Reader's Encyclopedia

Gide, André (1869 - 1951)

French writer and editor. Brought up in an austere Protestant household, Gide reacted passionately against the prohibitions of revealed religion. Yet his search for self -- the underlying theme of his more than eighty published works -- remained essentially a religious search, and Gide is as well known for his influence as a moralist and a thinker as for his contributions to literature.

At eighteen he met Pierre Louys and other aspiring writers and artists and attended the literary salons of Jos eMaria de Heredia and Stephane Mallarme. In 1891 he published Les Cahiers d'André Walter, reflecting his spiritual love for his cousin Madeleine and his conviction that physical desire must be suppressed. He published his first poems the next year, but by 1900 he had practically abandoned this form of writing. Gide shared Paul Valery 's fascination with the myth of Narcissus as a symbol of man's hopeless and misdirected yearning for perfection. His friends read the essay Le Trait é du Narcisse (1891) as a definition of symbolism, but its theories were actually quite differently intended, and Gide soon separated from the group.

With his first trip to North Africa in 1893, Gide broke with his entire past. He rejected mortification of the flesh, believing that harmony of body and soul was possible only if both were satisfied, and deliberately sought sensual experience. His discovery of his homosexual leanings troubled him, but the tolerance of the North Africans and the open encouragement of Oscar Wilde in 1895 freed him of embarrassment. The Fruits of the Earth is a hymn to the joy of the search for experience.

Gide considered himself a disturber of youth, ever urging individual self - cultivation, while paradoxically warning against a narcissistic concern with self. His fiction is autobiographical only to the extent that each major figure is an exaggerated personification of one aspect of his own character. Thus, The Immoralist and Strait Is the Gate were conceived as companion pieces to show the unhappy consequences of amoral hedonism in the first and of equally selfish self - abnegation and asceticism in the second.

Always concerned with motivation and the function of man's will, Gide was influenced by Dostoyevsky (his translations and analyses did much to make the Russian novelist popular in France) and agreed that there are both good and evil impulses, not traceable to common motives such as love, hate, or self - interest. He was fascinated by examples of the apparently disinterested acte gratuit, or gratuitous act, and concluded that it is motivated solely by a personal need to assert one's individuality and is thus the only human act that reveals one'sessential character; Laecadio 's Adventures presents a murder as such an act.

Gide was twice tempted to find self - development in commitment to something outside himself. His correspondence with his friends Francis Jammes (pub 1948) and Paul Claudel (pub 1949) reveals their unsuccessful attempt to convert him to Catholicism. Then, on a trip to French Equatorial Africa in 1925, he was horrified by the French treatment of the natives. He expressed his views on the subject in Voyage au Congo (1927; translated as Travels in the Congo, 1930) and Le Retour du Tchad (1928), and began to advocate the reform of social institutions, becoming an admirer of the ideal of Communism and its practical experiment in the Soviet Union. But he could not accept the party's orthodox dogma without the right to question, and in 1936 was disillusioned by a visit to the Soviet Union.

The novel The Counterfeiters exposes the hypocrisy and self - deception with which people try to avoid sincerity. Gide 's own obsessive concern with personal and public honesty often led him to face public scandal -- especially with his insistence that the bounds of the natural include homosexuality. When Corydon (1924), an essay that maintains that the homosexual is harmful neither to himself nor to society, drew violent criticism, Gide answered with If It Die ... He pursued this ideal of perfect frankness in his comprehensive private, literary, and philosophical Journals (1939 - 50), omitting only the details of his marriage with his cousin Madeleine. After her death (1938), he wrote the painful account of their mutual love and unhappiness, published posthumously as Et nunc manet in te (1951; translated as Madeleine, 1952).

Gide was one of the most influential editors of La Nouvelle Revue francaise. In 1947 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his varied contributions to literature.

Other important works by Gide, available in English, include the satires Paludes (1895) and Le Prométhée mal enchainé (1899), collected as Marshlands and Prometheus Misbound (1953); the plays Philoctéte (1899), Le Roi Candaule (1901), Saul (1903), Bethsabé (1912), and Perséphone (1934), collected as My Theatre (1951); the play Oedipe (1931) and the tale Thésée (1946), collected as Two Legends: Theseus and Oedipus (1950); and the tales Isabelle (1911) and The Pastoral Symphony, included in Two Symphonies (1931). See Ecole des femmes.