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During the years that immediately followed the publication of L'Immoraliste, Gide lived through a period of dryness and unproductiveness. He was working, but in 'a desultory fashion, on La Porte étroite. The lack of attention paid to L'Immoraliste had deeply affected him, and he speaks in his journal of a sluggishness of spirit (engourdissement), of his vegetative existence. He worked in his garden, made a short trip to Germany, corresponded with and visited his Catholic friends Henri Ghéon, Jacques Copeau and Paul Claudel. Then abruptly, in early 1907, he wrote in a brief space of time and without difficulty the short work Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue.

He interrupted work on La Porte étroite in order to begin the writing of Le Retour on February 1. On the 16th of March, he records having completed Le Retour a few days earlier, and his surprise at the swiftness with which the writing was done after the idea was conceived. It was published first in Vers et prose, in 1907, and almost instantly brought forth strong opposition. The reaction of Claudel was more restrained than that of Francis Jammes who, in a letter of June, 1907, denounced his friend's distortion of the New Testament parable. More than any other single work of Gide, with the exception of Corydon, Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue scandalized the Catholic world in France and contributed to having the totality of his work prohibited by Rome. This brief text, which. Has been adapted for the stage and performed several times in Paris, presents a prodigal son who returns home, not through repentance, but because of hunger and poverty and despair.

Once again, the resemblances between Gide the man and his protagonist the prodigal son, are striking. Each left his Father's House because it had become painful for him to live in it. Gide at the age of twenty-five and the prodigal son left their home in order to go to a distant country. Gide at least had pondered deeply over the right he had, or did not have, to leave the austere atmosphere of his early life in order to find his real life and the way of his life.

The opening dialogue in Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue centers upon the problem of the Father's House. In his conversation with his father, the prodigal insists that men have different vocations, that some remain at home as guardians of tradition, and that others are called upon to leave. However, despite the multiplicity of vocations, a]] belong to the Father, all find their role in life in terms of their relationship with the Father. From the very beginning of the dialogue to the end, Gide maintains a tone of religious belief. The "return" would not have taken place unless the prodigal had felt some degree of nostalgia for the love and the security represented by the Father, but the returning son insists that the House is not the Father (La Maison, ce n'est pas Vous, mon Père.) Gide emphasizes in the opening scene the distinction between the Law, the set of rules establishing the authority of the Father, and the Love of the Father, which embraces those who follow the Law and those who move outside it, in their search for what they call the freedom of Love. Gide is persistently asking the question whether the Law is suitable for all men.

Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue, which is half treatise and half dialogue, reflects not only the personal preoccupations of Gide the moralist, but also the idealistic confusions of an era, of the decade and a half that preceded the First World War, when the problem of conformity to established moral order was raised by artists and by an important segment of the public. Had the moral code, adhered to by the nineteenth century, lost some of its efficaciousness? Gide neither opposes nor defends in any absolute sense. He poses the problem, and offers the mirage of solutions. in a letter to Francis Jammes, written in May, 1906, at a moment when the Pyrenees poet had been urging Gide to consider a conversion to Catholicism, he says that he has as not decided who he is himself, that his ideas and doctrines are still in a state of flux. When, a few months later, at the age of thirty-eight, Gide wrote Le Retour, he uses the famous parable taken from the Gospel according to Saint Luke in order to reveal, not the precision of a new doctrine, but the state of ambiguity which has come to be known as Gidian.

If the prodigal son had been successful in his flight from home, he would not have taken the tone he does in the second dialogue, with his older brother. He has come back to the House in a state of fatigue and disenchantment. He accepts the strong admonitions of the older brother with a surprising degree of docility. He speaks of his physical weariness, and dispels any impulse to quarrel or revolt. In his mother's presence, he is humbled and one feels that the return has been consummated in fact as well as in spirit. After the exaltation and love felt in the presence of the Father, after the fatigue and submission felt in the presence of the older brother, after the resignation he expresses to, his mother, the prodigal is, in the final dialogue, alone with his younger brother.

Here the art of Gide reaches its dramatic climax and the lesson of Le Retour reaches its fullest degree of ambiguity. On the literal level, each brother, in this dialogue, discovers the other. The younger brother forces the prodigal to describe his experience of discovery in the distant land and in the desert, and his experience of disenchantment. And the prodigal gradually forces his younger brother to reveal his plans to escape and his dreams. By the end of the dialogue, when the prodigal helps the younger boy to leave and bids him farewell, we realize that the two brothers are one symbolically, that the return has become the departure. The hero in Gide is the divided self ; the prodigal who returns and the younger son who must leave; Michel who detaches himself from all responsibility and Marceline who is the very symbol of faith and loyalty; Bernard in Les Faux-Monnayeurs who refuses to attach himself to fervor, and Olivier who is the very symbol of fervor. The dual action in Gide's adaptation of the parable, of the returning brother and the departing brother, is in both L'Immoraliste, where Michel is the prodigal in the distant country, and La Porte étroite where Alissa illustrates the fervor of renunciation and submission to a life of obscurity.

