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The Immoralist (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
The Immoralist is straightforward in language and easy to read, but more complicated, more complex are its themes: Man's sense of morality towards society, family, himself. What happens when man's values conflict with those of society's? Whose interests should be served? Gide explores these themes through one man's odyssey of self-discovery. The protagonist is the learned and conflicted Michel who yearns for something more than the stable, predictable, familiar life he has always known, but no longer finds tolerable. It is after a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis that these feelings rise to the surface, intensify, and are more keenly felt.
This hunger, still unidentified, takes him on a journey, both literal and figurative, where his search for self-awareness, or self-truth, carries him to distant and exotic locales. New experiences and mysterious encounters give way to a new aestheticism in which weakness, constraint, and life's banalities play no role. Heightened senses, unsuppressed impulses erode age-old human values that were once accepted blindly.
A life less checked, though, can have consequences, as is the case for Michel, and for so many others like him. As Michel becomes stronger, his wife becomes weaker. Indeed, society becomes weaker. How can the newly strong fail to quash the weak in their path? The question one must ask, then, and Gide does, is whether a life without restraint has value. Is there something admirable in the old adage, "To thine own self be true"?
One of the novel's most inspired moments is found in its ending. Without giving anything away, it is the last passage, after the reader has come full-circle, where Michel's journey seemingly ends. Will Michel embrace his new truth? The reader is left to wonder. The Immoralist is told in narrative, in Michel's own voice. It is self-confessional literature at its highest, and should be read by anyone who reads to think and be moved.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2006
Format: Paperback
I saw there was a Dover thrift edition for 2 dollars. Hard to argue with the price, but this translation is erudite and has a force of language that seems to me like it must mirror Gide's own impressionist force, despite my personal weakness with the French language. Gide was famous for his ability to invoke a single moment, a single image or feeling that puts the reader inside the existence of a character, even if only for a short time. This ability is translated quite well into this edition, and I must conclude (based on a fairly small sample of reading from both) that it is a superior translation.

Who could fail to find some reflection of themself in the deathbed confessions of the protagonist Michel? The premise is that he is speaking in the first person to his good friends, and as the reader it feels like you have known this character for quite some time. His voice is unspecifically familiar, as if you might suspect one of your real-life friends to one day give you a similar account. You feel you have known this man for a long time, and you can't help but be fascinated by both the content of his story and in the loving, precise, and ecstatic way that he tells it.

Up against this tone is a story that ends in depravity and woe, without any redemption for the character. To me, this is understandable and realistic. Life is not always an endless succession of learning experiences. At times it is the realization that some compromises cannot be avoided, and that true catharsis of ethics, morality, or emotion is only possible within very short time frames. Why not explore the life of a character who does not learn from his actions, or even repent of them at the end? He accepts his own frailties, his own limitations, and in this respect he continues to dig deep inside of our psyche for hidden insights that might have otherwise escaped us.

I almost always prefer first person novels to those that occur in the third person. We live our life in the first person, and an objective narrator is always, at a certain point, a necessary fiction. This book stands with Nabokov's Lolita as a perfect example of the power that is sometimes unleashed by exploring a character through the eyes of the character himself.

