Homoertic Ambiguity In The Immoralist

Homoertic Ambiguity In The Immoralist

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It is undeniable that Andre Gide's The Immoralist, first published in 1902 in an edition of 300 copies, is at the very least, a novel predominantly dealing with Michel, the protagonist, and his search for his true authentic self amidst social and moral conventions and the subsequent consequences of deviating from these principles. It is also undeniable that it is a novel unfolding Michel's journey from a married heterosexual to a widowed homosexual. Throughout the novel Gide uses ambiguous homoerotic references to create a powerful juxtaposition of themes. The two themes collide to give the reader the complex task of ascertaining exactly how much of Michel's search is a momentous quest for a deeper understanding of his identity and how much is a disastrous facade undertaken to entertain his obvious but understated homosexual inclination.
We are first introduced to Michel on his honeymoon in a self-professed loveless marriage to Marceline. He subsequently battles Tuberculosis and emerges victorious with a will to live; it is here we see the beginnings of Michel's latent homosexuality in his obsession with the local Arab boys. Michel insists his assiduity to the young boys is merely a fascination with their heath. He remarks at one point, "when he laughed he showed his brilliant white teeth, then licked the wound with delight: his tongue pink as a cat's. How healthy he was! That was what beguiled me about him: health. The health of that little body was beautiful." The sexual tone is defined... an indistinct, vague reference, nonetheless laced with pedastry, concealed in layers of Michel's self-deceit. This formless sexuality remains constant throughout the novel just as Michel continually vacillates between his love and devotion to Marceline and his desire to be free.
Michel continues with the rebirth of his new self while he abandons all previous social contracts and begins the steady annihilation of his character as well as his marriage to Marceline. What arises from this "rebirth" is a literary quandary for the reader. Michel denounces his current heterosexual principles, but fails to choose a new, enlightened, homosexual self for the reader to identify with. In one critical essay regarding this subject, Rictor Norton contends that " Marceline is partly a symbol of society-at-large and partly the tragic figure of a woman who marries a homosexual man.... Readers simply reject her; because Gide has omitted all homosexual facts from the narrative, we do not see that Michel rejects her in favor of something or someone else".

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The reader, in light of Michel's ambiguous dismissal of Marceline and absence of a new social convention is compelled to vilify Michel's actions and liken them to narcissistic, random impulsions designed to gratify his egotistical desire to reinvent himself, all the while blind to Marceline's suffering. Norton condemns Gide for this and writes, "The tragedy---and creative failure---of the L'Immoralist lay in Gide's inability to make the homosexual theme explicit, with the result that there remain two conflicting themes which are never artistically or humanely integrated. For the readers who view Michel's struggle purely as a sexual evolution the homosexual ambiguity is maddening, but seemingly no less so for the reader who desperately grapples with Michel's search for his authentic self only to have the book conclude with the a morally useless Michel whose very last statement in the novel, however vague, assures the reader of his homosexual, if not pedophilic, preference.
Andre Gide wrote in his autobiographical journal, "The most important things to say are those which often I did not think necessary for me to say—because they were to obvious." It raises the question of Gide's literary intention in withholding elements of importance. Does Gide use ambiguous homoerotic references in The Immoralist to encourage the reader to form individual conclusions, one not more correct than the other? In one acclaimed article for the French Review, Germaine Bree writes of The Immoralist, "Take for Example Michel...Much has been said about his latent homosexuality, a great deal too much. Yet it is of slight importance in the story. The emphasis lies elsewhere." Yet John Weightman from the American Scholar, in a similarly applauded article, states of the Immoralist," Given the dishonesty of the work about the sexual motive, it should be a failure.... one may wish Gide had gone still further, but the book, as it stands, is a compromise that works effectively on a certain level, although, of course, it makes no contribution to the homosexual cause. " These two critical views agree to the existence of multiple themes, but the significance of the ambiguous homoerotic theme is clearly contentious.
In the preface to The Immmoralist, Gide emphatically declares he wrote the novel, "neither as an indictment nor an apology." Given the myriad of translations regarding the foundation of Michel's search, it is clear Gide succeeded in at least that. If nothing else, Gide proves that even in the light of subtle ambiguity and multiple themes, a powerful tale that demands that the reader determine the ultimate salvation or damnation of the protagonist, is a tale that even a century later, reigns as a literary masterpiece.


Rictor Norton, "Andre Gide's Recovery of the Old Adam", The Queer Canon,(updated 9 Jan 2000): 1-13

Germaine Bree, "Form and Content in Gide," The French Review 30,No.6 (May, 1957):423 – 428.

John Weightman, "Andre Gide and The Homosexual Debate," The American Scholar,(2002):598, http://genedseminars.umb.edu/fr150/fall06/documents/Gide-homosexualdebate.pdf: 591-601
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