There is balance in this short work, an almost musical form of counterpoint where the two themes of departure and return are closely associated. The prelude to the story speaks of a triptych, and one can easily see this pattern in the departure of the prodigal, which antedates the text, and the House where the scene of the dialogue takes place, and the new departure of the alter ego. No voice is heard alone. Of the five voices we hear in this work, that of the Prodigal is of course the most constant, but each is clear and each is characterized by a tone of opposition. Le Retour is marked by a dramatic antagonism that was absent from the fervent search of Les Nourritures terrestres. The quest of the prodigal is behind him. The experience of discovery is over, and even the disenchantment is over. The reasons for his return are enumerated with simplicity and frankness. Impoverishment is the immediate reason, but the underlying and more noble reason is fidelity to his love of the Father.

The antagonism of voices and thoughts is paralleled by the dualism of the religious and the profane. The parable of the prodigal son is a brief bare story in Saint Luke. Gide reproduces this bareness and adds to it a dramatic form and a closely knit series of psychological motifs. The figure of the Father remains perfectly ambiguous because He is at every point the Divine Father whose love pardons the sinner, and the human father who rejoices at seeing his son again. His love is serene and enduring whereas his son's love, despite its profundity, is tortured and fitful.

The older brother is both the heir, the responsible member of the family who must maintain its fortune and dignity, and at the same time he is the body of dogma in the Church, the representative and interpreter of the law whose role is to punish or reward. He is the spokesman for order on both the human and divine levels.

The figure of the mother is one of the many additions or liberties Gide takes with the Scriptural text. She is maternal, possibly a symbol of Mother Church in her love, in her understanding and solicitude. The worry she expresses over her youngest son is human in its awareness of weakness, and divine in its desire to include all men within the Mystical Body.

The power of the Gidian parable is in the constant presence of the prodigal who provokes each dialogue and concludes each dialogue by his submission. In each scene the tenseness of his nature, the unresolved quest and the failure represented in his return give to the work its quality of restlessness and contradiction. When he meets himself, as the younger brother, the tension reaches its peak. In this scene he is simultaneously the return and the departure, the love of the Father in its endless freedom and the Law of the Church in its demands and in its strictures. The exuberance he had once known has passed into his younger brother. He has succumbed, however unwillingly, however hesitatingly, to the idea of permanence and stability illustrated in the older brother. Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue is a delicately orchestrated work on the purity of devotion and on the revolutionary boldness of flight.

It has the classical clarity, the precision of most of Gide's works, and it has at the same time his tantalizing ambiguity of thought, the tension between submission and revolt, between austerity and a hedonistic view of life, between the familiar in style and the archliterary.



When in 1909, two years after Le Retour, Gide published La Porte étroite, the first readers felt more deeply than they were to thereafter the shocking disparity between any two books of this writer. The drama in La Porte étroite seemed to them in total contradistinction to the drama of L'Immoraliste that did bear a relationship in ideas with Les Nourritures terrestres before it, and Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue after it. With La Porte étroite, Gide firmly established his reputation of unpredictability. Henceforth he was the French writer unwilling to allow his work to be easily categorized, to be allocated to one philosophical system. Mobility of thought and mobility of attitude will characterize him. Taken singly, each work, such as Les Nourritures terrestres does seem to announce a theoretical aspect that tempts the critic and the reader to identify with Gide. With La Porte étroite it began to be clear that theory for Gide is not an idea but a confession. Truth is difficult to compress and contain. As soon as Gide defines an aspect of truth in one of his books, and with the disarming simplicity that so often characterizes his theoretical passages, it dissolves or is transformed. Truth for Gide is that power of man's mind which will not allow itself to be constrained. The subject matter of his books is not the world of ideas, even if this world is always present in his work. Rather it is the world of sentiments that cannot be conceptually realized, the moments of lucid consciousness that are usually not the result of thinking or logical argumentation. Whenever a thought in Gide approaches a completed form, it is diverted into something else as if it had to obey not the reasonableness of conceptual thinking, but the variations and the impatience of man's sentimental and sensuous life.

The bare drama in L'Immoraliste and in La Porte étroite is in many ways identical. But the drama in Gide is never the book. As an artist he is preoccupied with the incidents that provoke the drama, that call it into life and torment it. The incidents in these two récits are very different, and the ways in which they stimulate the drama are very different. From chapter to chapter in L'Immoraliste every detail serves, directly or indirectly, Michel's resurrection to a new life. It is a terrifying egotistical resurrection, but Gide relates it with such power that he makes it seem inevitable and necessary. In the same way, from chapter to chapter in La Porte étroite every incident serves to deepen the heroic and appalling renunciation of Alissa. We are literally forced, in Gide's art, to give up one attachment after another to life, and accept the vocation of sacrifice. Michel and Alissa are Gide in only the most restricted sense. They are primarily two protagonists of novels, two invented characters who testify to the creativity of Gide's mind.

All of the autobiographical elements of La Porte étroite have been fully discussed by Gide himself in Si le grain ne meurt, in letters, in the Journal and in Et nunc manet in te. Every reference he has recorded indicates that these elements were merely the starting point for the novel or récit which had been on his mind for several years, and which. took him a long time to write. The death of his mother's close friend, Anna Shackleton, in 1884, in a cold hospital room, in total solitude, had deeply affected Gide, and the early titles he used when writing the book reveal the part played by Miss Shackleton in the formation of the character of Alissa: L'Essai de bien mourir, a Montaigne-like title used in 1891, and La Mort de Mademoiselle Claire, a title used in 1894, that gives primary importance to the death scene of the heroine. This work occupied Gide's mind at the very beginning of his literary career. In a letter to, André Beaunier, of July, 1914, he said that he would not have been able to, write L'Immoraliste if he had not known that he would also write one day La Porte étroite. Je n'aurais pu écrire "L'Immoraliste," si je n'avais su que j'écrirais aussi "La Porte étroite." (quoted in the Pléiade edition, p. 1546.) When he speaks of inventing the name Alissa for his heroine, he disclaims any motive of preciosity. The choice was made in order to indicate the divergence of spirit and drama in Madeleine Gide and Alissa. The virtue of his wife never appeared forced or excessive to Gide (cf. Et nunc), whereas the heroism of Alissa's renunciation is almost gratuitous.

Despite these and other important comments Gide himself made concerning La Porte étroite, the fundamental subject is a conflict that tormented his adolescence and early manhood, and that, in some degree, remained as an unsolved problem throughout his marriage. It is the conflict arising out of the demands of virtue, when virtue is believed in and admired, and the demands of the natural man, all those demands of the physical nature of man and of the role lie plays in society. Paul Claudel, in his very penetrating comments on La Porte étroite, analyzes the character of Alissa in the light of what lie believed a Protestant heresy, namely, the will to love the good quite independently of any hope for reward for this good. Anything that represents a recompense for loving God and leading a virtuous life seems almost repulsive to the orthodox Protestant spirit. That is why Claudel characterizes Alissa's aspiration to holiness as a heretical aspiration to angelism, to a state of spiritual purity that man as man cannot hope to reach. In the rough draft of an introduction Gide had once planned to write for La Porte étroite, and which is reproduced in the Oeuvres complètes (Feuillets, February, 1918), he explains how lie bore simultaneously within him Michel and Alissa, and how the hedonistic excess of Michel permitted him to portray the saintly excess of Alissa.

Gide was approaching the age of forty when he completed La Porte étroite - on October 15, 1909. On the following day, he notes in his Journal (October 18, 1909), that he shaved off his moustache, as if he had been freed of a weight of responsibility and was eager to begin a new life. The writing of the book had been for him a painful demanding rehearsal of a part of his adolescence when a religious exaltation had governed his life. Later in his career, but not very much later, these religious problems would reappear in the short tract, Numquid et tu, and in the short fictional work, La Symphonie pastorale.

Simultaneously with his first comments on La Porte étroite, when the book is completed, Gide expressed the hope that his books would be judged solely from an aesthetic viewpoint. The only possible solution to moral contradictions is in the artistic triumph of a book. The first readers of La Porte étroite undoubtedly exaggerated the importance of the personal experiences which they sensed there. This was the first of Gide's books to reach a wide public, and this was surprising to the writer and his friends because it appeared at a time when religions and moral issues were not of primary importance to the reading public. Although Gide claimed that lie had been able to put the best of himself into this book, he noted extensively certain dissatisfactions he felt with the writing. The dialogue scenes, the letters and the journal of Alissa, seemed to him more successful than the other parts of the book, the more transitional passages where he felt an overuse of a '«precious" style. Excessively self-critical of his writing, Gide acknowledged a lack of control in the writing of La Porte étroite. Certain aspects of the book were so close to him that his initial intention of writing a satire on Alissa's self-sacrifice was diverted, almost without his realizing it. The book seemed to demand of Gide its own purity, and the self-effacement of Jérôme became more and more apparent as the tragedy of Alissa grew more intense.