This is an original and well-written work, breathtaking in its use of language. Highly recommended.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2003
Format: Paperback
I acquired Andre Gide's The Immoralist from a pile of free books set outside a used book store that was closing for good. I brought it home and set it aside for about a month before reading it.
The 170-odd pages were very easy to digest, in terms of time and complexity. But the ideas filling them were intriguing, at least at first. A man marries, develops tuberculosis, convalesces, and decides to live life more deliberately, more fundamentally, and expose himself, his emotions, his experiences, down to their very foundation. He embraces the pain of sunburn for it's capacity to make a person feel, for the sensation it produces. He strips away all layers of clothing in the outdoors to plunge into an icy pool of water, to expose himself completely to the elements and the world around him. He gives up his scholarly pursuits to run a family farm, and experience a completely different type of life and industry.
But here the intrigue of the premise becomes mired in an obviously closeted gay man (not uncommon for the turn of the 20th century) torn between duty to wife and honesty of desire. The second half of this brief novel is merely an endless parade of boys and men that draw Michel's attention and ardor. The desire to experience all in its most basic, honest form is lost in the lie that Michel obviously lives in suppressing his hidden desires and perpetuating his sham marriage.
While Gide's concept was initally enough to draw me in and press me to read on, the latter half of the book left me apathetic to my inceptive appreciation of a very promising idea. I found the character of Michel to be hypocritical at best, and failed to feel any sympathy for his longing after the neverending parade of males that slip through his fingers, and his fickle interest in them. I felt some sympathy for Marceline, Michel's wife, but his narrative portrayal of her as more of an impedence and a nuisance gave me more cause to pity her than feel empathy for her eventually contracted case of tuberculosis, no matter how frail she grew; the author always managed to make her more of an annoyance to Michel than anything else, and her character never really has an opportunity of true definition.
Gide has a very accessible way with prose, but not a very clear and concise focus on his story with this book, which is the first of his works that I have read. All in all, this book suffers from "When Harry Met Sally" syndrome...and disproves its initial 'thesis'. I would not recommend this book to others, save for anyone interested in examining the conflict of a closeted gay married man at the turn of the 20th century.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
Many readers of this book are inclined to compare it with the works of Camus. I grant that The Immoralist does suggest existential questions but, unlike Camus' La Chute (for instance), it simply presents the life and actions of the anti-hero without his actual and deliberate existential questioning. This is the subtle richness of Gide's writing. The Immoralist presents a unique disparity in the lavishness in description of setting, and the relatively spare characterizations. Gide does not glorify, chastise nor condemn his Michel. Michel is simply what he is, what he has become. This novel is filled with brilliant writing, lines of which one can't help but memorize. For instance, "The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task." and also, "You cannot be sincere and at the same time seem so." Having read both Bussy's pioneer translation and Howard's later one, I much prefer the latter. It's a far more exact translation.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2001
Format: Paperback
"Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom"- this is the ultimate lesson that Gide gives in "The Immoralist", even though as he himself has said "I refrained from passing judgement". As a result this novel will always be open to interpretation, as it presents the classic universal problem of individual freedom, identity, and what constitutes 'life'.
Michel, the novel's main character is awakened from his life-long "lethargy" with a fierce desire to change his mask, or rather to find his real self hidden behind the layers of adopted morality, education, and social obligations. He used to be a strict young scholar interested only in "ruins and books". Now he wants to be free of all obligation and inhibition to fully experience the pleasure and sensuality brought about by his late homosexual awakening. To do so, he sacrifices wife, career, and wealth. The conflict within Michel is not only that of morality v. sexuality, but mostly that of thought v. emotion, or more simplistically brain v. heart. When he sees his awakened sensuality mirrored in the beauty of nature to which he now becomes aware, Michel discovers that "what was the point of thinking? I felt extraordinarily..."
What constitutes "life"? This is another important question raised in "The Immoralist". Michel is reborn when he begins questioning his life: "after all what did I mean by `living'?" Even here the flaws in Michel's philosophy are apparent. The Christian doctrine of "blessed are the poor" goes against Michel's doctrine of a leisurely, sensuous life and that "poverty makes slaves of men", and yet he strives to get rid of his possessions...
Who am I? What do I want? These are the kind of questions the reader will ask himself while reading "The Immoralist". The author is too wise to give definite answers to such great questions. Neither does Gide encourage the reader to decide who is wiser, Marceline, or Michel? Thus Gide succeeds in being more truthful and believable in the presentation of the problem, in the "drawing of the picture". As to the answers, who knows anyway, this novel makes you inquisitive about the meaning that is created...
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
A rare book that makes the physical form of man an important thematic element. In the time between nihilistic prophetizing and post-WW dread, Michel (a nerd) experiments with complete freedom after being given a second chance in life. Stripping off the pretense of European scholarship, he tries to gain health in a life free of artificial restrants. Striving towards his goal, but never quite giving up the fear coniditoned into him by his station in life, Michel succeeds only in seeing the possibilities of this life. He is a vanguard for the potentials of freedom. Where Gide leaves us, with confusion and a new burden, Camus and Sartre pick up. This is a very well written novel and should be read slowly (the temptation being to breeze through it).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2010
Format: Paperback
A common ploy in literature is to hook the reader with an early confession of guilt- i.e. the narrator admits to some horrible act- without revealing the specific details of the act. Then, over the course of the book, the narrator tells his tale and slowly puts together the pieces of the puzzle which predictably concludes with the horrible act which has been hinted at but never fully disclosed. When used successfully, this ploy propels the reader forward and results in a satisfying experience from start to finish. When used unsuccessfully, this ploy also propels the reader forward only upon reaching the climax, the reader does not feel so fulfilled.
"The Immoralist", while well-written and worthy of discussion, ultimately falls into the latter category. The book starts off with the narrator's close friends gathering to hear a sordid tale from Michel, the narrator himself. We are not told what horrible act precipitates this meeting, but the bait has been set and the story begins. Michel is a bookworm, kind of a loner, who falls into an arranged marriage only to experience real love for the first time shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, Michel also becomes gravely ill, causing him to question his whole life and what it means. Upon recovering from his illness, Michel, dragging his wife along with him, sets upon a series of brief "life adventures" in which he finds happiness in a variety of different ways- ogling young boys, poaching his own wildlife, obsessing over intelligent young men with strong philosophical ideas. A strong current of existentialism underlies Michel's acts as he seeks and contemplates the meaning of life and what it means to be happy.
Ultimately, the horrible act which Michel commits is, by today's standards, nothing much. Even in the context of this book, however, Gide treats the atrocities which Michel supposedly commits in such a roundabout way that they do not come across as that horrible. In a way, this serves as a testament to Gide's writing- the existential arguments put forth through his characters are convincing enough to not cast guilt on any of these same character's actions. Unfortunately, considering the hype given Michel's tale early in the work, the sense of disappointment is inevitable.
Andre Gide is a great writer and while reading this book, one will not be bored. As a piece of fiction that will be long remembered once the book is put down, however, this book fails.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
...it has to be made to measure.
Gide's 1902 novel makes a strong statement on individualism.
A `simple' story, told in simple straight language.
Rich young nerd (Michel) without interest in women (or in men, so far) marries to please his dying father. Goes on honeymoon trip to North Africa, falls ill with tuberculosis, barely survives, and then, during reconvalescence, learns to live, to appreciate life, finds a new self, which leads him away from old habits and old convictions. This is a strong part, but it must be said that there is a distinct, if not explicit pedophile strain in Michel's revival.
On the way home via Italy he comes closer to his wife, who has been nursing him loyally during his illness, without much attention by the patient. She even becomes pregnant, so that they look forward to a `normal' life. They spend time on their farm in Normandy, then in their Paris apartment, but Michel drops out: he has lost the ability to function in his old role. He quits his lecturing job; he sells his farm after bouts with low lives.
The wife falls ill, has a miscarriage, they travel again; finally back to Tunisia... happiness is not to be found. Michel's tendency to drift off to darker worlds becomes stronger. After his wife dies, Michel reaches the end of his tether. Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom.

