Where there should be happiness and love there is despair and death. Ironically the reason for it is because of a zealous devotion to God. This is a book about the sort of religious devotion that causes people to become martyrs and lose out on happiness because it is somehow sinful to enjoy life.
In a nutshell this is a love story about a boy – Jerome – and a girl – Alissa – who grow up to become a man and a woman. They are clear about their plans to marry from their teenage years but not far after reaching the point where an engagement would be announced in the lead-up to a marriage things start to go wrong.
The first sign that Alissa is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness comes when her sister falls in love with Jerome. Alissa steps back and is prepared to step aside for the sake of her sister’s joy. Once that fails she still seems determined to sacrifice her love with Jerome. He has to go away and further his studies and carry out his military service but she keeps him at bay. The weeks stretch into months and still Alissa keeps him at arms length.
Even after her sister has married and that reason for sacrificing Jerome has disappeared she continues to try and sabotage her love. Finally the extremes are reached with her dressing in a way that will make her appear to be a frump and she also makes the decision to dump the literature he has sent her to read quant religious texts instead.
Inevitably the end comes with her rejecting Jerome for once and for all and then dying of a broken heart after he fails to return as she secretly hoped. Her victory over her heart has been complete but it costs Alissa her life.
Diaries passed onto Jerome after her death reveal how Alissa had hoped that he would come back for her even after all she had done to dissuade him. He remains devoted to a memory and in a telling exchange with Alissa’s sister he tells how he will love her forever and she reveals, to the reader at least, that she has always loved Jerome.
The fact she still loves Jerome must have been known by her sister. The determination of Alissa to reject Jerome and all that he had to offer was a supreme effort that could only be supported and driven by a belief in God that sustained her effort.
For Jerome the irony is that he has been consistent all along with his love for Alissa but unbeknown to him it is the complexities of the heart that are happening all around him that seal his fate. He has made his choice but the fact he is also chosen is something beyond his control.
Sometimes Gide can be accused of going on a bit – Fruits of the Earth springs to mind – but he gets the balance just about right here. It is helped by the story and characterisation of Alissa and Jerome, which keeps it from becoming a tract on religious fervour.
Version read – Penguin paperback