In The Immoralist (1902), the healthy state of the bodies where Michel finds beauty has, among other episodes, autobiographical reminiscences. Gide suffered from tertiary syphilis and anaemia during his childhood, something to keep in mind when appreciating the important link between health and beauty in his novel. Michel’s weak and sickly physical state is aesthetically contrasted with the robust and healthy bodies of African boys, as well as with the exotic setting surrounding him. Michel describes his experience of seeing the young Bachir as follows: “When he laughed, he showed his pure white teeth. He licked the cut blithely; his tongue was pink like a cat’s. Ah, how well he looked. That is what I fell in love with –his health. This small body was in beautiful health” (The Immoralist 26).
Michel is aware of the physical presence of Tunisian boys, who awaken a desire for life and health in him; after the scene quoted above, Michel declares “I had started to love life” (The Immoralist 26), and only then does he firmly decide to improve his state of health. Beauty as represented by a healthy body means for Michel a redemption that is both physical and spiritual. Chapter III is mainly dedicated to Michel’s body, as a means of demonstrating how important physical recuperation is for the rest of his being. The body is an expression of Michel’s interiority, as can be seen throughout the novel, via the respective changes that his body and soul suffer. There is a complete evolution from a disharmony between Michel’s body and inner desires to a harmony between them. His physical appearance changes during the act of discovering himself. There are several references to Michel’s perception of his own identity, starting at the very beginning of the novel, such as “knowing myself so little” (16), “I didn’t know who I was” (24), “was this finally the morning when I was to be born?” (34) “I had a strange moment of self-revelation” (38), “did I know myself?” (43), “from now on, he was the one I intended to discover: the authentic being […] I myself –had tried to suppress” (43), until almost the middle of the novel when Michel quotes “a new self! A new self!” (44). It has been the presence of aesthetically pleasing bodies which has lead Michel to a rebirth.
While Michel is coming to a realisation about his new and authentic self, he experiments “a strange moment of self-revelation” (Gide 38). In the presence of another Arab boy Michel questions himself for the first time about his fascination with young boys:
‘Moktir, the only one of my wife’s favourites who didn’t annoy me (perhaps because he was good-looking), was alone with me in my room. Until then I had liked him only moderately, but his dark, brilliant eyes intrigued me. I developed an inexplicable curiosity about him, and began to watch his movements carefully’. (Gide 38)
From this point on, words related to the semantic field of the beautiful decrease in favour of terms more linked to that of sexuality, such as “good-looking” (38), “handsome” (61), “attracted” (67) or “passion” (115). In the scene quoted, Michel’s gaze is scrutinizing and consciously looking for satisfaction. It is clearly a “voyeuristic view”, as John Ellis points out: “the voyeuristic look is curious, inquiring, demanding to know” (47). Later on, Michel realises that Moktir was aware that he was looking at him. His colleague Ménalque tells Michel that Moktir “realized you were watching him in the mirror and he caught your eye in the reflection” (Gide The Immoralist 77). It is significant that Ménalque is one of the triggers for Michel’s becoming self-aware of his desire, since Ménalque can be interpreted as a parallel figure to that of Oscar Wilde in Gide’s own life. Indeed, the encounter between Gide and Wilde in North Africa was decisive for Gide’s decision to embrace homosexuality (Sheridan 76). Moktir responds to Michel’s gaze, and even if the novel gives no indication of his feelings at this moment, the fact that he is seen while stealing a pair scissors and does not change his behaviour suggests that he knows what kind of action is taking place. Moktir does not fear being accused by Michel, in fact, he exhibits his own body as he hides the scissors “inside his burnous” (Gide The Immoralist 77). In the whole novel there is no other pleasure for Michel than these moments of voyeurism; he finds no pleasure in his sexual relations with his wife. This parallels Gide’s own experience, for he considered women to be spiritual-love companions with whom sexual pleasure was difficult to enjoy (Sheridan 62). Therefore, the act of looking at male bodies becomes the greatest source for sexual pleasure. There is in Gide’s life an earlier testimony to such a pleasure. In his autobiography, Gide writes how “the sight of Idrac’s Mercury […] threw me into a stupor of admiration, out of which Marie had the greatest difficulty in arousing me” (If it Die… 50).
The second part of the novel shows the settling of Michel’s new self, and this fact implies a definite change in his own gaze. Michel’s enjoyment of the male body becomes less contemplative and tends subtly towards action. The presence of a gorgeous boy does not startle his sight as before, and he is already familiar with the pleasure that is linked to this kind of vision. Now, Michel seems to seek something more than mere contemplation. Such an experience is made possible by Charles, the son of one of Michel’s workers. Michel describes Charles as “a handsome fellow, so blooming with health, so lissom and well-made” (Gide The Immoralist 61). Unlike with the Tunisian boys, Michel will have a close relationship with Charles, who will be helpful for Michel’s business, and in turn this situation will allow them to spent time together in different activities. This activity breaks the contemplation and introduces action into Michel’s appreciation of the male body; in other words, the voyeuristic view becomes a “fetishistic process”, which Ellis defines as “the abolition of looking itself: bridging the gulf that separates viewer and object” (Visible Fictions 47).