Structurally, the narration is first person by Michel, but wrapped in a fiction that he tells his story and his predicament to some friends of his, who come to see him in Tunisia.
I was motivated to try Gide again (after over 40 years, hadn't read him since high school, and did not keep such great recollections) by his friendship with Conrad. However similarities in narrative style or content are negligible.
The Penguin edition that I read has this to say on the back: A frank defense of homosexuality and a challenge to prevailing ethical concepts...
Hmm. Is it possible that even Penguin editors don't read the books that they praise? Where is the `frank defense'? There is nothing frank in this book, probably with good reason. It was 1902 after all. There is no explicitness. We need to guess what Michel is doing. What we see is this: his new found attitudes don't seem to make him happier.
That is not a criticism of the novel, but of the simplifiers.

While reading this, I was torn between respect for the man's struggles, his attempts to be decent, i.e. not all that much of an immoralist, on one side, and rejecting his spineless lack of direction on the other. The man is a pushover. Once he drops out of his world of respectability, he loses solid ground under his feet.
A strong novel about a weak man.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 11, 2009
Format: Paperback
THE IMMORALIST (written in 1902) is a predecessor, both chronologically, literarily, and intellectually, to central works such as Nietzche's WILL TO POWER (1903), Albert Camus' THE FALL (1956), among others. If you have already read the nihilists, existentialists, and absurdists, this work is particularly interesting given its influence on Camus and Sartre, particularly. If you have not, Gide's THE IMMORALIST provides an excellent entry point into these distinct philosophical areas. THE IMMORALIST has considerable depth. Gide wrote in the preface to the Vintage edition (Paul Howard translator): "One may without too much conceit, I think, prefer the risk of failing to interest the moment by what is genuinely interesting -- to beguiling momentarily a public fond of trash." Gide did tackle the genuinely interesting.

Structurally, the novel is interesting in that most of the novel is told in the first person from the perspective of Michel. However, Michel's narrative is related to us secondhand through one of his friends. The novel begins with a letter from one friend of Michel's to a government official. The short letter poses an opening question: "Can we accommodate so much intelligence, so much strength-or must we refuse them any place among us?"

While the question is posed in the context of a letter examining whether Michel could be of use to the state, Gide is really asking the reader about such supermen and society. Gide does not answer the question. As he explained: "I wanted to write this book neither as an indictment of Michel nor as an apology, and I have taken care not to pass judgment."

