Had Michel been purely immoral, he would not find himself with the lack of direction that he struggles with at the end of his story. Had he been a true immoralist, he could have created a neat pattern in his life of contradicting accepted morals. Yet Michel’s actions were not directed by malice or hatred of virtue. He was selfish, but his intentions were not to hurt those close to him. Sometimes he behaved in ways that would be deemed “right,” and other times in ways considered “wrong,” and often times the reader and Michel’s listeners were carried away in his story and were unable to distinguish the difference between right and wrong.
Therein lies Michel’s problem. Certain aspects of morality as defined by society, including hetero-normativity, rang dissonant with Michel. When he tried to force himself into the morals his society constructed, he was sick and pathetic. Yet when he began to understand himself his desires better, he grew stronger and healthier. Yet with this change, Michel did not seem to develop his own sense of morality; rather he sometimes acted in accordance with traditional morality and sometimes against it. At that point, Michel was happy; he still had a framework of morality through which to understand and direct his life.
Gradually, however, Michel, along with his listeners, lost sight of the clear distinctions between right and wrong. Michel tried to be a pure immoralist, spending time with criminals and low-lifes. Yet though he found them interesting and enjoyed spending time with them, he never proclaimed to be the same as them. He was falling out of the framework of morality – no more able to behave directly against it than he was able to follow it. With Marceline’s death – Marceline, who upheld morality – the last bits of the framework fell, and Michel was lost.
How terrifying to find that freedom alone, how frightening to realize that there needn’t be a moral point and purpose to our actions, and that the moral constructs humans create are so transient as to be non-existent. Then, the lack of judgment from his friends and from his readers, indicated that this burdensome freedom is contagious. His friends felt involved in his immorality-turned-amorality. They too felt lost, felt the disappearance of the framework. But then what relief, to realize that moral inconsistencies need not be inconsistencies if there are no standards with which to be consistent!
Perhaps Michel’s friends were too small a group to feel that relief. Perhaps Michel reached out to his friends, to see if they could accept a world not defined by right and wrong, but rather one composed of a fluid mesh of desires, actions, and beliefs that do not cohere into a set of morals or a comprehensive philosophy. For if they could accept it, perhaps he could live comfortably with them. Then one of Michel’s friends, perturbed by Michel’s predicament, reaches out further, to extend the circle enlightened by this troublesome freedom.
Perhaps too, this is Gide reaching out to society, to present this struggle to a wider audience. For if it is acknowledged by the masses, then the societal constructs would indeed melt away, and perhaps there could be a more reassured acceptance of the fluidity of morality and inconsistencies inherent to living. – YG