Gide’s Questions Moral Absolutes

André Gide’s questioning of absolutes paralleled societal doubts about the validity of established authorities and reflected the increasing importance of individual conscience in determining ethics and self-authenticity.

Summary of Event

André Gide’s questioning of absolutes reflected the trends and temper of early twentieth century cultural and intellectual life. As the French celebrated the arrival of a new century, inventions such as the electric light, the automobile, and film enriched life; however, France’s defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 undermined the French public’s confidence in traditional beliefs and recognized institutions. For Gide, the ideals and truths that had shaped principles and practices conflicted with individual aspirations and differing perspectives. In his works, human beings confront confusion and crisis. [kw]Gide’s The Counterfeiters Questions Moral Absolutes (1925)[Gides The Counterfeiters Questions Moral Absolutes (1925)]
[kw]Counterfeiters Questions Moral Absolutes, Gide’s The (1925)
[kw]Moral Absolutes, Gide’s The Counterfeiters Questions (1925)
[kw]Absolutes, Gide’s The Counterfeiters Questions Moral (1925)
Counterfeiters, The (Gide)
[g]France;1925: Gide’s The Counterfeiters Questions Moral Absolutes[06220]
[c]Literature;1925: Gide’s The Counterfeiters Questions Moral Absolutes[06220]
Gide, André

André Gide.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Gide presented in Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925; The Counterfeiters, 1927) an anguish that results from the tensions between the ineffectiveness of authoritative institutions and the significance of individual responsibility. The novel reworks an incident recorded in 1906. Like the historical counterfeiters on which the story is based, the characters Léon Ghéridanisol, Georges Molinier, and Philippe Adamanti pass illegal coins and, although discovered, escape prosecution. Recalling the images of specious currency, they project, along with other characters, appearances that reflect reality but do not disclose all its aspects. Uncertain and ambiguous knowledge forms the basis of actions that, derived from illusions, weaken credibility, induce individualism, and end in conflicts. Nevertheless, personal perspectives determined by relative circumstances can combine to reveal truth. By juxtaposing opposing views, Gide, through the character of Édouard, examines the ambivalence of illusion and enables the reader to reconcile varying visions into a coherent concept. Such a privileged position, however, is more apparent than real, and Gide’s characters experience misunderstanding, frustration, disappointment, and dejection.

In the novel, human perception of reality assumes a truth that, ultimately invalid, controls behavior and influences subsequent artistic and literary representations. Bernard, the illegitimate son of Édouard, the book’s narrator, leaves home to seek freedom and authenticity. By responding to individual impulses, he enjoys independence and thereby defeats inner disturbances and social repression. In replacing his family with other communities, however, Bernard recognizes the contradictions between the incontrovertibility of biological fact and the shifting perceptions of self-identity. Incapable of achieving total detachment, he acknowledges the necessity of participating in society; upon returning home, he attempts to forge the illegitimacy of birthright with the legitimacy of human interaction.

Like Bernard and other characters in the novel, Boris, a schoolboy, suffers an entrapment that fuses fiction and truth, morality and immorality, autonomy and interdependence. His self-identification proceeds from interaction with others; winning acceptance among his schoolmates requires that he play the dangerous game of Russian roulette, and Boris shoots himself. Man teeters between the futilities of human endeavor and the nothingness of death; however, the certainty of human persistence and pain remains. Like the specious coins that are tangible but worthless, human beings are biologically real but spiritually counterfeit.

Gide develops in his novel themes presented in earlier writings. Like such Symbolist Symbolist movement poets as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, he reacted initially against the realistic and naturalistic objectivities of Gustave Flaubert Flaubert, Gustave and Émile Zola. Zola, Émile Through the use of archetypes and myths, he dramatized the contentions between realities of fragmentation and ideals of integration. In Gide’s Les Cahiers d’André Walter (1891; The Notebooks of André Walter, 1968), Notebooks of André Walter, The (Gide) Angel, or spiritual aspiration, contests for the human soul against Beast, or earthly attractions. Revolt against societal values leads to impotence and, in Paludes (1895; Marshlands, 1953), Marshlands (Gide) to self-destruction. Man is imprisoned in a cosmic game, which in Le Prométhée mal enchainé (1899; Prometheus Misbound, 1953) Prometheus Misbound (Gide) Gide narratively conveys as a battle between Zeus’s erratic and amoral purposes and Prometheus’s resolute and useless yearnings.