The text of the letter is followed by a purportedly verbatim account by Michel. Michel's account begins with his marriage to Marceline, a woman towards whom he felt "tenderness" and "a kind of pity" rather than love. While in a small desert town, Michel contracts tuberculosis. Marceline dutifully nurses him back to health. Michel's illness renews his passion for living: "Now I would make the thrilling discovery of life." during his recovery, he decides he must redefine "Good" and "Right" to mean "whatever was healthy for [him]." He rejects his formerly bookish ways and sets out to define a new path, wringing from life what pleasure he can.

When his health improves enough to leave his sickbed, he discovers that Marceline has been become acquainted with a group of local boys. He starts avoiding Marceline's company in favor of the company of the boys. The boys are, after all, vigorously alive and youthful. This trend is repeated in numerous locales, where Michel finds someone new and, in their way, exotic to him. His friendships usually involve breaking social mores and, often, the law.

Michel spends the rest of the novel exploring the world and his newfound philosophy of life. For Michel, "sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts." Gide magnificently manages Michel's transformation from a dependable, bookish man of means to a rather self-centered, erratic, pleasure-seeker. But Michel's pleasure-seeking is not simple hedonism, he is trying to navigate between living in the past (as in his previous vocation as scholar of history) and living only for the future. A man Michel meets, Menalque, encourages Michel to adopt his own philosophy:

"I create each hour's newness by forgetting yesterday completely. Having been happy is never enough for me. I don't believe in dead things. What's the difference between no longer being and never having been?"

Gide never spells out whether Michel answers this or any of the other questions so adroitly presented. Readers are left to ponder the weighty issues raised for themselves. This is an idea-driven novel. However, there are compelling plot points throughout, which I will not ruin by detailing. The book is a quick read.

THE IMMORALIST has the potential to be life changing in ways that few books are. Gide's Nobel Prize for Literature was well-deserved.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Many criticize this book for not have a character that they can invest in, as though it were supposed to be one of those new age adventures into cosmic oneness. But this is precisely the point. It can never transcend itself, given the main character's inability to understand and explain his being as a character in a story.

The publishers of this book chose the title L'Immoraliste for melodramatic reasons, though Michel is not immoral in the strict sense of the term. He does not behave immorally and does not urge others to do so. Sure, he leaves his wife and goes off on his own, but other than being amazed by being in the world, he does not dramatize any of his exploits and always returns to care for his wife. His homosexuality is not described and is only implied.

It is a gross exaggeration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, prevalent at the turn of the century, that "Neo-Kantians tried to remain as detached as possible from the troubles of real life and had as much interest in it as the algebraist has for the object of his calculations." I excuse Gide of such a gross ignorance of Kant and modern philosophy, for it is spoken by Michel his alter ego, a fictional character.

Michel is not an Übermensch out to cast aside moral conventions and aspire to the belief that God is dead. Nietzsche above all philosophers would see through this argument as another form of belief system that is not true philosophy. Nietzsche believed that the God of metaphysics is dead, not necessarily the God of the universe of whom we can have no knowledge.

After a long illness that brings him to the brink of death, Michel has an epiphany of being that cannot be explained; it can only be lived. Even his colleagues "...didn't live at all; they were content merely to give the appearance of it; to them life seemed little more than an annoying impediment to their writing.... They give the appearance of living, yet they don't seem to know that they are alive."

All of us who have had the flu or serious illness know how recuperation can be an exhilarating experience, somewhat akin to that felt by R.L. Stevenson's character Dr. Jekyll in becoming Mr. Hyde. We become full of life, energetic, and invincible, knowing that we have beaten a disease and cannot be overcome by it again. But when a loved one contracts the same illness, we feel guilty and obligated, especially when we suspect the person might die in our place. And if the illness lingers for months, we begin to dread the possibility that we may become infected again and suffer the same fate. This accounts for Michel's longing to be outside, to get away from the infected and immoral side of life. In other words, to be amoral.

So, is Michel instead an amoralist? But "amoralist" is not a word, since a person cannot "be" amoral nor do amoral things. This is his dilemma in telling the story to his friends. He is a character without substance, a character of fiction, not really Gide himself, only a creation of the mind, a Zarathustra that cannot really walk a tightrope.

Michel is at a loss in describing his feelings. The reader knows that he is not going to die, being the first-person narrator of the story, so Gide switches the illness to his wife Marceline, who becomes the third person subject to the predicated illness, tuberculosis. Thus, Gide becomes a Kantian after all.

If Michel is not going to die, then who is he other than a man who derives his being from being a patient, a man who draws attention and care from his wife, a man who needs understanding from his friends who hear his story? If this is the immorality in the story, namely, that narrative cannot become transcendent and spiritual but must survive only through the other, then literature is brought to its knees. Herein lies Gide's greatness as a writer.
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