A delicate boy growing up in Paris, Jerome Pallisier spends many summers at his uncle's house in the Normandy countryside, where the whole world seems 'steeped in azure'. There he falls deeply in love with his cousin Alissa and she with him. But gradually Alissa becomes convinced that Jerome's love for her is endangering his soul. In the interest of his salvation, she decides to suppress everything that is beautiful in herself - in both mind and body. A devastating exploration of aestheticism taken to extremes, Strait is the Gateis a novel of haunting beauty that stimulates the mind and the emotions.
"Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction and many there be which go thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matthew 7:13-14).
This is the text from which Gide drew the title of his short novel, Strait is the Gate. It is a first person narrative that begins forthrightly with the words:
"Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one that it took all my strength to live and over which I have spent all my virtue. So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away from the last pleasure I hope to get in telling them." (p 3)
The author signals in this short paragraph the importance of virtue (of what sort we shall find out) and that these are personal "recollections", subject to the vicissitudes of memory and desire, but not invented. Finally, the narrator claims to have pleasure, or at least hopes to, in telling them. One may see already the potential for the contradiction of truth presented as fiction and fiction telling the truth.
The setting is the Protestant upper-middle-class world of Normandy in the 1880s. The narrator, Jerome Palissier, originally from Le Havre, is eleven when the story begins. His father having died he is living with his mother and a governess. He is surrounded by family including a creole aunt Lucille who alternately fascinates and terrifies him. She has two young daughters, Alissa and Juliette Bucolin, who are devoted to their father. Alissa and Jerome become childhood sweethearts and this gradually develops into a situation such that it becomes assumed, at least unofficially, that they are engaged. Unfortunately Alissa never truly agrees to any such arrangement. Complicating matters further are the feelings of Juliette for Jerome and the entry of Jerome's good friend Abel Vautier who quickly becomes infatuated with Juliette. The relations among these young people are complicated by the strength of youthful Eros, their own growth, and their search for identity. It is this search that leads Alissa in the direction of religion, in spite of which she professes to love Jerome. But she is no longer her former self and as Jerome is about to leave the country home of Fonguesemare where they have been together she claims that he has been in love with a ghost. Jerome replies that the ghost is not an illusion on his part: "Alissa, you are the woman I loved . . . What have you made yourself become?" Jerome leaves, "full of a vague hatred for what I still called virtue". Strong stuff for teenagers.
Three years later he returns but their relations are never the same; the strength of her religious convictions has altered Alissa both spiritually and physically. The affairs narrated here are apparently drawn from Gide's own life, however loosely. Their are also parallels with Gide's own work as Alissa may be seen as corresponding to Michel, the protagonist in Gide's novel, The Immoralist, written about a decade earlier. Strait is the Gate presents itself as a small gem of a literary work. With its focus on the passions and desires of young love I am reminded of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. Gide's biographer, Alan Sheridan, suggests that it is also a meditation on Gide's relationship with his own wife, Madeleine. Whether that is the case or not this short novel is has a beautiful clarity of prose and a haunting style that suggests the memories of young love that, while strong enough to leave permanent impressions, in some way become ghosts of one's youth.
Jerome and Alissa spend irenic summers together reciting poetry, reading from books to one another in their splendid garden, and enjoying music. The appropriateness of Jerome's name jumps out at you when he mentions another of their mutual literary interests: "We had procured the Gospels in the Vulgate and knew long passages of them by heart." (It was Saint Jerome who made the first Latin translation of the Bible.) Jerome wishes to become engaged before moving off to the Ecole Normale, but Alissa refuses. He is understandably upset by her rejection, but is only more spurred on by his ecstatic vision (again, that religious imagery) of eventually marrying her. Eventually, we learn that Alissa has sacrificed Jerome so that her sister, Juliette, will be able to get married first, yet even after Juliette gets married - to a boorish, business-minded vintner - Alissa continues to push him away.
He visits her at Fongueusemare while finishing both his schooling and a military stint, but every time he mentions wanting to marry her, she rejects him and requests that he leave soon, that she cannot bear his presence. Eventually, she tells him that her love of God surpasses her love for him, even though she has always passionately loved Jerome. During their last meeting together, Alissa has grown thin and pale, presumably because of her anchorite-like existence; she has also removed the books of poetry and novels she and Jerome used to read together, and replaced them with works of cheap, vulgar piety. Even while there is room here to doubt Alissa's love for Jerome, a chapter that includes her personal journals makes it perfectly clear that she loved Jerome just as much as he loved her, if not more so. Jerome has a final meeting with Juliette while she is enceinte with her fifth child by the vintner. Seeing him calls to mind both her sister's Christ-like sacrifice and makes her reflect on her own uneventful, bourgeois life. As Flaubert said: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi."
For maximum effect, as noted above, read this right next to Gide's "The Immoralist" for a most effective couple of case studies. Considering the year of publication (1909) and the ideas considered - repression, sexuality, sublimation - it should be noted that Gide almost certainly had Freud in mind when he was writing this, though it yields wonderful insights into human psychology even without a Freudian reading.
When reading a novel, sometimes the most difficult obstacle to being able to truly and fully appreciate it is the historical change that has taken place between the time in which it was written and when you read it. Judging from some of the reviews I have seen, that seems to be the case with this novel, too. In both this and "The Immoralist," Gide looks at the tension, confusion, and repression that can often come about when romantic love is pitted against, and forced to compete with, love for the divine. Since this novel was published, this antagonism has almost completely died, which may lead some readers to accuse Alissa of being frigid. Once we are able to bridge that historical gap, however, and realize that Alissa did not see her torment as self-imposed but rather something that was required of her, this novel proves itself to be a superior meditation on both romantic passion and, what was once thought to be its opposite, sacrifice.
I had a hard time becoming attached to the two main characters, Jerome and Alissa, because they seemed to talk a lot about what they loved and wanted, but never really did anything. They seemed more in love with the idea of love than with the actual reality of it. I was more interested in Alissa's passionate sister Juliette, who was the most energetic of the characters. It was beautifully written, but won't stick with me.
This is the second French classic I have read translated by Walter Ballenberger. I appreciate the way he has put them into modern English without losing the flavor of France.
I have only read one other book by Andre Gide, "The Immoralist". Both that novel and this one deal with people who choose to live their lives according to a guiding principle and where that decision takes them. While I could understand the main character in "The Immoralist" better, I had more sympathy for Alissa & Jerome in this novel.
Both are quite short and would make a good introduction to this Nobel Laureate.
Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, wait a bit til they are a bit more confident, girl decides that faith is more important and that their love is somehow although not morally wrong not the route that God wishes for them. Girl freezes out boy and decides to confine herself to a un beautiful life. Girl loves boy, boy loves girl, girl still shuns boy, girl dies, boy pines.
A fable, I think, about unnatural, unhealthy obsession with faith. (She dreams it up for herself no priests or spiritual advisors involved)
The plot reminds me of a Jane Austen story--except filled with a pessimism that would have had Austen's characters drowning themselves by the end of the story.