A young classics scholar, on his Tunisian honeymoon, is nearly killed by an attack of tuberculosis. The illness leads him to rethink the meaning of life. He concludes that the authentic life is the life of the body, not the mind; conventional society represses or destroys sensual life, or if it does not, is insufferably dull; and teenage Tunisian boys are highly attractive, as are certain strapping young Norman peasant lads.
Michel may or may not actually “conclude” that last item, although the reader of The Immoralist is left with no doubts. The novel is a classic in the literature of homosexuality – this is virtually the only thing I knew about it before I read it – although the only homosexual act is here:
I stood up in the carriage to talk to the driver, a boy from Catania, lovely as a line of Theocritus, vivid, scented, savory as a fruit.
“Com’è bella la signora!” he said in a charming voice, watching Marcelline walk away.
“Anche tu sei bello, ragazzo,” I answered; and as I was leaning toward him, I couldn’t resist my impulse, and abruptly drawing him against me, kissed him. He yielded with a laugh. “I Francesi sono tutti amanti,” he said. (Howard trans., Modern Library, 154)
Michel and his wife are now near the end of the novel, back in Sicily, retracing their steps. Sicily embodies classical ideals, including sexual freedom. This one passage has enough ironies for today, doesn’t it? Beginning with the sexual freedom of the Sicilian boy – the freedom to openly admire other men’s wives, and the freedom to mock amorous Frenchmen.
As blatant as this episode appears, it is possible that Michel is unaware of his homosexuality, that he is repressing it. It is possible that he is perfectly aware of it. Many possibilities exist:
Despite his newfound impulse to the sensual life, Michel is repressing his true sexual desires, but inadvertently reveals them in his narration. Typical unreliable narration.
Michel means to hide his sexual inclinations, of which he is perfectly aware, from his friends, from the reader, but can’t help himself. He is not repressed – he fails at repression. He is exuberant.
Michel is pretending to repress his homosexuality, and cannily reveals it to the friends listening to his story.
Gide’s frame, the fact that we are not reading Michel’s narration, but a later account of his narration, written by someone else, multiplies the interpretations:
Michel is cagey about his homosexuality, for whatever reason, repression or fear. The writer detects Michel’s evasions and highlights them, or even exaggerates them, in the written text.
Michel is actually more explicit in his spoken account than in the text. Perhaps that Sicilian kiss was not the end of the story. The writer conceals Michel’s homosexuality, to protect him, or because the writer is himself sexually repressed. He conceals Michel's inclinations poorly - on purpose, or not?
Straining the point, I could come up with a few more of these. The frame is not incidental in The Immoralist. It is an enormous complication. Ignoring it is an error.
A final irony is that Michel’s homosexuality is not, within the ethics of the novel, very closely related to the “immoralism,” whatever that is, in the title. Another little trick of Gide’s.