When endorsing these views in subsequent works, Gide emphasized ethical implications. His artistry moved from a description of images and self-imaginings to accounts of actions and character portrayals. In shifting from personal confession to fictional narrative, he described the anguish of dilemmas and the ambivalent interpretation of actions. Gidean personages strive to reconcile oppositions through conscious and self-determined acts. Like their Nietzschean and Dostoevskian counterparts, they demonstrate an individualism that attacks and denies moral certainties. Yet the exuberance evolving from questioning and rebellion is transitory and elusive and results in the substitution of one authority for another. Michel in L’Immoraliste (1902; The Immoralist, 1930) Immoralist, The (Gide) and Lafcadio in Les Caves du Vatican (1914; The Vatican Swindle, 1925; better known as Lafcadio’s Adventures, 1925) Lafcadio’s Adventures (Gide)[Lafcadios Adventures] pursue deliverance from moral responsibilities. Michel’s defiance of ethical codes and Lafcadio’s murder without motive, however, lead, respectively, to the sadness of solitude and the necessity of human interaction. Through submission to inner impulses, protagonists in La Porte étroite (1909; Strait Is the Gate, 1924) Strait Is the Gate (Gide) and La Symphonie pastorale (1919; The Pastoral Symphony, 1931) Pastoral Symphony, The (Gide) reject Protestant ethics, but changes of circumstances rob them of the opportunity to reconcile internal consciousness with external realities. Contradictions persist, and characters experience delusion, displacement, and dejection.

By situating personal perplexities and individual dilemmas within the framework of a social drama, in The Counterfeiters Gide adapted previous philosophical and psychological themes to objective reality. Like Flaubert, he entrapped his characters in tangles of amorous relationships. Love requires interpretation and interaction, and personal perceptions deceive but direct destiny, culminating, in Flaubert’s work, in Emma Bovary’s suicide and, in The Counterfeiters, in Boris’s self-destruction. Moreover, Gide, like Marcel Proust, expanded the scope of social realism and, in depicting the dynamics of bourgeois life, described the difficulties of man’s search for self-understanding and meaningful values. Moral questions elicited by the Dreyfus affair and World War I compelled thinkers and artists to examine external realities in order to reform society.

Like Anatole France and Romain Rolland, Gide attacked social and political practices; however, in constructing numerous credible, interrelated episodes that detail man’s futile search for absolutes in a relative, changing world, he universalized the historical and particular. Inner crises characterize a social setting where varying, limited perspectives evolve into the single certainty of despair and death. Authenticity and dignity are based on absolutes. Yet in questioning authorities and values, Gidean characters become imprisoned by doubt and frustration. As Bernard returns home, the novel concludes at the beginning, and the new story of Caloub Molinier continues the circular narrative of man’s disappointments and displacements in a delusionary world.


In his journal, Gide described The Counterfeiters as a failure. His stress on concision and his abandonment of accepted narrative structures made the book a departure from the engaging novels of Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy. In 1952, one year after Gide’s death, the Roman Catholic Church prohibited the reading of his works on moral grounds. Nevertheless, this reserved reception of his fiction contrasts with the important impact of his ethical thought and novelistic theory on contemporary and subsequent writers. As founding editor of the highly regarded periodical La Nouvelle Revue française, moreover, Gide welcomed and advanced innovative and controversial ideas on ideology and style. The Counterfeiters reflected much of his thinking and novelistic practice, and it shaped the direction of attitudes toward later developments in ethics and aesthetics.

Like Gide, proponents of Surrealism and its precursor Dadaism reacted against the values and authorities that had brought about the atrocities of World War I. Dadaism, Dadaism initiated in Zurich in 1916, denounced arbitrary absolutes that denied individual thought and reduced human worth. The nihilism expressed in verse by poets such as André Breton, Breton, André Paul Éluard, and Louis Aragon reflected an empty and disturbing vision of the human situation. Humanity, according to Breton, confronts the conflicts of opposing absolutes; however, through internal images derived from observed realities, humans translate physical phenomena into inner truths that, in Breton’s novel Nadja (1928; English translation, 1960), Nadja (Breton) become indicators of external beauty.

Gide did not participate in the Surrealist Surrealism movement, but his themes of human aspirations, anxieties, exuberance, and futility reinforced the Surrealist call to reject established values. During the 1930’s, the failure of the League of Nations, the economic deprivations of global depression, and the rise of totalitarian governments shattered illusions of humanity’s ability to reform ethics and to attain economic security and social equality within existing orders.

Like Bernard, the characters created by Georges Bernanos Bernanos, Georges contend against falsity; but, instead of enjoying momentary exhilarations, they discover, through moral and physical torments, an inner redemption and spiritual nobility. Gide’s skepticism of moral absolutes also assumed the form of revolution in André Malraux’s Malraux, André
La Condition humaine (1933; Man’s Fate, 1934), Man’s Fate (Malraux)[Mans Fate] in which images of war reflect the need to destroy existing authorities. In Malraux’s work, however, unlike in The Counterfeiters, a fraternity among the revolutionaries permits an integration of spiritual affiliations.

