Last night, when I finished reading André Gide’s Straight is the Gate (in translation), I did not want to write about it. I read quickly through the book to the end, because, in fact, the highly literary, over-wrought, lightly incestuous love affair between childhood companions Jérome and Alissa is compelling. Emotional suspense and predictable inevitability are combined in what I found to be a satisfying way. The affair is carried out largely at a distance, with a few difficult physical meetings. (Various references that I don’t entirely get are made to Héloise and Abelard—one of the characters is names ‘Abel,’ ect...). The two lovers are connected intellectually, emotionally, perhaps, depending on what is meant by this, spiritually. Jérome narrates, but we are given substantial quantities of Alissa’s letters to him. I imagine the novel is useful for people working on epistolarity, idealism, and of course gender—both from a queer studies perspective and from a feminist one.
So why didn’t I want to write about it at all? Why did I push it away in disgust? Because the affair between Alissa and Jérome is enormously self-centered and ultimately cruel. Jérome is so radically (one wants to say, pointlessly) obsessed with Alissa, that he does not learn until relatively late that Alissa’s sister, Juliette, is very much in love with him. But he has already made his choice. Alissa, for a variety of reasons, is unable to ‘give herself’ to Jérome. They love one another from a distance, through letters and in their imaginations. It is torture for both. A number of psychologically and culturally interesting consequences flow from this for the two characters. Juliette eventually decides to marry someone else—someone below her—but is able to be something like happy with him. She adjusts herself to her situation, while Alissa and Jérome are so caught up in the (I think we can say) ideality of their mutual love that they end up destroying themselves for it—Alissa literally, and Jérome, we get the sense, has used up that part of his life. But one does not feel at all sorry for Jérome, he is almost the villain of the story. I would want to go back and look at things more carefully, but it seems to me that his over-riding desire deprives Alissa of the selfhood that it seems she should otherwise have had. We might say that his love demanded that she be a certain person, and in attempting to assert a personhood independent of his, she ceased to be a person at all. Her relative culpability, and Gide’s own interpretation of all this, would be interesting to discuss.
Worst—and this is why I now want to record my reaction—the reader is ultimately complicit in this destructive self-absorption. At the end of the novel, there is a scene with Juliette and Jérome, now both older, he a confirmed bachelor, she a bourgeois mother. Alissa is dead—that quintessentially 19th century disease of idealism gave rise to some obscure physical ailment, causing her to wither away into pure essence. Jérome confirms, to Juliette, that he will always love Alissa—Juliette weeps. Her whole life has been less than it should have been—the pointlessness of Jérome’s love for Alissa is so manifest that I don’t think it can be called tragic. The two lovers have, in the name of their ideal love, been radically cruel to this third person. We, as readers, have assisted at, helped to perform, consummated this human cruelty in the service of a morbid literary sensibility.