Strait is the Gate (La Porte étroite) by André Gide, 1909
STRAIT IS THE GATE (La Porte étroite)
by André Gide, 1909
In The Immoralist (L'Immoraliste) André Gide had tentatively explored the moral consequences of a particular type of self-centered and, by innuendo, atheistic hedonism. By implication Gide's text had rejected it. Strait Is the Gate (La Porte étroite) explores and rejects the opposite possibility—that the summit of human achievement lies in the renunciation of all earthly joys. It is the story of Jerome, told 13 years later, and of his love as a young adolescent for his cousin Alissa, who turns him down, wastes away, and finally dies.
The ambiguities are carefully built up. Gide uses a narrator speaking directly in the first person. His feelings are too involved in the narration for his judgments to be accepted without reflection, however, even now that he is no longer young. Alissa's point of view is presented in letters and in the substantial section of her diary copied verbatim by Jerome and inserted into the narrative after he has given his own version of what happened. There is an abundance of allusions contemporary readers might miss; the writing is too self-consciously artistic to be taken entirely at face value.
There is ample evidence in the text to show that, as Gide later said, there is something "forced and excessive" in Alissa's view. But the element of falsification is quite subtly insinuated, for instance, in Alissa's implied but consciously literary self-identification with Pascal in her diary entries. As if aware that he may have been overly allusive, however, Gide makes the distortion of authentic spiritual values more straightforwardly obvious in the "depoetization" Alissa undergoes in pursuit of her ascetic endeavors. She gets rid of her literary books and her piano.
Against a background of delicately portrayed adolescent love, as seen by one of the participants 10 years after the death of the other, Gide uses an extraordinary miasma of halftones. The reader is expected to pick up tiny adolescent pomposities, slight excesses in literary allusiveness, covert allusions to Claudel's texts, and references to Goethe's concept of "elective affinities," or spiritual relationships, trivial behavioral spontaneities betraying in painful surface emotions the vulnerably raw reactions of adolescence.
Alissa is incapable of enduring any physical contact with Jerome, and yet when, three years after their last meeting, Jerome is by chance again at Le Havre and has indulged his nostalgia sufficiently to go to the country house where Alissa lives and where he had so often stayed, he finds that she knew he was coming; for three days she had been coming down to the garden gate to meet him. This was the gate that together they had previously used, but the gate was also the symbolic barrier between them, the multiva-lent gate of the title. The reader is expected to pick up the almost exquisitely subtle inadequacy of the reasons for exaggerated shame and self-deceiving selflessness that make Alissa unwilling to marry Jerome and drive her to neglect her mind, her aesthetic pleasures, her taste, her music, her appearance, and finally her health, so as to protect some analogue within her of emotional anorexia.
Gide leaves Alissa's incapacity for shared intimacy ambiguous almost to the end, when Jerome reproduces the diary extracts. Indeed, Alissa's spiritual power remains such that the ambiguity extends beyond her death. One of the reasons she had alleged for not marrying Jerome was that her sister, Juliette, loved him. Juliette's daughter is called Alissa and looks like Juliette's sister. It is a family resemblance with her mother's sister no doubt, but Gide delights in leaving the reader to wonder. The infant also looks like the woman loved by the man her mother really loved, not her husband, the father.
Gide's characters are sufficiently sheltered from economic problems for the fiction to concentrate on their spiritual anguishes. Strait Is the Gate is set against a background of a large French family in which uncles and aunts take turns holding reunions on great estates during the holidays. Gide rightly thought in 1910 that it was the best piece he had yet written, although he was taken aback at the way his Catholic friends wrongly welcomed the book as a sign of imminent conversion.
The narrative opens just after Jerome, aged 12, has lost his father. His mother had moved to Paris from Le Havre, and the background to most of the story is the estate at Fongueusemare where Jerome's Creole aunt, his father's sister, lives with her children, Alissa, Juliette, and Robert. Jerome devotes several pages to his aunt, and three successive paragraphs begin with her name. She wore bright colors and low-cut dresses, rose at midday, spent her time in an apparent dream, and had a way of lingering on the chords when she played Chopin's mazurkas. Jerome feels strange one day when she undoes one of the buttons of his sailor's shirt.
At this point in the story he breaks off to address the reader—"It's time I told you about my cousin"—and Gide makes his syntax falter to betray his emotion. The first major incident occurred when Jerome was 14 years old and, unexpectedly free for the afternoon, he called on Alissa. He passed his aunt's room, where his aunt was lounging, making jokes at his uncle's expense, and sharing a cigarette with a lieutenant in the presence of Juliette and Robert. He finds Alissa in her room, on her knees, crying. Alissa is clearly concerned that her father should not know what went on, and the reader realizes only slowly that Alissa comes to use the shame she feels at her mother's behavior as an excuse for her own frigidity. The whole of the story's interest lies the ambiguity of Alissa's behavior and the delicate depiction of her growing self-deceit.
There are subtle ironies, as when Alissa dreams that Jerome has died and she has to make a huge effort to find him. In fact she does make the effort, but she is the one who dies. An amethyst cross becomes a symbol of their union. There is a brilliant set piece as the older children and young adults perform the rite of decorating the Christmas tree and Juliette tells Jerome that Alissa wants her to marry before Alissa herself does. Alissa has no more reason not to marry Jerome on Juliette's account than she has on account of exaggerated shame at her mother's behavior. The récit is the story of her unfolding self-deception as she forces herself self-destructively through the narrow gate of an immature asceticism. The story, apparently guileless, is a highly sophisticated literary artifact scintillating with resonances, a strong candidate for the most brilliantly written short fiction to have appeared in France in the twentieth century.
—A. H. T. Levi