The works of the French author André Gide (1869-1951) reveal his passionate revolt against the restraints and conventions inherited from 19th-century France. He sought to uncover the authentic self beneath its contradictory masks.
André Gide was born in Paris on Nov. 22, 1869, to Paul Gide, a professor of law at the Sorbonne, and his wife, Juliette, both of the Protestant upper middle class. After the death of his father when André was 11, the boy was dominated by his mother's love and grew up in a largely feminine environment. His fragile health and nervous temperament affected his education, which oscillated between formal schooling and a combination of travel and private tutoring. At 15 he vowed a lifelong spiritual love to his cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux.
In 1891 Gide published his first book, Les Cahiers d'André Walter (The Notebooks of André Walter), in which dream is preferred to reality, spiritual love to the physical. It did not succeed, however, in winning over the reluctant Madeleine, as Gide had intended. During this period he was introduced into the symbolist salons of Stéphane Mallarmé and José de Heredia by his friend Pierre Louÿs. In the symbolist vein Gide wrote Le Traité du Narcisse (1891; Treatise of the Narcissus) and Le Voyage d'Urien (1893).
In 1893 Gide set out for Africa with his friend Paul Laurens in the hope of harmonizing imperious sensual desires and inherited puritanical inhibitions. At Susa he had his first homosexual experience. There Gide fell ill with tuberculosis and was forced to return to France, where he was shocked to find the symbolist salons unchanged. Retiring to Neuchâtel for the winter, he wrote Paludes (Marshlands), a satire on stagnation and a break with symbolism.
In 1895 Gide returned to Africa, where he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas. Wilde obliged Gide to acknowledge his pederasty, to which he now passionately acquiesced. This was indeed a pivotal year for Gide for 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 effort to strike a balance between these opposite imperatives.
Gide articulated his doctrine of freedom in 1897 in Les Nourritures terrestres (Fruits of the Earth ), a lyrical work advocating liberation through sensuous hedonism. L'Immoraliste (1902), a novel transposing many autobiographical elements, dramatizes the dangers of Michel's selfish quest for freedom and pleasure at the ultimate cost of death to his pious wife, Marceline. In this, perhaps Gide's greatest novel, as in various other works, the portrait of the virtuous, devoted heroine was inspired by Madeleine.
Conceived at the same time as L'Immoraliste, La Porte étroite (1909; Strait Is the Gate) is a critique of the opposite tendency of excessive restraint and useless mysticism. Again patterned after Madeleine, the heroine, Alissa, renounces her love for Jérôme to devote herself entirely to God and the spiritual life. The final pages of her diary suggest the futility of her self-denials in the face of solitude without God. This was Gide's first success.
In the relatively sterile years between these two novels, Gide was a cofounder of La Nouvelle revue française. After publishing in 1911 another highly polished though less autobiographical work, Isabelle, Gide was ready to challenge the principle of order in art. This he accomplished in Les Caves du Vatican (1914; The Vatican Swindle), a humorous satire on bourgeois complacency, be it orthodox or anticlerical, and on relativism and chance. The work defies conventional psychology's insistence on motivated acts. Instead Gide carries to the extreme the idea of freedom, for the hero, Lafcadio, murders a total stranger by pushing him out of a moving train. Thus Gide evolved the notion of the "gratuitous act," an expression of absolute freedom, unpremeditated, seemingly unmotivated. He was no doubt influenced by his reading of Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
In La Symphonie pastorale (1919), a pastor's free 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 reflects 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, and of 1916, after the conversion of his friend Henri Ghéon to Catholicism. The latter crisis was also caused by the beginning of Gide's love affair with Elisabeth van Rysselberghe, who later became the mother of his only child, Catherine. This religious crisis also inspired Numquid et tu … ?, which retraces Gide's effort to seek and find his own truth in the Gospels.
Gide risked his reputation by publishing Corydon (1924), an apology of homosexuality, and Si le grain ne meurt … (1926; If It Die … ), his well-known autobiography which treats the years 1869-1895, the period of his homosexual liberation.
