An extract from the research of Sophie, BA in French and Philosophy. Currently studying for her Masters which she hopes will be followed by a DPhil in French
André Gide is one of the most celebrated French authors of the twentieth-century, and I was taught some of his early works as part of a French Finals' paper at the University of Oxford in 2015-16 by Dr Andrew Counter. This essay was a close analysis of the final pages of his récit, La porte étroite (Straight is the Gate), which recounts the sorry relation between Jerôme and his cousins, Alissa and Juliette. I so happened to read the text in the same week I attended a lecture by the excellent Dr Killeen on the French theorist, Luce Irigaray. Most of my work concerns French theorists of the second half of the twentieth-century, so I am familiar with the postmodernist, post-structuralist linguistic paradigm that offers various conceptions of how we are controlled by and constrained within an unwieldy web of language and signification. However, Irigaray’s notion that women in particular are suppressed by language that is predominantly the creation and instrument of a male voice had never occurred to me, and I was shocked at my own short-sightedness to the fact that the conceptual apparatus with which I was working was somehow stacked against the female, casting it in terms of the natural, emotional and passive, in opposition to the technological, rational and active male.
I then encountered reformulations of these ideas in the work of Naomi Segal, who takes Gide to task for the male-female relations in his texts. In many of Gide’s works, a somewhat flaccid male narrator is surrounded and supported by an array of doting females who accord that narrator apparently undeserved love and attention, be it sexual, familial or pedagogical. InLa porte étroite, the narrative is largely delivered in the first person by Jerôme, his unhappy love affair with his cousin Alissa played out through protracted correspondence that charts her withdrawal from the relationship towards religious abstinence and piety, and ultimately her silence and death as her health and capacity to communicate dwindle and fade. What Segal’s critique of Gide’s work points out is that in these male-female relations, the male character systematically drains the female of her force, and deprives her of fortifying sources of self-representation.
The purpose of Alissa’s correspondence is to bolster Jerôme’s self-image by presenting this image back to him in reified form in the love and devotion of her letters, sacrificing her own energies and bequeathing them to him, to her eventual demise. In the final scene of the text, this draining of the female is played out again in the conversation between Jerôme and Alissa’s sister, Juliette, where the male’s total self-absorption and self-pity saps the life out of Juliette’s attempts to re-invigorate her cousin and shake him out of his apparent stupor. The textuality of the passage is dense with inter-text and beautifully composed, at times almost metrical, and confirms interesting structural triangulations between the characters. However, these structures are always to the detriment of the female, and I could not help but feel hugely frustrated at these representations that chart how the energy of the female characters dwindle and die in pointless efforts to sustain the male.