“Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how
to live with that freedom”- this is the ultimate lesson that Gide gives in
“The Immoralist”, even though as he himself has said “I refrained from
passing judgement”. As a result this novel will always be open to interpretation, as it presents the classic universal
problem of individual freedom, identity, and what constitutes “life”.
Michel, the novel’s main character is awakened from his life-long
“lethargy” with a fierce desire to change his mask, or rather to find his
real self hidden behind the layers of adopted morality, education, and
social obligations. He used to be a strict young scholar interested only in
“ruins and books”. Now he wants to be free of all obligation and inhibition
to fully experience the pleasure and sensuality brought about by his late
homosexual awakening. To do so, he sacrifices wife, career, and wealth.
The conflict within Michel is not only that of morality v. sexuality, but
mostly that of thought v. emotion, or more simplistically brain v. heart.
When he sees his awakened sensuality mirrored in the beauty of nature to
which he now becomes aware, Michel discovers that “what was the point of
thinking? I felt extraordinarily…”
In fact, once his new self begins to emerge Michel loses interest in the
historical studies that had fascinated him before. This maybe because
ancient ruins now reminded him of death, and now he wanted life not death,
and life now in the present: “I hated death”.
This desire to make most of the present relates to the theory of time
presented by the character of Melanque, who is, in my opinion, the true
immoralist whereas Michel merely desires to be an immoralist. According to
Melanque “every moment should take away with it every thing it brings”,
meaning that the past should not be remembered, or dwelled upon. By liberating one’s self from the past, one can live the present more fully.
Reminiscence is a way of avoiding life in the present, “being no more is the
same as never having been”.
However, Michel’s abandonment of his old habits of study has more to do
with his desire to find his real identity, “the one that everything in my
life- books, teachers, parents, I myself- had tried to suppress”. He wanted
to break free of the “accreted layers of acquired learning”. The more we
learn (at school etc.), the more we lose ourselves. Education can thus be
seen as the instrument of conformism, and devotion to study as the suppression of the senses.
So who is Michel really? The moral scholar, or the free-spirited
hedonist? Either, neither, or both? In truth, his first type of character
(the scholar) was shaped by his family environment, just as his second type
of character was shaped by his great desire to re-invent (and not truly
find) himself. Had Michel wished to find who he really was, he would have
tried to search deep within him and not try to copy peasants and crooks.