Monday, March 28, 2011

The French are all lovers (the French are all crazy) - the carefully hidden homosexual subtext of The Immoralist

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.


  1. I am reminded of Said's criticism of this work and the context of imperialism. I suppose because the dialogue was in Italian I assumed this work took place in Florence, but upon rereading your post I see it's in Tunis. What is your impression of the touristic atmosphere (or not) of the novel? Does being a tourist impact Michael's homosexual desires in one way or another?

  2. Hi A.R.

    I think Gide’s intention was to be intentionally ambiguous. Doing this well has a way of making an author seem more profound than he really is.

    Here’s my question for you, if you have an opinion, “Do you think there would have been a “Death in Venice” if Gide had not written "The Immoralist"? I have my doubts.


  3. Not Tunis, exactly. The novel moves around a lot. Paris to Tunisia, with a long convalesence in a town in the interior (Biskra). Back to Paris, with some additional episodes on Michel's farm in Normandy. Then, as the novel winds down, we retrace the path back to Biskra. Stops in Sicily are crucial to both trips, thus the Italian.

    Michel's interest in the dark-skinned Tunisian boys is Orientalist, certainly, but it's also a bit of a trap - he's also attracted to Sicilians (differently dark-skinned) and Normans (not at all dark-skinned - but this is another historical link back to Sicily, isn't it?).

    The sex tourism, such as it is, is part of the story. Michel has to get away from Paris to indulge himself, whatever it is he's doing, and in the end he seems to want to escape back to where he experienced his first taste of freedom.

    What did Said write?

    Vince - so cynical! Yes, my guess is that some, maybe all, of the possibilities I imagined are unresolvable. A good reader will juggle them all.

    I haven't read Death in Venice for 20 years, and I don't think I read it particularly well, so I'd better not opine on your question. Gide's novel certainly looks like an ancestor, or at least a kindly uncle, of Mann's.

  4. Gide does this (the framing/ subtle homoerotic relationships) in Les faux-monnayeurs, too. Did he actually write more than one novel, I'm beginning to wonder?

  5. An earlier book (Les nourritures terrestres, 1895) uses virtually identical materials - North African boys, a Wilde-like mentor named Menalque, etc. So - good question!

    On the other hand, boy, did Gide write a lot of books. Who knows what one might find in them. Someone please read them all and report back.

  6. Said says (essentially) that this text is representative of the desire for Western powers to travel to an Eastern (or exotic) place and derive benefit from the place without allowing the Other autonomy or independence. He refers to the triangular relationship between Michel, Menalque, and Moktir as a hierarchical one, with Moktir at the bottom. I haven't read Gide myself so I am going off critical response. I think your analysis of this passage is provocative to say the least.

  7. Anna, thanks for that. Said is partly right, certainly. But what a reduction of a complex work of art.

    Just one example: part of what Michel finds in Tunisia is that the boys have (or he imagines they have) an autonomy and independence that he feels he lacks, that he wants for himself. A scene in which he watches a boy steal a pair of his wife's scissors is key - Michel's first transgressive thrill, a preview of his later theft of rabbits from himself.