Wilful Blindness: The Marriage of André and Madeleine Gide

There must have been quite a bonfire. A thick plume of smoke must have risen into the still air of a sunny summer day in 1918, on the family estate in Normandy that Madeleine had inherited and where she lived for the most part without the company of her footloose husband. This last time when Gide had left her, he had gone too far, writing a dreadful note in which he said he was “rotting away,” all his “vitality ebbing away… I was dying there and I wanted to live… I had to live and that meant escaping from there, travelling, meeting new people, loving people, creating!” And so while Gide was away, loving and living and travelling, Madeleine had taken the key to the desk in which the letters he had written her were carefully stored. She had taken those letters out, read them for one last time, and then consigned them to the flames. Did she weep? Was she distraught? Or did she carry out her destruction with nothing but grim determination on her face? It must have taken time and persistence, that bonfire, because the cremation of thirty-five years’ worth of letters would be no small task.

André Gide, 1893
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

She knew exactly how to hurt him.

Unlike other wronged wives, Madeleine Gide said nothing to her husband when he came home. Gide had returned to Cuverville after three glorious months in England, unaware of the consequences of his trip, perhaps a little disingenuous in his belief that life could be picked up just as it was before. Madeleine had replied with compassion to that last, hurtful letter he’d written, though she admitted that she was worried about “the way of life that you have taken up, and which will lead to the perdition of others, as well as yourself… I feel sorry for you as much as I love you. A terrible temptation has been put before you, armed with every attraction. Resist.” And he had not resisted, he had gone ahead and done exactly what he pleased. But still, it was not until two months after his return from England that he found out what the cost of that decision had been. He was writing his memoirs, wanted to check a date, and asked Madeleine for the key to the desk. Madeleine went pale and her lips trembled. She told him that the drawer was now empty, for the letters no longer existed.

Afterwards, Gide told his friend, Roger Martin du Gard, that the moment of revelation had left him feeling as if he were dying. The letters dated back to his early youth, when he had first fallen in love with Madeleine and she became his muse. “Those letters were the treasure of my life,” he said, “the best of me: certainly my best work…Suddenly there was nothing. I had been stripped of everything! Ah, I can imagine what a father might feel on arriving home and being told by his wife: ‘Our child is dead. I have killed him.’” Pressing Madeleine for an explanation, she told him “If I were a Catholic, I’d enter a convent… I was suffering too much… I had to do something.” Madeleine’s pain was acute; it was not that Gide had never left her alone before, and she knew, in some part of her, exactly what kind of a man he was and what kind of marriage they shared. What she resented, and what she could not forgive, was that on this occasion he had forced her to face facts. It was not that the most significant lover of his life was thirty years his junior; what distressed her was the fact that he was a man.

André Gide is no longer a well-known writer, but when he died in 1951 he was at the height of his fame and considered one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, and had his books banned by the Vatican. Recognition was slow to come during his lifetime, and for the most part, Gide did little to court it. He was of the opinion that the artist held a sacred trust in his hands to speak the truth, which would in all likelihood be controversial and troubling. The natural role of the writer was as a scapegoat, not a hero. In one of his early works, he wrote “The artist, and the scientist, must not prefer himself to the Truth that he wishes to express: that is the whole of his morality… All things must be manifested, even the most pernicious.” For Gide, sincerity was the great goal of his work.

However, Gide’s marriage was the place where the great man of sincerity was forced to live a lie. It was the place where he was most deceitful and unkind, abandoning the introverted, stoical Madeleine for more reckless kinds of sexual fun. But it was also where he would outwardly declare he had left the best of himself, and it was governed by an unusual but powerful kind of love for his wife. In his marriage, his split and conflicted nature was put under greatest pressure, for Gide was the kind of person who was of two minds about most things; “I’m just a little boy amusing himself — coupled with a Protestant pastor who bores him,” he said of himself. This was Gide’s issue; things were never black or white with him.

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