“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…”
In fact, once his new self begins to emerge Michel loses interest in the historical studies that had fascinated him before. This maybe because ancient ruins now reminded him of death, and now he wanted life not death, and life now in the present: “I hated death”.
This desire to make most of the present relates to the theory of time presented by the character of Melanque, who is, in my opinion, the true immoralist whereas Michel merely desires to be an immoralist. According to Melanque “every moment should take away with it every thing it brings”, meaning that the past should not be remembered, or dwelled upon. By liberating one’s self from the past, one can live the present more fully. Reminiscence is a way of avoiding life in the present, “being no more is the same as never having been”.
However, Michel’s abandonment of his old habits of study has more to do with his desire to find his real identity, “the one that everything in my life- books, teachers, parents, I myself- had tried to suppress”. He wanted to break free of the “accreted layers of acquired learning”. The more we learn (at school etc.), the more we lose ourselves. Education can thus be seen as the instrument of conformism, and devotion to study as the suppression of the senses.
So who is Michel really? The moral scholar, or the free-spirited hedonist? Either, neither, or both? In truth, his first type of character (the scholar) was shaped by his family environment, just as his second type of character was shaped by his great desire to re-invent (and not truly find) himself. Had Michel wished to find who he really was, he would have tried to search deep within him and not try to copy peasants and crooks.
Ironically, this is what Melanque criticizes in others: “people don’t want to be like themselves. They all choose a model to imitate, or, if they don’t choose a model themselves, they accept one ready-made”. Melanque is saying that we forget who we are, and are oblivious to our special needs, real desires, and how we really want to live. The reason being what Melanque calls our “moral agoraphobia” i.e. fear of social disapproval. Individuality and fulfillment are sacrificed for conformity and social acceptance.
Melanque is naturally right, but only explains part of the problem. There is no such thing as our “real self” hidden behind the layers of education and morality. How could there be one? Would that self be our infant personality with which we were born, untouched by outside influences? Our self seems to be who we choose to be at a certain time or other, and what makes human beings special is this constant transformation, this continuous re-invention.
A proof for the non-existence of a “real” self is Michel’s example. Did his free, sensual life bring him happiness or fulfillment? As he himself noted “one can only tell of the origins of happiness and its destruction”. So was his experimentation merely the destruction of his “comfortable” happiness? Apparently, inhibition and his old morality were so deep-rooted that he couldn’t disassociate himself from them without feeling guilty. Why else did he call upon his old friends to “save” him and put an end to his debaucherous life? Was he too weak for freedom? Was that kind of life where he oppressed his talents and spirit for the sake of the body a free one?
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?