The one form of happiness which Jérôme and Alissa experienced was their powerlessness to reach any form of human happiness. Their love was of such a nature, or rather their religious temperaments were of such a nature, that, when together, they were uncomfortable, ill at ease, guilty in such a way that they could not explain their guilt. When Alissa says that they were not born for happiness (Nous ne sommes pas nés pour le bonheur), she was possessed by the ecstasy of self-privation. Her action throughout the book is the gradual giving up of A manifestations of love, of A indulgences of the mind and the spirit and the body. She fasts for the joy of fasting, as Michel in the desert fasted in order to feel his desires more acutely. The early theme of "waiting" which was sung of in Les Nourritures terrestres as an exercise in sensuality (je te parlerai des attentes), is recast in La Porte étroite as an austere exercise in spiritual progress and perfection.

The "strait gate" of the title, taken from Saint Luke: "Strive to enter in at the strait gate," symbolizes the life of austerity and privation. Jérôme, the less strong, the less independent of the two central figures, is compelled by Alissa to enter upon this way, and convinced by her that it is his way too. As a child, Alissa had seen her mother in the arms of a man, and this spectacle she had come upon unwillingly had signified for her the ugliness of the world and the degradation of love. As love grew between Alissa and Jérôme, the fear grew in them that any physical consummation of love would bring with it a disillusionment. As children, they had listened together to a sermon by their pastor on the Gospel text of the "strait gate," and Jérôme at the end of the church service was convinced that lie would deserve the love of Alissa all the more if lie ceased seeing her.

The early experience of Alissa, when she suffered in feeling her mother had degraded herself, and her serious religious training, caused her to turn away from what is usually called reality, and to pattern her life on a concept of purity which contradicts and even invalidates the forces of reality around her. Alissa's belief in purity and her quest for purity are the subject matter of La Porte étroite. Although theoretically Gide condemned this seeming uselessness or gratuitousness of Alissa's way of life, and had planned to stress the irony of her goal and her tragedy, the treatment of the subject exerted its own power over the writer. Alissa's idealism triumphed over Gide's ironic intention, and La Porte étroite, despite the final solitude and despair of Alissa, stands as one of the most successful novels in the twentieth century on the subject of spirituality. Alissa has already been accepted by two or three generations of readers, not as a demented, tortured, psychiatric case, but as a courageous heroine whose love for a man demanded the sacrifice of that love. Gide's triumph as a writer is here apparent in the sense that those readers who would look upon Alissa's sacrifice as useless and almost reprehensible have been moved by the strength of her character and by the human loneliness she chose for herself.

Even in those moments of deepest spirituality, when Alissa's love reaches a degree of sublimity, her experience is never without a physical component. She is drawn sensuously to Jérôme as well as spiritually. Her strong reactions to his presence close by her in several scenes give ample proof of this. L'Immoraliste and La Porte étroite are so obviously antipodal books, that they are also, in accordance with the strange law of the attraction of opposites, the same book, or two books that testify to the same quest for happiness. Michel's quest is for the unknown in the terrestrial sense, for the secret undiscovered life of the senses, for the dark and possibly demonic powers of the earth and the body. At moments when lie seems to have established a relationship with mysterious physical powers, lie resembles Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Alissa's quest is for the unknown in the superterrestrial sense, for the ethereal, distant goal far above her. Michel's desire to know the secrets of the body is as intense as Alissa's to move beyond the body. Both are restless, volatile, dissatisfied spirits. And each is accompanied by a partner who is silent and passive and self-effacing. Marceline for Michel, and Jérôme for Alissa, exist in order to throw into greater relief the flight from the normal world of convention. Michel and Alissa are equal in their courage, in the immoderateness of their desires, in the excessiveness of their social defiance. The demon and the angel both represent a temptation for man to move beyond his human condition, to know more than lie is allowed to know in his existence as a man. As soon as Gide advocated, in Les Nourritures terrestres, man's necessary liberation from conventionality and his new disponibilité, lie then set about, in L'Immoraliste and La Porte étroite to demonstrate the ironic danger of this freedom. A pure life of the senses and a pure life of the spirit are both destined to frustration and failure. The defiant courage of Michel is equal to the mystical exaltation of Alissa, and both characters are defeated in terms of their quest. Michel did not reach the serenity of self-realization and satisfaction, and Alissa did not experience the reward of sacrifice and its exaltation. But both were free and both chose the way of freedom.