Compare these descriptions of The Immoralist from two separate publishers:
Penguin Classics description:
In The Immoralist, André Gide presents the confessional account of a man seeking the truth of his own nature. The story’s protagonist, Michel, knows nothing about love when he marries the gentle Marceline out of duty to his father. On the couple’s honeymoon to Tunisia, Michel becomes very ill, and during his recovery he meets a young Arab boy whose radiant health and beauty captivate him. An awakening for him both sexually and morally, Michel discovers a new freedom in seeking to live according to his own desires. But, as he also discovers, freedom can be a burden. A frank defense of homosexuality and a challenge to prevailing ethical concepts, The Immoralist is a literary landmark, marked by Gide’s masterful, pure, simple style.
Vintage International description:
First published in 1902 and immediately assailed for its themes of omnisexual abandon and perverse aestheticism, The Immoralist is the novel that launched André Gide’s reputation as one of France’s most audacious literary stylists, a groundbreaking work that opens the door onto a universe of unfettered impulse whose possibilities still seem exhilarating and shocking.
Gide’s protagonist is the frail, scholarly Michel, who shortly after his wedding nearly dies of tuberculosis. He recovers only through the ministrations of his wife, Marceline, and his sudden, ruthless determination to live a life unencumbered by God or values. What ensues is a wild flight into the realm of the senses that culminates in a remote outpost in the Sahara–where Michel’s hunger for new experiences at any cost bears lethal consequences. The Immoralist is a book with the power of an erotic fever dream–lush, prophetic, and eerily seductive.
Notice how the second one makes practically no mention of homosexuality? This is actually a pretty common occurrence with this book; there is a large subset of readers who are absolutely adamant that The Immoralist is NOT about being gay. Homosexuality is only present, they would argue, it’s not the focus. In my opinion, that attitude is a product of that common problematic perception of sexuality as a purely physical trait or behavior. Gide’s book is not about the physical dimension of homosexuality, it’s about the psychological and ethical ones. Michel’s recognition of his true desires inspires a moral rebellion against the unspoken codes that govern our behavior. It awakens him to the realization that traditional morality often denies people the things they really want, and that very little stops us from shucking those chains and living as we like. I consider this book essential reading for queer men because we should be asking: If I am happier bucking the moral conventions of heterosexuality, what other moral standards should I question? Perhaps the answer is none, but the question should be asked anyways.
Be forewarned that The Immoralist’s transgressive themes are wrapped up tight in the coded language of the era and will require a little interpretation. It’s not a thriller or even a drama, it’s more a quiet, philosophical meditation on how one should live one’s life. Chances are many readers will have an intense dislike for Michel and his philosophy, which is an entirely valid position. In my experience, everyone seems to read this book a little differently. Some agree with Michel, some pity him, some revile him, but it is precisely because there is no consensus that it remains such a useful book after more than 100 years. It reminds me a bit of Lolita in that way, a cultural and moral flashpoint at which fundamental tenets of society are attacked and defended. And as I said, it’s not really about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about having the conversation at all. We become so used to the way things are that it’s easy to forget it’s not the way things need to be, and texts like The Immoralist remind us of that.