(1869 – 1951)
Andre´ Gide, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, saw a writing career that spanned over six decades and ranged in style from symbolist to classical to biography to political tract. His work often focused on a central character, usually a thinly veiled version of Gide himself, who struggled with reconciling two vastly different sets of morals. Today he is chiefly remembered for his extensive journals and his frank discussion of his own bisexuality at a time when such subject matter was strictly taboo.
A Divided Nature
Andre´ Gide was born in Paris on November 22, 1869, to Paul Gide, a professor of law at the Sorbonne, and his wife, Juliette. They were both of the Protestant upper middle class. After the death of his father when Andre´ was eleven, the boy grew up in a largely feminine environment. In later years Gide often attributed his divided nature to this mixed southern Protestant and northern Norman Catholic heritage. His fragile health and nervous temperament affected his education, which included both formal schooling and a combination of travel and private tutoring. At the age of fifteen he vowed a lifelong spiritual love to his cousin, Madeleine Rondeaux.
In 1891 Gide published his first book, The Notebooks of Andre´ Walter. In it, dream is preferred to reality, spiritual love to physical. It did not succeed in winning Madeleine over, as Gide had intended. During this period he was introduced into the symbolist salons intellectual gatherings of followers of the symbolist movement of Ste´phane Mallarme´ and Jose´ de Heredia by his friend Pierre Louy¨s. The influence of the salons and symbolist thought can be see in Gide’s next works, Treatise of the Narcissus (1891) and Le Voyage d’Urien (1893).
In 1893 Gide set out for North Africa with his friend Paul Laurens hoping to harmonize his sensual desires with his inherited puritanical inhibitions. Gide fell ill with tuberculosis there and was forced to return to France, where he was shocked to find the symbolist salons unchanged. He retired to Neuchaˆtel for the winter and wrote Marshlands, a satire on stagnation that broke with symbolism.
After returning to France, Gide married his cousin Madeleine. Gide described their attachment as ‘‘the devotion of my whole life,’’ but the marriage was traumatic for them both. Gide expressed an overwhelming spiritual need to share his life with his cousin, and she provided him with a source of stability, but her strict Christian values often conflicted with his unconventional lifestyle. He specifically separated love and sexual pleasure.
In 1895 Gide returned to North Africa, where he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas. Wilde encouraged Gide to acknowledge his love of young men, and Gide passionately gave in. This was a pivotal year for Gide as it also brought the death of his mother and his marriage to Madeleine, who continued to symbolize for him the pull of virtue, restraint, and spirituality against his cult of freedom and physical pleasure. Gide’s life was a constant battle to strike a balance between these opposing imperatives.
Gide wrote his doctrine of freedom in 1897. Fruits of the Earth is a lyrical work advocating liberation through sensuous hedonism. Five years later, Gide published The Immoralist (1902), a novel consisting of many autobiographical elements. In it, the author dramatizes the dangers of his male protagonist’s selfish quest for freedom and pleasure at the cost of death to his pious wife. In this, perhaps Gide’s greatest novel, as in many of his other works, the portrait of the virtuous, devoted heroine was inspired by Madeleine. Conceived at the same time as The Immoralist, Strait Is the Gate (1909) is a critique of the opposite tendency toward excessive restraint and useless mysticism. Also patterned after Madeleine, the heroine renounces her earthly love to devote herself entirely to God and the spiritual life.
The final pages of her diary suggest the futility of her self-denial as she is left in solitude without God. The book was Gide’s first success. In the years between these two novels, Gide cofounded La Nouvelle revue française. After publishing another highly polished though less autobiographical work in 1911, Gide was ready to challenge the principle of order in art. He accomplished this with The Vatican Swindle (1914), a humorous satire on middle-class complacency, relativism, and chance. The work evolved the notion of the ‘‘gratuitous act,’’ an expression of absolute freedom, unpremeditated, seemingly unmotivated. It is clear he was influenced by his reading of Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
In The Pastoral Symphony (1919), a pastor’s interpretation of Christ’s words to legitimize his love for the heroine is pitted against his son’s orthodox adherence to the restrictions of St. Paul. This work is a reflection of Gide’s religious crises of 1905–1906, which had been precipitated by his disturbing meetings with the fervent Catholic poet, playwright, and diplomat Paul Claudel. This religious crisis also inspired Numquid et tu . . . ?, which retraces Gide’s effort to seek and find his own truth in the Gospels. In 1924 Gide risked his reputation by publishing Corydon, a defense of homosexuality, and, two years later, If It Die . . . , his well-known autobiography that focuses on the years 1869–1895, the period of his homosexual liberation.