Places: Man’s Fate

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: La Condition humaine, 1933 (English translation, 1934)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1927

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Shanghai

*Shanghai. Man’s FatePort city at the mouth of the Yangtze River that was–and still is–the most populous city of China, housing an estimated three million people in 1927, thirty-five thousand of them foreigners. Shanghai then was also uniquely international, made so by European imperialism. Europeans in China enjoyed extraterritorial rights and were beyond the jurisdiction of Chinese law. Hence, although Shanghai was a Chinese city, it was actually divided into three administrative and juridical sectors: the Chinese sector, the British sector (known as the “international settlement”), and the French sector (or “concession”). In each sector, Chinese inhabitants were in the majority. Shanghai in 1927 was a divided city somewhat like Berlin, Germany, following World War II.

Although Malraux had lived in Asia, it is doubtful that he knew Shanghai firsthand in 1927; his descriptions therefore resemble a newsreel. More important, because of Shanghai’s international nature, Malraux could assemble a multinational cast for his epic–French, Germans, Russians, Chinese, and mixed-race characters. Malraux’s Shanghai can thus be seen as a political microcosm of his contemporary world during an existentialist moment of history when the communist revolution was challenging capitalist imperialism as a global ideology.

Hotel room

Hotel room. Setting of the opening scene, in which Ch’en, a Chinese communist leader, assassinates an arms dealer. Malraux transforms this room into a metaphoric place with metaphysical significance. Beginning here, Malraux divides his novel’s places (also characters, actions, ideas) into two dialectical opposites: the absolute versus the relative, the essentialist versus the existentialist, the static versus the evolving. Through Ch’en’s narrative point of view, this dark room becomes an absolutist place where he will bring death (the absolute, essentialist, and static experience) into being. Outside the room, it is brightly lit Shanghai by night, a relativist place with human beings in relationships–existential, changing.

Black Cat nightclub

Black Cat nightclub. Baron de Clappique’s favorite hangout. It is another absolutist and essentialist site because its patrons escape relatedness and existential responsibility through liquor and sensuality. There also, Clappique indulges in mythomania, escaping into an absolutist fantasy world by spinning tall tales about himself.

Gisors’ house

Gisors’ house. Located in Shanghai’s French section, this is home to Gisors, a French Marxist sociology professor; his part-Japanese son Kyo, a Chinese Communist Party leader; and Kyo’s wife May, a German communist doctor. There, Kyo experiences an absolute of isolation as he realizes that his relationship with May is not founded on reality and that his identity is split between his inner sense of himself (essentialist, absolute) and others’ sense of him (existentialist, relative). There also, Ch’en visits Gisors, his professor, after the assassination, hoping to communicate and exorcise his angst; instead, Gisors becomes aware of the essential isolation of each individual and retreats into an absolutist world by smoking opium.

*Hankow (Hangzhou)

*Hankow (Hangzhou). City near Shanghai. Malraux identifies it as the Chinese Communist Party’s stronghold, where the Russian advisers are headquartered. He also makes Hankow a metaphor for ideological essentialism and absolutism. Kyo and Ch’en go there to seek advice on what to do when General Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Party (supported by capitalists and Western imperialists) begins persecuting communists. The Russians fall back on Lenin’s writings, trusting them like absolute and essentialist (fundamentalist) scripture and refusing the Chinese Communists permission to evolve their own revolution.

Prison yard

Prison yard. Schoolyard that has been converted into a prison for communists sentenced to death. Although death is the ultimate absolute and the essentialist isolation of an individual, Kyo transforms his death into an existential act by committing suicide with his cyanide pill. His Russian comrade Katov is even more heroic. He gives his own cyanide to two other terrified condemned men, then he accepts immolation alive in a furnace. In Malraux’s metaphoric use of the schoolyard, the nationalists (capitalists and imperialists) are in this former schoolyard to teach a lesson about the absolute certainty of futility for humans in death, while the communists are there to teach a lesson about the relative possibilities of meaningfulness and utility to humans, even in death.

BibliographyBoak, Denis. “La Condition humaine.” In André Malraux. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968. A judicious consideration of the novel within the perspective of Malraux’s development as a writer. Emphasizes its metaphysical rather than political aspects. Detailed consideration of imagery and characterization.Chua, Cheng Lok. “The International Theme in André Malraux’s Asian Novels.” Modern Language Quarterly 39, no. 2 (June, 1978): 169-182. An Asian’s view of Malraux’s Asian novels, especially Man’s Fate. Discusses Malraux’s cross-fertilization of the European values of individualism and will with Asian values of communal identity and harmony, and his use of irony in plot to create tragic protagonists.Frohock, W. M. André Malraux and the Tragic Imagination. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1952. Classic consideration of Malraux’s fictional canon. The chapter on Man’s Fate analyzes Malraux’s style, the rhythm and pattern of the novel’s action, its characterization, and the thematic and aesthetic effects of the characters’ fates.Hiddleston, J. A. Malraux: La Condition humaine. London: Edward Arnold, 1973. Useful but somewhat critical of Malraux. Focuses on Malraux’s concern with the individual’s ability to question the world, which leads to his characters’ recurrent dilemma of whether to be or to do. Organized into two sections, the first dealing with characters and themes, the second with thought and form. Quite brief.Leefmans, Bert M.-P. “Malraux and Tragedy: The Structure of La Condition humaine.” Romanic Review 44, no. 3 (October, 1953): 208-214. Pioneering analysis of the formal structure of Man’s Fate. Shows the seven parts of the novel’s action conforming to the classic rise and fall of tragedy, developing in the equally classic pattern of purpose, passion, and perception.
Categories: Places