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STRAIT IS THE GATE

By Andre Gide
Translated from the French by Dorothy Bussy
New York: Vintage Books, 1952
148 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2014

The story is narrated by Jerome Palissier, but it turns out to actually be more about his beloved, Alissa, than about him, and about the nature of their relationship. At the same time there is a much larger frame of meaning that is going on in the novel.

The Bucolin family of southern France has three children, Robert, a bit of a loser of a fellow, Juliette, a very beautiful girl about the same age as Jerome, and her older sister Alissa.

In the early part of the novel we follow the four children primarily as they grow up and are very close. They are first cousins as well. Early on Jerome falls madly in love with Alissa, yet unbeknownst to him, Juliette loves him.

Also early on the Lucile Bucolin, the mother of the girls, runs off and leaves their father with the three children. She is a spirited and beautiful woman from Martinique, and not cut out for the sober domesticated wife of the Bucolins. This abandonment of the children and betrayal of their father has a life-long impact on Alissa and is the driving event in shaping her future actions.

As the children grow into young adulthood we learn from our narrator, Jerome, that he is madly in love with Alissa, and that many in the family just sort of expect these two will marry. He doesnít realize that Juliette, who, while not his beloved, is a very dear cousin to him, is in love with him. However, Alissa does know, and behaves with careful propriety when with Jerome.

Jerome and Alissa seem to be quite intellectually oriented, which Juliette is not, and much of the joy the between Jerome and Alissa centers on intellectual themes and literature, poetry and other books. Nonetheless, Alissa is quite aware of Julietteís love of Jerome, though Jerome has no idea.

As they grow up he is trying to get his courage up to ask Alissa to at least be engaged to him, even though he plans to go away for university and they wouldnít marry for some years. He moves closer and closer to popping the question, but both Alissa and Juliette are very nervous about it, Alissa since she knows how much Juliette loves him, and also knows, without his every having explicitly declared it, that he expects Alissa will be his love.

Alissa has been deeply affected by her motherís desertion of the family and infidelity to their father. Quietly, without even Jerome knowing, she has turned to religion and has been deeply influenced by Pascal and his version of Jansenism which runs through his works. This is a strict doctrine which in its influence on Alissa emphasizes original sin and the basic depravity of human beings. She embraces the notion that humans require the grace of God to be saved, and that the individualís fate is predestined. Without anyone knowing, including Jerome and Juliette, she realizes she cannot bask in the love of Jerome, but must only love God in this ultimate way.

In the early days she does know of her sisterís love of Jerome and wants to step aside so that they will marry. However, the family arranges a marriage for Juliette to a decent man who is not only older than her, but whom she doesnít love. The suitor pushes his case and Julietteís father agrees. Much to her devastation, she is married to the suitor.

Now Alissa is in a more difficult situation. She canít any longer simply be the martyr giving up her beloved for her sister, but she increasingly feels she must make a choice to either love God or to love Jerome, but in her Pascal/Jansenistic influences she believes she canít both adequately love God and Jerome in the same way.

Jerome knows nothing of this inner life of Alissa, and canít really figure out what is going on with her and why she canít just return his love which he does show passionately, and she appears to love him as well. At the same time, it is important to note that he seems much more in love with the ideal image he has created of Alissa than the troubled Alissa whom he should know so well. This gap in his understanding is partly his own idealization of Alissa, and her partly careful deception of him about her inner life struggles which she never reveals.

As they grow older, and especially after Juliette settles in with her new husband and comes to love him and their growing batch of children, the difficulties with the love affair between Jerome and Alissa becomes more and more difficult for them to understand. Jerome canít imagine why Alissa is so resistant of at least making plans for marriage, especially since she constantly professes her profound love of him. On her side Alissa hides much of her inner-life from him, particularly the influence of Pascalís writings and the Jansenistic theology she embraces.

For some years they are separated and communicate by mail, seeing each other very seldom, but when they are together it always appears, at least to Jerome, that they will one day marry. Alissa knows this will not happen, but doesnít quite know how to deal with the conflict of her profound love of Jerome which she denies herself and him.

Eventually at the young age of 25 Alissa dies. Jerome is both devastated by her death and totally unable to understand what went wrong with their relationship. Shortly after her death Juliette sends Jerome Alissaís journals and he reads them learning, for the first time, this strange religious view that she had, and how that was the driving force in their relationship. He is devastated, but at least he comes to understand.

He realizes how fully she embraced the position that she took from Pascal. ďWhat is not God cannot satisfy my longing.Ē He also learns that she had to curb her deep passion for him in order for her to reach her God. However, I donít think he ever fully understands that he was madly in love more with his IMAGE of Alissa that Alissa herself. On the other hand, he was at the great disadvantage that she so carefully hid from him her real self.

This is a deeply tragic and sad novel, and very beautifully written. I come away not exactly sure what to make of it. Is it a commentary that says even in a situation where two people deeply love each other, that neither those of us on the outside, nor even the lovers themselves can fully understand such a relationship? Or is it a criticism of a religious view that allows one to complete deceive oneís lover in the name of a higher love of God? Itís just not clear to me what to make of this sad, sad story.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu