’’ The much-discussed Gidean notions of ‘‘sincerity’’—which Germaine Bree has summarized as signifying the ‘‘struggle of human beings with truths compulsively followed’’—and ‘‘disponibilite,” which Gide interpreted as ‘‘following one’s inclinations, so long as they lead upward,’’ were products of this lifelong passion for self-awareness. However, Gide’s critics are quick to point out that although he used forms conducive to autobiographical honesty, such as first person novels, journals, and personal essays, Gide did not reveal himself completely in his works.

Critics today are divided in their assessment of Gide’s novels. While some perceive them as dated and of only minor interest to contemporary readers, others maintain that the perfection of Gide’s style and the sincerity with which he set out to expose social, religious, artistic, and sexual hypocrisy guarantee the novels a permanent place in twentieth-century literature. There is wider consensus among critics about the value of Gide’s voluminous Journals, though. Despite the charges of narcissism that are often raised in discussions of the Journals, most critics agree with Philip Toynbee that Gide’s ‘‘greatest talent was for portraying himself against the carefully delineated background of his time,’’ and that the Journals today retain ‘‘all the interest for us which can be earned by a patient sincerity, an eager curiosity, and a brilliant pen.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Societal attitudes toward and treatment of homosexuals has changed in the century since Gide began writing on the subject. Write an essay describing the societal attitudes and legal status of homosexuals in your own society. What is your own opinion of the status of homosexuals in today’s society?

2. Gide’s frank treatment of his homosexuality in his work made him a literary outcast for much of his life. How did other contemporary homosexual authors such as Thomas Mann, Oscar Wilde, and Christopher Isherwood express their sexuality in their work, and what consequences did they suffer?

3. Andre Gide and Marcel Proust were both French authors whose works touched on the nature of reality and illusion. Compare and contrast Gide’s The Counterfeiters and Proust’s Swann’s Love. How does Proust’s treatment of women and love compare to Gide’s?

4. Several of Gide’s works have heavy classical overtones, recalling ancient Greek dramas. What are the characteristics of a classical story? How closely did such works as Oedipus and Theseus subscribe to the classical Greek template? Were there any modern stylistic elements present in these stories?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

‘‘Andre Gide.’’ Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 330: Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 2: Faulkner-Kipling. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 2007.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 321: Twentieth-Century French Dramatists. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Mary Anne O’Neil, Whitman College. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 65: French Novelists, 1900-1930. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Catharine Savage Brosman, Tulane University. Detroit: Gale, 1988.

Driskill, Richard T. Madonnas and Christs, Maidens and Knights: Sexual Confusion in the Bildungsromans of D. H. Lawrence and Andre Gide. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Fryer, Jonathan. Andre & Oscar: The Literary Friendship of Andre Gide and Oscar Wilde. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

‘‘Gide, Andre (Paul Guillaume) (1869-1951).’’ DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Lucey, Andre. Gide’s Bent: Sexuality, Politics, Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Novels for Students. Ed. Ira Mark Milne and Timothy Sisler. Vol. 21. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

O’Keefe, Charles, Void and Voice: Questioning Narrative Conventions in Andre Gide’s Major First-person Narratives. Department of Romance Languages. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Segal, Naomi. Andre Gide: Pederasty and Pedagogy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Walker, David H., ed. Andre Gide. New York: Longman, 1996.