Gide's Les Faux-monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters) appeared in 1926. It is the fruit of a 30-year meditation on a twofold esthetic freedom: freedom from subjective, autobiographical fiction and freedom from the limitations of the traditional novel. In order to convey a true impression of life, chaotic, elusive, perceived subjectively and individually, Gide devised a technique of disorder. Gide underscores this innovation by means of the character Édouard, who is also writing a book called Les Faux-monnayeurs and who fails to achieve the same goal. Les Faux-monnayeursis a landmark in the general revolt against realism, defying the reader's conventional expectations and forcing him to reflect on the technical problems which face the modern novelist.
Also in 1926 appeared Dostoevsky, a collection of lectures and articles on the Russian novelist, whom Gide greatly admired and helped bring to the attention of the French public. Like the Lettres à Angèle (1900) and Prétextes (1903), which contains an admirable study of Oscar Wilde, Dostoevsky is a book of criticism which retains its interest chiefly because it reveals Gide's own thoughts on literature and philosophy.
In 1925-1926 Gide traveled in the Congo with his friend Marc Allégret. He was deeply distressed by the colonial exploitation of the natives that he witnessed there. Upon his return he published accounts of his trip and issued a call for action. This experience undoubtedly facilitated his conversion to communism in the 1930s. Disillusioned by a visit to the U.S.S.R. in 1936, he admitted his mistake in Retour de l'U.R.S.S. (1936; Return from the U.S.S.R.) and Retouches àmon Retour de l'U.R.S.S. (1937; Afterthoughts on the U.S.S.R.).
Gide had long since ceased to feel at ease with intellectual conformity. In 1931 he had insisted in the play Oedipe on the individual's obligation to draw his own ethical conclusions (Oedipus) rather than follow the path of blind discipleship (Eteocles and Polynices).
In 1935 Les Nouvelles nourritures (Later Fruits of the Earth) had reiterated the ideal of liberation, now tempered by consideration of others, a sense of social duty, and self-discipline. During the German Occupation, Gide was forced to flee to Tunisia. In Thésée (1946) the adventures and accomplishments of the old Theseus parallel Gide's own. The optimistic mood betrays the author's serene confidence in the path he had chosen. The following year Gide was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford and the Nobel Prize for literature.
Probably the most important publication of Gide's later years was his Journal, 1889-1939, released in 1939, one year after the death of his wife. 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 mirrored the crisis of the modern intellectual. It also contains precious information on his curious 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 great 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 a frank account of their unspoken tragedy. Gide died in Paris on Feb. 19, 1951, and was buried at Cuverville in Normandy.
Further Reading on André Gide
There are two major critical biographies of Gide: Justin O'Brien, Portrait of André Gide: A Critical Biography (1953), and George D. Painter, André Gide: A Critical Biography (1968). Also useful is Harold March, Gide and the Hound of Heaven (1952). The best general studies in English of Gide's works are Albert J. Guerard, André Gide (1951; 2d ed. 1969); Germaine Brée, Gide (1953; trans. 1963); and George W. Ireland, André Gide: A Study of His Creative Writings (1970). Less ambitious but worthwhile introductions to Gide are Enid Starkie, André Gide (1953), and Wallace Fowlie, André Gide: His Life and Art (1965). Recommended for general background on the 20th-century French novel are Henri Peyre, The Contemporary French Novel (1955); Germaine Brée and Margaret Guiton, An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus (1957); and Victor Brombert, The Intellectual Hero: Studies in the French Novel, 1880-1955 (1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Cordle, Thomas, André Gide, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975 1969.
Mann, Klaus, André Gide and the crisis of modern thought, New York: Octagon Books, 1978, 1943.
O'Brien, Justin, Portrait of André Gide: a critical biography, New York: Octagon Books, 1977, 1953.
Tolton, C. D. E., André Gide and the art of autobiography: a study of Si le grain ne meurt, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1975.