Enter ye in at the strait gate, for wide is the gate that leadeth unto destruction, and many there be that go in thereat: But strait is the gate that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Luke 13:24
I was a teenage university student when I first read André Gide’s The Strait Gate, and it made a tremendous impression on me. I thought it was all about the life-denying power of religious obsession. Growing up in an intensely Catholic family myself I was all too aware of the fascination of self-sacrifice in the name of God. I still see that in it, but how much more I see these days.
First published in 1909 and a counterpart to the earlier The Immoralist, The Strait Gate is the story of a young woman caught up in a religious fervour that impels her to sacrifice everything in an attempt to reach “the summit of virtue”. Alissa is the polar opposite of the protagonist of The Immoralist, Michel, who gives himself over entirely to the fulfilment of his sensual desires and fantasies. In fact there is a strong current of revulsion for the flesh in Alissa, probably beginning when she realises, as a young teenager, that her mother, the charming, indolent Lucile, is having an affair. The narrator, Jerôme, is her cousin, two years younger, who adores her and has set his heart on marrying her when they’re older. He and the serious, graceful Alissa recognise that they’re soul-mates, and the book is the story of his attempt to win her and her struggles against the love she feels for him. I won’t go into details here; it’s a spellbinding page-turner and I don’t want to give too much away.
The image of the strait gate recurs many times in the book, most tellingly early on when Jerôme sees, through the partly-open door of her room, Alissa on her knees by her bed, weeping. She has just realised the truth of her mother’s behaviour.
Here I am before Alissa’s door. I wait an instant. Laughter and chatter comes up from the floor below; and perhaps they have covered the sound of my knock, for I hear no response. I push the door, which yields silently. The room is already so dark that I can’t at first see Alissa: she is on her knees at the foot of her bed, turning her back to the dying day. She turns round, without getting up, when I approach; she murmurs,
‘Oh Jerôme, why have you come back?’
I bend down to kiss her; her face is drenched with tears…
That instant decided my life; even today I can’t think of it without anguish. No doubt I understood only partially the reason for Alissa’s distress, but I felt intensely that this distress was much too strong for this palpitating little soul, for this frail body shaken by sobs. (27)
What I missed the first time I read it is that there are forces deeper than religion motivating Alissa. Hilary Mantel gets it exactly right when, in an article about woman saints and modern-day anorexia, she says,
It is possible that there is a certain personality structure which has always been problematical for women, and which is as difficult to live with today as it ever was – a type that is thoughtful, reserved, self-contained and judgmental, naturally more cerebral than hormonal. *
There could hardly be a better description of Alissa. Battered by the forces of religion, duty, and shame at her mother’s sexual looseness, a passionate reader of poetry and high-minded fiction, with an instinctive need to reach for what is beyond the ordinary and a dream of perfect love beyond the mundane couplings of man and woman, she is torn between her love for Jerôme and an instinct for self-sacrifice that she herself recognises is in part egotistical. And she knows too that what Jerôme loves is some image of her that he has constructed after his own needs (a friend comments how like Alissa is to Jerôme’s much-loved mother, who dies when he is in his mid-teens.)
Our letters were a huge mirage, she writes, and we were writing not to each other but to ourselves.
Gide is justly famous for his harmonious, lucid style, even as he recreates the hopelessly tangled psychological processes that direct our lives. The Strait Gate is an unfashionable book in its tone and preoccupations. Perhaps you need to be the Alissa type to want to enter into its world; but if it grabs you you’ll stay grabbed.
* You can read this fascinating article here: