André Gide – Lecture 2

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Summary of this lecture:

  • Oscar Wilde
  • Les Nourritures terrestres (1897)
  • El Hadj (1899 book publication, 1896 journal publication)
  • L’Immoraliste (1902)
  • La Porte étroite (1909)
  • Commentary: La Porte étroite

Oscar Wilde

Between the writing of Paludes and its publication in 1895 Gide made a second trip to North Africa, where he found Oscar Wilde, whom he had met some years before in Paris, now in the company of Lord Alfred Douglas. Of all Gide’s many literary acquaintances, Oscar Wilde was one of the most important, even though he died in 1900, when Gide was only 31 years old. There are several aspects to Wilde’s influence on Gide: Firstly, he helped Gide to assume his homosexuality, and more than this, he seemed to be an almost supernaturally charismatic figure, representing liberation, nature, adventure – in short, that whole nexus of themes that Gide had discovered on his travels in North Africa. The character of Ménalque, in Les Nourritures terrestres and L’Immoraliste, owes a great deal to Wilde, although this fictional treatment is also the opportunity for Gide to treat Wilde critically: Ménalque’s doctrine ultimately leads Michel to ruin. Secondly, Gide was influenced by the sort of author-figure that Wilde was. Gide repeated Wilde’s claim, ‘I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works’, and Gide developed his own, complex approach to the relation between life and literary creation. Thirdly, Wilde influenced Gide’s approach to the political cause of homosexual liberation.

Let me say in passing that there is a difficult question of terminology here: speaking of gay or queer liberation risks some anachronism, and using terms of ‘homosexuality’ does not completely avoid this problem. In very broad terms, there is a continuity between Gide’s engagement and the activism that gathered far more momentum in the decades following the 1969 Stonewall riots, but the continuity is a fairly distant one. You can read more on this subject in Christopher Robinson’s book Scandal in the Ink.

Gide considered that homosexual liberation required martyrs, but whenever a high profile figure was caught in a public scandal, there was unbearable pressure for them to deny or recant their homosexuality, and this is, broadly speaking, what Oscar Wilde did towards the end of his life, after serving two years of hard labour from 1895 to 1897. In the 1920s, this negative example motivated Gide to become that martyr himself, by explaining his homosexuality before he was caught in any major public scandal. This is one of the meanings of the title ‘Si le grain ne meurt’: Gide is bringing about the social death that would result from the public admission of homosexuality (at this time), in order to pursue a new, more sincere, less counterfeit existence. I’ll return to this issue later. Gide discusses his friendship with Wilde in Si le grain ne meurt, and also mentions him in Corydon, but if you want to pursue this connection, a good place to start would be Gide’s hommage to Wilde, published in 1902, which can be found in the Pléiade edition of Gide’s ‘essais critiques’. There is also useful information in several entries of the Dictionnaire Gide.

Soon after his return from North Africa, Gide’s mother died, and his cousin Madeleine at last agreed to marry him. A doctor whom he had consulted assured him that his homosexual desires would disappear once he was married. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen. In any case, he now felt ready to give literary expression to the new sensual vitality that he associated with his trips to Africa (and you’ll remember that, in Paludes, he only went as far as expressing his dissatisfaction with his literary milieu by representing it in a satirical way).

Les Nourritures terrestres (1897)

The first work in the new series was Les Nourritures terrestres, published in 1897. Les Nourritures terrestres is a transitional work in terms of the periods of Gide’s career established by the critic Alain Goulet (see lecture 1). It’s still a traité, but in tone and theme it’s closer to the récits of the next period. In his autobiography, Gide describes its origin as being in ‘une plus souple obéissance au rythme intérieur’ (Si le grain ne meurt, p. 292 – references are to the texts in the modern Pléiade editions), but as always we should avoid the conclusion that what we are reading is the real voice or position of the author. It’s certainly highly lyrical, while avoiding the artificiality of so much writing of the time. It makes use of the aphoristic style of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and shares some of its values, as well as the values of Oscar Wilde. It’s an intensified, materialized version of the unrealized aspirations of Les Cahiers d’André Walter, while addressing itself more directly to the reader than Paludes had done. It consists of fragments of narrative, sometimes in the form of a journal and sometimes in the form of an actual récit attributed to a character called Ménalque, interspersed with poems, travel narratives, and other short texts whose status is uncertain. Much of it is addressed to a reader-within-the-text called Nathanaël, and I’ve gathered a few of these direct addresses together, to give some impression of the style of the work:

Ne souhaite pas, Nathanaël, trouver Dieu ailleurs que partout […] Nathanaël, je t’enseignerai la ferveur […] ASSUMER LE PLUS POSSIBLE D’HUMANITÉ, voila la bonne formule […] Nathanaël, je ne crois plus au péché […] ne demeure jamais, Nathanaël […] chaque nouveauté doit nous trouver toujours tout entiers disponibles […] Familles, je vous hais! foyers clos; portes refermées; possessions jalouses du bonheur […]

(Les Nourritures terrestres, excerpts taken from books 1–4)

The narrator appears as a sort of sage or prophet (the name Nathanaël is taken from one of Christ’s disciples), and the message of this prophet is based around ‘ferveur’ (the passionate embrace of new experiences), ‘disponibilité’ (remaining free from attachments), and a rejection of the bonds of family, morality, and religion. This may all sound like a manual of hedonism, and to some extent it is. But it also ends with the words: ‘Nathanaël, à présent, jette mon livre… et crée de toi… ah! le plus irremplaçable des êtres’ (Les Nourritures terrestres, p. 424). In other words, it was to be an inspiration rather than a manual. Furthermore, it was to be seen more as an ‘apologie du dénuement’, more of an ascetic process of stripping away possessions, attachments, and our own psychological baggage, in order to live a more authentic existence. As so often with Gide, the two strands coexist, the hedonistic and the ascetic, the sensual and the spiritual. Incidentally, this work had only a very limited impact when it was published in 1897, but it unexpectedly acquired a huge following among young readers in the period immediately after the First World War, when its message of ferveur and rejection of the past seemed to resonate with a new generation.

El Hadj (1899)

We’ve seen that Gide rarely adopts any one position without contradicting it or at least dialoguing with it elsewhere, and we very soon find his reaction against Les Nourritures terrestres, in the strange short story of El Hadj, which has the subtitle ‘le traité du faux prophète’. This is another text of Gide’s that gets rather overlooked, but it’s only about 25 pages long, and I’d strongly recommend that you give it a look. The narrative of El Hadj is a monologue attributed to a prophet who, like Moses, has led the people through the desert, but who recognises that he has no true calling. There has been a pact of mutual love and support between the prophet and a mysterious young prince, but in fact neither of them has a clear idea of where they are going or why. There is a vague idea of a marriage for the prince, and some sort of promised land for the people, but neither of these materialise, and they eventually find their way blocked by a swamp (and by now we’re becoming familiar with the recurring types of scenery that Gide uses in this period – desert, oasis, swamp). The prince dies, there is a breakdown of the relationship between the prophet and the people, and he is left doubting everything. At last he manages to lead the people back from the desert to the city, but he thinks that maybe he can begin again, with the prince’s younger brother. We can recognise here the desert location of Gide’s liberating experiences in North Africa, the themes of homosexuality, dénuement, the search for new values after the abandonment of religion, and the didactic attitude of Les Nourritures terrestres. But unlike in Les Nourritures terrestres, we now have a more ironic view of the prophet who is unsure of his own vocation.

There are also several features in this short text that foreshadow Gide’s later, better-known works: a first-person narrator who is presented as having failed, with the suggestion of a counterfeit existence (of course the counterfeit is a major theme of Les Faux-monnayeurs), and an inconclusive end with the suggestion of an alternative line of exploration to follow.

In fact, it’s very common for Gide’s works to end abruptly and inconclusively, in a way that seems to present the reader with unresolved problems to contemplate rather than anything tidy or satisfying (and remember that Gide wanted a few good, thoughtful, active readers rather than a broad appeal). However, there are two particular cases in Gide’s later works when a younger sibling offers the prospect of a new adventure at the end of the work, first in Le Retour de l’enfant prodigue, and secondly in Les Faux-monnayeurs. I’ll discuss both these works later on, but it’s worth commenting now on the end of Les Faux-monnayeurs. The final words of Les Faux-monnayeurs are spoken by Édouard, who is about to have dinner with his sister and his nephews, Olivier, Georges and Caloub. He has already taken an interest in Olivier and Georges, but now he says ‘Je suis bien curieux de connaître Caloub’. Caloub only appears on the first page and the last, and therefore ties the end of the book to its beginning (and note that ‘Caloub’ is almost an anagram of ‘boucle’). The point of this digression is to show that this is not a throwaway ending, but it relates to a continuous, or perhaps cyclical process, of new generations striking out from what is safe and familiar, sometimes in the company of a guide or initiator, but ultimately leaving behind this guide, just as in Les Nourritures terrestres the narrator urges the young Nathanaël to throw away his book and forget about him.

L’Immoraliste (1902)

But, returning to El Hadj, this work was still recognisably a traité, and Gide was interested in the challenge of revitalising the moribund genre of the novel, just as he had initially tried to do with Les Cahiers d’André Walter. Although Gide eventually declared that his only true novel was the 1925 work Les Faux-monnayeurs, nonetheless L’Immoraliste was a major development in Gide’s experimentation with the novel. It’s also the first of his works which came to be grouped together under the generic heading of récits. And although it is in some ways a new form, it also draws on distinct parts of the French novelistic tradition. Unlike the stilted, artificial language of Gide’s earliest works, he now embraced a more austere, efficient, classical prose – sometimes described as crystalline, because of its clarity and formal perfection – and this style remained with him for the rest of his career. The classical aesthetic of the seventeenth century appealed to him both as a correction to the self-indulgent wordiness of the nineteenth century, and also as a literary expression of the ethic of dénuement. By appealing to the older tradition of Racine and La Princesse de Clèves, Gide could give a classical form and an ethical restraint to the sensuality and liberation that he would bring to French literature. At the same time, he does not entirely reject the nineteenth-century novel, and there is a clear continuity from the novel of observation and experimental psychology as pioneered by Émile Zola.

As a psychological experiment, L’Immoraliste takes some experiences from Gide’s own life: not only the kind of resurrection to sensual life that he had experienced in North Africa, but also the pleasures of low life (such as poaching and consorting with his farm hands), which Gide indulged in when he suddenly found himself as a land-owner and mayor in La Roque, after his mother’s death. But this experience is taken to a greater extreme, to test its limits. Gide did not, in real life, cause the death of his wife, nor did he sit around wondering how to make use of his freedom. He is asking himself, and the reader, questions about the acceptable limits of self-assertion: suggesting all sorts of exciting and enticing kinds of behaviour, while also hinting at the dangers. Literature can be seen as a substitute for life, or rather as an alternative kind of life, less restricted than on the ground. One metaphor that Gide used for this sort of psychological experiment, in a letter from 1902, is of a plant with a number of new buds ready to grow into new shoots:

‘Qu’un bourgeon de Michel soit en moi, il va sans dire […]. Que de bourgeons nous portons en nous, […] qui n’écloront jamais que dans nos livres! […] Mais si, par volonté, on les supprime tous, sauf un, comme il croît aussitôt, comme il grandit! Comme aussitôt il s’empare de la sève! […] Conseil: choisir de préférence (s’il est vrai que l’on puisse choisir) le bourgeon qui vous gêne le plus. On s’en défait du même coup.’ (letter to Robert Scheffer, 1902, in Œuvres complètes (1932–1939), v. 4, pp. 616–17)

It’s possible to suppress all the shoots but one, to focus all one’s resources into this one potentiality, and see how it grows. So Michel is the concentration of these attitudes that exist within Gide, and he hopes to satisfy these desires in this way. Yet in practice, Gide did not get rid of the desires that he explored in his fictional writings: he continued to be the little boy with a Protestant pastor looking over his shoulder, and these same themes continue in his later works.

But to see L’Immoraliste, or any other work, just in terms of Gide’s psychology is an over-simplification. The psychological and moral dimension is always complemented by the aesthetic dimension. In the preface to L’Immoraliste Gide claims, ‘je n’ai cherché de rien prouver, mais de bien peindre et d’éclairer bien ma peinture’ (preface to L’Immoraliste, p. 592). The reference to painting suggests a purely aesthetic exercise, to do with line, colour and composition, and it’s certainly possible to see the work in this way. It consists of three well-balanced parts, with the third offering a sort of mirror image of the first: the positive ascent is replaced by a negative descent. The two outer parts have an exotic setting, while the middle part takes place in France. In this middle section, chapters 1 and 3 take place in Normandy, and chapter 2 in Paris, which is dominated by the dialogue with the enigmatic, Wildean figure of Ménalque, re-appearing from Les Nourritures terrestres. This discussion between Michel and Ménalque of the book’s central issues is a sort of mise en abyme right at the centre of the book. It’s also an intertextual reference to Les Nourritures terrestres, and L’Immoraliste can be understood in terms of its intertextual relations: a struggle between Nietzche, as represented by the ideas of Ménalque, and the Bible, which is represented by the character of Marceline, and also the book’s epigraph taken from the Psalms: ‘Je te loue, ô mon Dieu, de ce que tu m’as fait créature si admirable’ (epigraph to L’Immoraliste, p. 589). As for the style of the language, it has some of the lyrical quality of Les Nourritures terrestres, but it’s also strictly disciplined, corresponding to the ideal of dénuement.

In terms of Gide’s experimentation with new forms, L’Immoraliste is the classic example of what Gide would later call a récit, as opposed to a roman (a novel). We need to be a little careful with these terms, as it was only in 1911 that he made the distinction between the récit and the roman, and until then he had referred to all his fictional works as romans, even though he imagined one ultimate roman that he was working towards. The characteristics of the récit are summed up in two quotations, one from the Journal in 1914, the other from 1924:

Récits et soties, je n’écrivis jusqu’à présent que des livres ironiques – ou critiques si l’on préfère… (L’Immoraliste, p. 442)

À la seule exception de mes Nourritures, tous mes livres sont des livres ironiques; ce sont des livres de critique. La Porte étroite est la critique d’une certaine tendance mystique…; L’Immoraliste, d’une forme de l’individualisme. (Ceci dit sommairement.) (L’Immoraliste, p. 444)

Ironic and critical are almost synonyms in these cases. What Gide means by irony is that there is a gap between what is presented by the first-person narrator and what the reader comes to see is the reality of the situation. That was the method of Socrates, whose famous irony consisted in getting someone to propose a definition of a concept and then, by apparently innocent questioning, to get them to see that the definition was flawed. Socrates was educating his audience, and Gidean irony also seeks to educate the reader. The reason that L’Immoraliste has a fairly cumbersome framing device, with a letter addressed to the Prime Minister by his brother and containing a verbatim account of Michel’s oral narrative, is presumably to help the reader to become aware that Michel’s narrative is not to be taken at face value, but should instead be read critically. The later récits would not require such props.

La Porte étroite (1909)

L’Immoraliste was published in 1902, and Gide now found himself torn between two projects. One was to write a full-length novel, an adventure novel rather than the psychological and social novels of the late nineteenth century, with puppet-like, caricatured characters, but with a Dostoyevskian conflict between forces of good and evil. He already had the title for this project: Les Caves du Vatican. But he wasn’t sure that he was ready for such a big project. The other project was to write a counterpart to L’Immoraliste, showing the opposite temptation to that of Michel: it had first presented itself to him as a diptych, a complementary pair, and he was reluctant to leave it lopsided, even though it would mean writing a book which he had already outgrown in terms of both subject-matter and style.

La Porte étroite is a text which is helpfully illuminated by its relationships to other texts: not only to L’Immoraliste, but also to Les Caves du Vatican, and to Le Retour de l’enfant prodigue and Corydon which punctuated its writing during the years 1905–1908, and also to Les Cahiers d’André Walter, which it’s closest to in style. Gide’s closest friends were dismayed when he read them the opening chapters of La Porte étroite, as it seemed to be out of date relative to the concerns of contemporary literature. Gide himself was well aware of that, and he found it extremely hard work to write it. But Alissa still represents a part of Gide, another shoot from the same plant as Michel, to recall Gide’s own metaphor, even if she is more a contemporary of André Walter than of André Gide as he approached the age of 40.

If Michel is an ‘immoralist’, trying to turn some ideas about liberation into a system, what sort of character is Alissa? In Les Faux-Monnayeurs there is a comment by Édouard about his sister Pauline which illuminates the case of Alissa. In a forest, he says, the growth of each tree is affected by its neighbours:

A chacun, si peu de place est laissée! Que de bourgeons atrophiés! […] La branche mystique, le plus souvent, c’est à de l’étouffement qu’on la doit. On ne peut échapper qu’en hauteur. (Les Faux-monnayeurs, p. 378)

Alissa, like Pauline, represents a ‘bourgeon atrophié’, a shoot that has not had the opportunity to develop normally because it has been stifled by the pressures around it. To compensate, she has put out a tall, thin weedy branch reaching upwards to the sky, a ‘branche mystique’. In other words, she has been so hemmed in by family and by social expectations that she has been unable to realize her potential as a whole person, which for Gide includes sexual liberation, and she has sublimated her sexual drive into extreme religious devotion. Her fear of sexuality is associated with her attitude towards her mother’s scandalous behaviour. The enclosed garden at Fongueusemare serves to protect her from life: indeed, it can be seen as an image of her body. When she visits her sister in the warm South and goes out into the wild countryside of the garrigue she is both attracted and frightened by the new sensations that she detects, and she soon returns to the safety of Normandy. You’ll remember that, in the thematics of Gidean geography, the South is associated with liberation, travel, new experience, sensuality, while the North represents safety, stagnation, morality. Alissa, then, has gone in the opposite direction from Michel, and the two counterbalance each other.

But it’s not as simple as that. The ‘critical’ view is not the only one. Gide is not entirely repudiating his earlier André Walter phase, and Alissa is a compelling figure. The nobility of her struggle is such that Gide’s friend Claudel, a fervent Catholic, thought that maybe Gide was moving towards religious commitment himself. Gide certainly felt that Alissa’s letters and diary were the best part of the book. This raises another important issue, that of the narrative. In L’Immoraliste, Michel narrated his story in the first person, even if it was embedded in a letter written by someone else. The bulk of La Porte étroite, however, is narrated by Jérôme, who is even less capable of understanding what is going on than Alissa. He shares much of the same religious fervour of Alissa, but he doesn’t have the intelligence or strength of character to carry it to such an extreme. Some critics have been misled into thinking that because he is the deluded narrator he must be the central character, like those of L’Immoraliste, Isabelle and La Symphonie pastorale. That is to fall into the trap of thinking that all the récits must have the same pattern. In fact, Gide is beginning to widen his horizons to include the diversity of points of view which he will later attribute to the novel proper.

The interplay of different points of view is very important in this work, both aesthetically, and for a psychological appreciation of the characters. Here Gide is experimenting with a different kind of ‘novel-within-a-novel’: instead of the protagonist writing a novel, as in Les Cahiers d’André Walter or Paludes, and instead of the initial narrator introducing a second narrator, as in L’Immoraliste, we have a potential second narrator (Alissa) whose account is gradually unveiled, through conversations, then through letters, and finally through a diary. There are many other formal, or aesthetic patterns that are worth exploring in this very finely crafted text: the recurrence of the title-image of the ‘porte étroite’ in its various forms, the interplay between narrative and letter, or letter and diary, or diary and narrative; the rich web of intertexts from Corneille, Racine, Pascal and Baudelaire, not to mention the Bible and Shakespeare, and of course the poetic simplicity of the style.

Commentary 2: La Porte étroite

‘– Mais j’accepte volontiers, si cela doit t’être agréable, dis-je, un peu surpris, en me penchant vers le berceau. Quel est le nom de ma filleule?
– Alissa .. répondit Juliette à voix basse. Elle lui ressemble un peu, ne trouves-tu pas? »
Je serrai la main de Juliette sans répondre. La petite Alissa, que sa mère soulevait, ouvrit les yeux, je la pris dans mes bras.
« Quel bon père de famille tu ferais! dit Juliette en essayant de rire. Qu’attends-tu pour te marier?
– D’avoir oublié bien des choses; – et je la regardai rougir.
– Que tu espères oublier bientôt?
– Que je n’espère pas oublier jamais.
– Viens par ici, dit-elle brusquement, en me précédant dans une pièce plus petite et déjà sombre, dont une porte ouvrait sur sa chambre et l’autre sur le salon. C’est là que je me réfugie quand j’ai un instant; c’est la pièce la plus tranquille de la maison; je m’y sens presque à l’abri de la vie. »
La fenêtre de ce petit salon n’ouvrait pas, comme celle des autres pièces, sur les bruits de la ville, mais sur une sorte de préau planté d’arbres.
« Asseyons-nous, dit-elle en se laissant tomber dans un fauteil. – Si je te comprends bien c’est au souvenir d’Alissa que tu prétends rester fidèle. »
Je fus un instant sans répondre.
« Peut-être plutôt à l’idée qu’elle se faisait de moi… Non, je ne m’en fait pas un mérite. Je crois que je ne puis faire autrement. Si j’épousais une autre femme, je ne pourrais faire que semblant de l’aimer.
– Ah! » fit-elle, comme indifférente, puis détournant de moi son visage qu’elle penchait à terre comme pour chercher je ne sais quoi de perdu: « Alors tu crois qu’on peut garder si longtemps dans son cœur un amour sans espoir?
– Oui Juliette.
– Et que la vie peut souffler dessus chaque jour sans l’éteindre?… »
Le soir montait comme une marée grise, atteignant, noyant chaque objet qui, dans cette ombre, semblait revivre et raconter à mi-voix son passé. Je revoyais la chambre d’Alissa, dont Juliette avait réuni là tous les meubles. À présent elle ramenait vers moi son visage, dont je ne distinguais plus les traits, de sorte que je ne savais pas si ses yeux n’étaient pas fermés. Elle me paraissait très belle. Et tous deux nous restions à present sans rien dire.
« Allons! fit-elle enfin; ils faut se réveiller… »
Je la vis se lever, faire un pas en avant, retomber comme sans force sur une chaise voisine; elle passa ses mains sur son visage et il me parut qu’elle pleurait…
Une servante entra, qui apportait la lampe.’ (La Porte étroite, pp. 907–08)

A good strategy for approaching commentary passages is to start by remarking on the more obvious features before moving towards the more subtle or abstract ones. Faced with this passage from the very end of La Porte étroite, one possible approach would be to summarise how it fits into the plot, before commenting on the formal effects of the narrative and dialogue, and the sort of imagery that is used. These formal effects can then be related to the significance of this passage as the end of the text.

So where has the plot got to in this passage? After Jérôme receives the news of Alissa’s death in a letter from Juliette, he receives Alissa’s diary, which then allows us to go back over the events of their relationship, now from Alissa’s perspective, leading once again up to Alissa’s death. Then the book ends with a few more pages narrated by Jérôme, from which this passage is taken. It’s now ten years after Alissa’s death, and Jérôme is finally paying a visit to Juliette, who has recently given birth to a daughter, whom she has named ‘Alissa’. Juliette asks Jérôme to be the godfather of this new Alissa, which provides a strange mirror of the future that Alissa had imagined, in which Jérôme would marry someone else, name his daughter ‘Alissa’, and ask her (the original Alissa) to be godmother. Another echo from earlier in the book is provided by Jérôme’s comment (just before this passage begins) that Juliette has come to resemble his aunt Plantier, whose superficial babbling had initially seemed to be a sign of stupidity, but we later learnt that it was the result of a life of thwarted desire. And of course we should recall that Juliette had an unrequited love for Jérôme, and there is a constant suspicion that she has merely resigned herself to a life of prolific child-bearing with her pragmatic, dependable, but dull husband Édouard. The whole situation has something of Wuthering Heights about it, in which the consequences of a tragic passion seem to be repeated through the generations, and prevent anyone from really understanding or moving on.

This passage depicts the desperate sadness of this situation, for Jérôme and Juliette, but as an open-ended conclusion to the récit, it also raises the possibility of some understanding taking place. In various ways, their conversation resembles all those earlier occasions when we’ve witnessed a dialogue of the deaf, when people fail to communicate, or to understand one another, or deceive one another. Several times speech is followed by an ellipsis, or by a silence (‘sans répondre’, ‘sans rien dire’). Juliette pretends to laugh , and conceals her face from Jérôme, even as she reveals to the reader that she still feels the same unrequited love for Jérôme, as he still feels for Alissa. At this point, the situation seems almost hopeless, and this is reflected in their physical environment. They’ve passed from the parts of the house that are suffused with the hubbub of family and city life, into the small, dark, private room in which Juliette shelters from this life, which looks out onto something like the garden of Fongueusemare, and is filled with the furniture from Alissa’s bedroom. The room offers a protection from the hypocrisy of her daily life (Juliette is ‘à l’abri de la vie’), but it’s also a prison, now keeping both of them trapped in the past. The tendency to repeat the past is emphasised by all the words beginning with ‘re’: ‘revivre [le] passé’, ‘je revoyais la chambre’, ‘Juliette avait réuni’, and finally, when Juliette tries to get up, she ‘retombe’. Added to this is the approaching darkness of the evening, compared to a rising tide of grey water, which is thematically linked to the stifling atmosphere, their lack of understanding, and the dark colours of mourning (which are also present at the very beginning of the book).

But the last few lines seem to offer an alternative to this torpor, with the injunction to ‘se réveiller’ and with the introduction of the light of a lamp to drive away this darkness. On the most basic level, Juliette is saying that they must leave this room, dispel this darkness, and get back to their daily lives. But coming at the end of the work, this also implies that the completion of Jérôme’s narrative act allows some understanding. But who is going to do the understanding? Firstly, by Jérôme himself: this ending invites us to re-read the text with an awareness of another layer of irony, another perspective, which is the perspective of Jérôme in the present, telling his story, and rereading the letters and diaries that he shows us. Every time he writes something like ‘it seemed to me then that…’, we should consider how it seems to him now that he is telling the story in hindsight. And secondly, this ending functions in a similar way to the ending of Paludes or Les Nourritures terrestres, in that it hands over to the reader the task of understanding, interpreting, and responding to this work.

To buy any of the books by Gide discussed here, please consider using one of these booksellers: Blackwells, Biblio.

Continue to lecture 3.