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The Immoralist - Andre Gide

The Immoralist
Andre Gide

“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.

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