After the defeat of France in 1940, Jean-Paul Sartre Sartre, Jean-Paul and Albert Camus Camus, Albert addressed the validity of absolutes. Sartre saw humans as defined by external realities and inner recognitions; in assuming imposed values, Sartre asserted, humans falsify their true nature and suffer anguish. Rather, Sartre argued, humankind must resist artificial restrictions and assert self-authenticity. Camus, in L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), Stranger, The (novel by Camus) reaffirms Gide’s vision of man who, guided by impulses and checked by absolutes, endures the confusions of absurdity. The hero of Camus’s work, Meursault, like Gide’s Bernard, finds freedom through rebellion and, in declaring his self-worth, experiences a deliverance.

Stylistically and structurally, The Counterfeiters advanced and foreshadowed later developments in novelistic techniques. Gide’s use of a direct, classical simplicity paralleled styles adopted by François Mauriac, Camus, and T. S. Eliot. The portrayal of diverse characters, moreover, necessitated the use of multiple perspectives. Édouard’s journal and comments synthesize views, recalling the scattered but unified perceptions recorded by omniscient narrators in the novels of Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf. Further, like Roger Martin du Gard, John Galsworthy, and Thomas Mann, Gide presented a social panorama. Yet his emphasis on individual perspectives also suggests techniques characterizing the French New Novel. Michel Butor and Alain Robbe-Grillet, in particular, similarly combined conflicting images that, individually observed, denoted the apparent chaos of existence and the uselessness of human aspirations. Indeed, the close relationship between denial of absolutes and the emergence of brutal absolutist regimes that in turn denied traditional ethical restraints produced a century of horrific murder on a scale previously unknown, an unattractive fruit of the philosophical nihilism of the age.

Gide’s moral skepticism led to an individualism shared by subsequent thinkers and fiction writers. In assuming a detached, reportorial stance, however, Gide contented himself with describing situations and thereby resisted personal commentary. Through doubts and disappointments, his characters mature in self-understanding and suffer the frustrations of human existence. In fact, by foreshadowing Samuel Beckett’s representations of misunderstanding and Jean Genet’s dramatizations of meaninglessness, Gide depicted the painful paradox of ideals that inevitably end in misinterpretation, disintegration, and death. Counterfeiters, The (Gide)

Further Reading

  • Brée, Germaine. Gide. 1963. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. An enlarged revision of a French study published in 1953, this intelligent, insightful analysis of Gide’s works emphasizes novelistic techniques that facilitate the expression of intellectual and ethical themes.
  • Brennan, Joseph G. Three Philosophical Novelists: James Joyce, André Gide, Thomas Mann. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Places Gide’s works within the contexts of Nietzschean and Bergsonian philosophies to demonstrate Gide’s interpretation of intellectual currents.
  • Conner, Tom, ed. André Gide’s Politics: Rebellion and Ambivalence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Collection of essays focuses on Gide’s growing commitment to a number of literary and social issues from the 1920’s to 1936. Includes index.
  • Cordle, Thomas. André Gide. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1992. A superb reading of Gide’s attempts to resolve oppositions that reflect Symbolist expression, Romantic idealism, and realistic objectivity. Includes annotated bibliography.
  • Falk, Eugene H. Types of Thematic Structure: The Nature and Function of Motifs in Gide, Camus, and Sartre. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Systematically and rigorously elucidates Gide’s uses of plot, characterization, and imagery through a reading of Gide’s The Pastoral Symphony. Contrasts Gide’s themes and techniques with those employed in Camus’s The Stranger and Sartre’s La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949).
  • Guerard, Albert J. André Gide. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969. Reading of Gide’s works explores personal tensions between ascetic and amorous impulses, spiritual self-accounts, novelistic techniques, and possible influences. Slightly dated, this intelligent, perceptive study nevertheless provides an indispensable introduction to Gide’s works.
  • Holdheim, W. Wolfgang. Theory and Practice of the Novel: A Study on André Gide. Geneva: Droz, 1968. A comprehensive, meticulous study of Gide’s novelistic theory and techniques. Examines Gide’s creative works in the light of his journal, suggesting parallels between Gide’s style and structure and those of earlier novelists.
  • Hytier, Jean. André Gide. Translated by Richard Howard. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962. Originally published as a series of lectures (1938), this first aesthetic survey of Gide’s works includes a detailed plot summary of The Counterfeiters and offers interesting insights into the themes of doubt and reform.
  • Ireland, G. W. André Gide: A Study of His Creative Writings. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1970. Although lacking in defined methodology and single focus, presents intelligent, perceptive readings that provide a useful commentary on Gide’s works.
  • Rossi, Vinio. André Gide: The Evolution of an Aesthetic. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967. Traces Gide’s transition from the use of image to the development of narrative in describing the novelist’s artistic growth.
  • Sheridan, Alan. André Gide: A Life in the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Literary biography places Gide’s works within the context of the time in which he lived and relates them to the events of his life. Includes family trees, bibliography, and index.

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