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By Andre Gide
Translated from the French by Dorothy Bussy
New York: Vintage Books, 1958
147 pages

Bob Corbett
July 2015

The time is 1902 and the narrator has asked three of his best friends to come to where he is living in Algeria; he needs them. They all rush there and the novel is one very long narrative in which the “immoralist” himself tells his dear friends his story.

The reader learns early on that the entire novel is to demonstrate one single thesis: “To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

He begins with his recent marriage to Marceline. She is just 20, he 24. His situation is nearly ideal. He is alone in the world other than for Marceline, yet his father’s wise planning left him property and wealth of some considerable size. He is learned, a scholar with some renown even at his young age, and it would seem the novel might be headed to be called the ideal one rather than the immoralist!

Perhaps is it simply because he has had so much handed to him on a silver platter, as it were, that he is dissatisfied with life and somehow needs more, more control, more freedom, something, but he’s just not sure what.

He suffers an agony of what to do, how to I live his life and what follows from his decision to somehow “free” himself (though he’s not too sure about what he needs to be free FROM). He thinks he would then have his own life and one that is nearly utopian. It simply didn’t work out for him, and thus as the novel opens he’s back in Algeria, having summoned his needed friends, and telling them his story.

The long story, the 146 pages in my copy, is one very long narrative of his marriage, and his relatively short few years of marriage, which included his search for meaning and his elusive “freedom” that he searches for.

I found the novel didn’t work well for me and that for two primary reasons:

First is this very structure. That the friends, no matter how dear, sit silently and listen to this 146 page narrative without a single word of response, or break to eat, drink or visit a bathroom, was all a bit much.

Secondly, while the theme is one I have been quite interested in all my life – how to have and create freedom for one’s self and the courage to do so – is a narrative that shows it age. His notion of “freedom” which is rooted in his time and circumstance of turn of the century Europe in 1900 ish, regards freedom as involving many ways to be in the world that many of us in our time take much more for granted. Thus there was always the nagging feeling in me that this vaunted “freedom” he seeks was not such a great deal after all.

However, I am prepared to believe that this may be an unfair criticism. The notion of what is expected and what are the things which everyday society “expects” of us and takes for granted, keeps changing over time. The narrator does operate within reasonable expectation of “duty” and “expectation” for the period in which he wrote. It was just that a good deal of that is not much of an expectation in our time so there was a bit of feeling in me: “what is the big deal. Just take your freedom and use it.”

In any case, he narrates the early years of his marriage, his slow growth to really love his wife, whom, for the earlier parts of the novel he more “respected” than loved, and he tells his friends of his struggles to live with these ideas and choices that are pressing on him, but getting in the way of his economic best interests and certainly in the way of treating his wife with love and decency.

Despite the quibbles, I am happy I read to work, following him along in his journey, seeing how situations and events became difficult for him as he might wish to do “other,” but that other was either unacceptable to normal society, which did weigh on him more than he would like to have acknowledged, or would hurt his wife, about whom he seemed to have less that a loving care for much of the novel, but not, perhaps, toward the very end.

Two tactics or situations that Andre Gide provides to his narrator were very useful for Gide’s exploration of “how to become free”. Gide gives the narrator both wealth, and already at his young age, some scholarly reputation. Thus Gide gets two major things out of the way early on: the limit on “freedom” which financial need poses, and the limit on “freedom” which a lack of any way to be “known” or to “related” to the world. The narrator has both of those sort of “given” to him by his past, both which came from the push and actions of his now dead father.

The immoralist just needs to learn how to live this free life while already having this enormous advantage that he has money and reputation already fully in place before he even begins to search for his own “freedom.”

These comfort zones he is provided made the story less interesting than were Gide to have explored this issue when the seeker had to face the everyday problems of how to feed, shelter and clothe oneself, and how to prepare oneself to somehow make it in the world. Gide’s main character has been given those two huge hand ups out before the novel even begins.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett