The Return of the Prodigal Son

André Gide

I have painted here, for my own delectation, as they used to do in the old triptychs, the parable told us by our Lord Jesus Christ. Leaving scattered and confused, as it were, the twofold inspiration which has moved me, I have not tried to show the victory of any god over me — nor my victory over any god. Perhaps, however, if the reader should seek some expression of piety from me, he would not look in vain for it in my picture, where like the donor of a triptych, I kneel in one corner — a companion-figure to the Prodigal Son, my face, like his, smiling and at the same time wet with tears.

The Prodigal

When the Prodigal, after his long absence, has grown tired of his waywardness and has almost fallen out of love with himself, he dreams, in the very depths of his misery, of his father’s face; of the room that is not so very small, where every night his mother used to lean over his bed; of the garden refreshed by a running brook — yet closed in, so that he always yearned to escape; and he dreams of that thrifty elder brother, whom he never loved, who is keeping back the portion of his substance that in his prodigality he has been unable to squander. He confesses to himself that he has not found happiness, and cannot even feel any longer the mad rupture which he sought instead of happiness. Perhaps, he thinks, if my father, who was at first so angry with me, has believed me dead, he would, in spite of my sin, rejoice to see me returning to him in great humility, my head bowed and covered with ashes, kneeling before him and saying: “Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and against you.” What should I do, if he should raise me up and say to me, “Come into the house, my son!” And already filled with reverent love, the Prodigal sets out on his journey.

When, through an interval of the hills, he finally sees the smoke rising from the roof of the house, it is dusk; but he waits until the gathering darkness shrouds his wretchedness. He hears in the distance his father’s voice; his knees shake; he falls down and hides his face in his hands, ashamed of his shame, for he knows that he is, nevertheless, the true son of his father. He is hungry; he has nothing left in his tattered cloak but a handful of sweet acorns — which have been his food as well as the food of the swine he has been tending. He sees supper being prepared. He can just make out his mother coming down the steps before the house. — He can contain himself no longer; so he runs down the hill and into the courtyard, his dog, that does not recognize him, barking at him. He tries to speak to the servants, but they draw back suspiciously, and hasten to warn their master, who at once comes out.

He was undoubtedly expecting the Prodigal Son, for he recognizes him immediately. He holds out his arms; then the young man kneels before him, covering his brow with one arm and raising his right hand to entreat forgiveness.

“Father, father,” he cries, “I have sinned grievously against Heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; but at least let me live, even as the humblest of your hired servants; in some corner of our house — let me live — ”

The father lifts him up and embraces him. “My son, blessed be the day of your return” — and his joy overflows his heart in tears. Kissing his son’s brow, he raises his head and turns to the servants: “Bring the best robe; put shoes on his feet and a precious ring on his finger; choose the fattest calf in our stables; kill it; make ready a joyous feast, for the son whom I thought dead lives.”

And as the news is already spreading, he hurries on; he does not want to let anyone else say: “Mother, the son we have been mourning for has come back to us.”

The joy of all, rising like a chant, fills the elder brother with anxiety. If he consents to sit at the common table, it is because the father, by his urgent plea, has constrained him. Alone among all the guests — for even the least of the servants has been invited to the feast — he sits with a frown on his face. Why give more honor to a repentant sinner than to him who has never sinned? He puts order above love. If he consents to appear at the feast it is because, making allowances for his brother, he can indulge him in his joy for one evening; it is also because his mother and father have promised to reprove the Prodigal Son on the morrow, and he himself is preparing to admonish him severely.

The smoke of the torches mounts to heaven. The feast is done; the tables are cleared. Now it is night, and not a breath stirs as the tired household, one soul after another, goes to rest. But in the room next to the Prodigal Son, there is a boy, his younger brother, who all through the night, even to the coming of dawn, tries in vain to sleep.

Father, father, in spite of everything, the wild taste of the sweet acorns is still in my mouth. Nothing can ever take that taste away.

The Reproof of the Father

“My son, why did you leave me?”

“Did I really leave you? Father, are you not everywhere? I have never ceased to love you.”

“Let us not quibble. I had a house to keep you in. It was built for you. Generations labored to build it so that your spirit might find shelter, might live in luxury worthy of it with comfort and employment. You were the son, the heir — why did you run away from it?”

“Because the house shut me in. The house is not you, father.”

“I was the one who built it, and for you.”

“Those are not your words but my brother’s. You made all the earth, and the house, and all that is not the house. The house was built by others, not you; in your name, I know, but by others.”

“Man needs a roof under which to lay his head. Do you in your pride think that you can sleep in the open? Were you happy far away from me?”

“I did not feel far away from you.”

“What was it, then, that made you come back? Tell me.”

“I don’t know. Idleness perhaps.”

“Idleness, son! Then it was not love?”

“Father, I have told you I never loved you more than when I was in the desert. But I was worn out every morning trying to find the means of subsistence. At home, at least, there is plenty to eat.”

“Yes, the servants take care of that. So it was hunger that called you back?”

“Perhaps it was cowardice, too, sickness. — In the end, that hazardous existence weakened me, for I was living on wild fruits, locusts, and honey. Less and less was I able to endure the discomfort that in the beginning fanned my enthusiasm. At night when I was cold, I dreamed of my bed in my father’s house, so nicely tucked in. Famished, I dreamed that in my father’s house there was always abundance of food, and to spare, for my hunger. I weakened; I no longer felt brave enough, strong enough — and yet — ”

“So the fatted calf yesterday seemed good to you?”

The Prodigal Son, sobbing, throws himself down.

“Father, father, in spite of everything, the wild taste of the sweet acorns is still in my mouth. Nothing can ever take that taste away.”

“Poor child,” the father begins again, raising him up, “perhaps I have spoken too harshly to you. Your brother asked me to; his word is law here. It was he who bade me say to you ‘Out of the house, there is no hope for you.’ But listen, it was I who made you; what is in you I know. I know what drove you away on your wanderings. I was waiting for you at the end. If you had called me, I would have been there.”

“Then I could have found you without coming back, father?”

“If you had begun to grow weak, you did well to come back. Go now. Return to the room I have made ready for you. Enough for to-day. Rest. To-morrow you can talk with your brother.”

“What can you seek elsewhere that you do not find in abundance here? Nay, it is only here that you can find what is yours.”

The Reproof of the Elder Brother

At first, the Prodigal Son tries to carry it off with a high hand. “My big brother,” he begins, “we resemble each other very little. We are not alike, brother.”

“That is your fault,” the elder brother answers.

“Why my fault?”

“Because I do everything in order. Everything that may be distinguished from order is the fruit or the seed of pride.”

“Is there nothing, then, to distinguish me but my faults?”

“Call virtue only what brings you back to order, and, as for all the rest, subdue it.”

“That would mean mutilation — it is this that I dread. The very thing you would suppress in me comes from the father.”

“I did not say suppress it — subdue it.”

“I understand you perfectly. All the same, that is how I have subdued my virtues.”

“And that is why I now find them in you again. You should exalt them. Understand me well: it is not a lowering of yourself but rather an exaltation that I am proposing, whereby the most conflicting and insubordinate elements of your flesh and spirit must be made to move together in harmony, whereby the worst in you must sustain the best, and the best must yield — ”

“It was, also, an exaltation that I was seeking, and that I found in the desert — perhaps not very different from what you are thinking of.”

“To say the truth, what I should like to do is to impose it upon you.”

“Our father did not speak so harshly.”

“I know what father said to you. It was vague. He no longer explains himself clearly; so one can make him say whatever one wishes. But I understand his thoughts. I alone can interpret them to the servants, and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.”

“I used to understand him very easily without your help.”

“So it seemed to you, but you understood him wrongly. There is not more than one way of understanding father, there is not more than one way of listening to him, not more than one way of loving him, if we are to be united in that love.”

“In his own house.”

“That love leads you back to it; you see that, don’t you, since you have returned.”

“I know, I know, I returned; I admit it.”

“What can you seek elsewhere that you do not find in abundance here? Nay, it is only here that you can find what is yours.”

“I know that you have kept riches for me.”

“All of your possessions that you have not squandered — that is to say, the part that we hold in common — the estate.”

“Do I no longer own anything in my own right?”

“Yes, the personal part of our gift that our father may perhaps consent to allow you.”

“That is what I want to keep. I agree that I am to receive nothing else.”

“My proud brother, you are not going to be consulted. Between ourselves, that part is uncertain: I rather advise you to renounce it. It was your personal part of the gift that was your ruin, that you squandered as soon as you received it.”

“The rest I could not take with me.”

“And you will find it just as you left it. That is enough for to-day. Enter into the peace of the house.”

“That will be good, for I am tired.”

“Blessed be your fatigue, then. Go to sleep now. To-morrow your mother will speak to you.”

What disturbs me about him is the very thing that I did not at first let disturb me enough about you.

The Mother

Prodigal Son, though your mind still rebels against your brother’s words, speak out from your heart. How sweet you find it, as your mother sits here, to lie at her knees with your head buried in her lap, and to feel her caressing hand bend your stubborn neck! —

“Why did you leave me so long?”

Your tears are your only answer. — “Why do you weep now, my son? You have come back to me. While I was waiting for you, I wept my eyes dry.”

“Were you still waiting for me?”

“I never ceased hoping. Every night before I fell asleep, I thought, ‘If he returns to-night, will he remember how to open the door?’ and I was a long time going to sleep. Every morning before I was quite awake, I thought, ‘Will he come back to-day?’ Then I would pray. I prayed so hard that you were bound to come back.”

“Your prayers made me return.”

“What are you going to do now?”

“I told you before; try to be like my elder brother; manage our estate, like him, take a wife.”

“That means that you have someone in mind?”

“Oh, it does not matter who she may be, so long as you choose her. Do for me as you did for my brother.”

“I should like to choose her according to your heart’s desire.”

“What does it matter if my heart had chosen? I yield up the pride that took me far away from you. Guide my choice. I submit, I tell you. I will see that my children also submit, and thus my attempt to escape will no longer seem so futile to me.”

“Listen; there is a child you might take care of even now.”

“What do you mean? Who is it?”

“Your younger brother, who was barely ten years old when you went away, whom you hardly recognized, and yet — ”

“Go on, mother, tell me what troubles you.”

“He is a boy in whom you should have been able to recognize yourself, for he is now just like you as you were when you left.”

“Like me?”

“Like what you were, I say, not, alas, like what you have become.”

“But he will become like that.”

“We must make him. Talk to him. I am sure he will listen to you, the Prodigal. Make him realize what disappointment you met on the way; spare him — ”

“But what alarms you so about my brother? Perhaps it is just that we look alike — ”

“No, no. The resemblance between you is deeper. What disturbs me about him is the very thing that I did not at first let disturb me enough about you. He reads too much, and does not always choose good books.”

“Is that all?”

“Often he climbs to the highest spot in the garden — you know, up on the walls — from which you can see the whole countryside.”

“I remember. Is that all?”

“He is less with us than off on the farm.”

“What does he do there?”

“Nothing bad. But it is not the farmer he seeks out; it is the ne’er-do-wells farthest away, those that are not from this part of the country. There is one especially who comes from a long distance, who tells him all sorts of stories.”

“The swineherd.”

“Yes, you know him? To listen to him, your brother follows him every evening into the pigsty. He does not come home until dinner, and then it is with no appetite and with vile-smelling clothes. Remonstrating with him makes no difference. He becomes rigid under restraint. Some mornings at dawn, before any of us are up, he runs to go with the swineherd as far as the gate when he drives his herd out to pasture.”

“Does he know he ought not to go?”

“You knew it, too. Some day he will slip away from me, I am sure. Some day he will leave.”

“No, I will speak to him, mother. Don’t worry.”

“To you I know he will listen. Did you see how he looked at you that first evening? What glamour your rags had for him — and then the purple robe which your father put on you! I was afraid that in his mind he confused one with the other; that it might have been the rags that attracted him first. But now that fear seems foolish to me, for if you, my child, could have foreseen so much misery, you would not have left us, would you?”

“I do not understand now how I could leave you — you, my mother.”

“Well, then, tell him all that.”

“Yes, I will tell him to-morrow night. Kiss me now on my brow just as you used to when I was a little child and you watched me fall asleep. I am sleepy now.”

“Go to sleep. I am going to pray for you all.”

If you had only said one loving word to me — just one word!

Dialogue With The Younger Brother

Next to the Prodigal’s there is a room, not so very small, a room with bare walls. The Prodigal, lamp in hand, comes close to the bed where his younger brother lies, his face turned to the wall. He begins in a low voice, so as not to disturb the boy should he be asleep.

“I want to speak to you, brother.”

“What prevents you?”

“I thought you might be asleep.”

“One doesn’t have to sleep in order to dream.”

“You were dreaming? Of what?”

“What is that to you? If I myself do not understand my dreams, I don’t suppose you can explain them to me.”

“Are they then so subtle? If you will tell them to me, I will try.”

“Can you choose your own dreams? Mine are what they want to be; they are freer than I. What did you come here for? Why do you disturb my sleep?”

“But you are not asleep, and I have come to speak to you quietly.”

“What have you to say to me?”

“Nothing, if you take that tone.”

“Then goodbye.”

The Prodigal Son moves towards the door, but puts the lamp down on the floor, where it lights the room only feebly, then going back he sits down on the edge of the bed in the uncertain shadow and, for a long time, strokes the boy’s brow, which is turned away from him.

“You answer me more rudely than I ever did our brother, although I too was against him.”

The restive boy raises himself up abruptly.

“Tell me, did our brother send you to me?”

“No, child, it was not he but your mother.”

“Then you would not have come of your own accord?”

“But I come as a friend.”

Half sitting up in his bed, the boy stares at the Prodigal.

“How can one of my own people be my friend?”

“You are mistaken about our brother.”

“Don’t speak to me of him. I hate him — I am utterly out of patience with him. It is because of. him that I answered you so rudely.”

“How is that?”

“You would not understand.”

“Anyhow, tell me.”

The Prodigal draws his brother into his arms and the boy drops his restraint.

“The evening you returned I could not sleep. All through the night I kept musing — I had another brother and I did not know him. It was this that made my heart beat so loud when I saw you coming in the courtyard covered with glory.”

“Oh, but then I was covered with rags.”

“Yes, I saw you, but even so you were glorious, and I saw what our father did: he put a ring on your finger — our brother has no such ring. I did not like to ask anyone about you. I only knew that you came from very far away, and I watched your expression at table — ”

“Were you at the feast?”

“Oh, I know very well that you did not see me. All through the meal you were looking far away without seeing anything; and the second evening you talked with father. That was all right, but the third — ”

“Go on.”

“If you had only said one loving word to me — just one word!”

“You were counting on me, then?”

“So much! Do you think I would have hated our brother so bitterly if you had not talked with him such a long time that evening? What did you have to say to each other? You know very well that if you are like me you can have nothing in common with him.”

“I had wronged him gravely.”

“Was that possible?”

“At least, wronged father and mother. You know that I ran away from home?”

“Yes, I know. A long time ago, wasn’t it?”

“When I was just about your age.”

“Oh, is that what you call doing wrong?”

“Yes, that was my offense, my sin.”

“When you went away did you realize that you were doing wrong?”

“No, I felt as if something inside me were compelling me to go.”

“What has happened since to change the thing that was the truth to you then into error?”

“I have suffered.”

“And that is what makes you say, ‘I did wrong’?”

“No, not exactly: it has made me think.”

“Before that, then, you didn’t think?”

“Yes, but my weak reason let itself be imposed upon by my desires.”

“As later by your sufferings. So that to-day you return — beaten.”

“No, not beaten exactly — resigned.”

“At any rate, you have given up being what you wanted to be.”

“What my pride persuaded me to be.”

I shall leave before the night ends. This very night, as soon as the sky grows pale.

The boy remained silent a moment, then, bursting into sobs, cried:

“My brother, I am now as you were when you went away. Tell me, did you meet on the way with nothing but disillusionment? All those far-off things of which I have had glimpses — which are so different from things here — are they only a mirage? All this new life that I feel in me, is it only madness? Tell me, what did you find on your way that disheartened you so? Oh, what made you come back?”

“The freedom I was seeking, I lost; I was a captive, I had to serve.”

“I am a captive here.”

“Yes, but serving evil masters is another thing; here you serve your parents.”

“If one must serve, has not one at least the freedom to choose one’s servitude?”

“I had hoped so. As far as my feet would carry me I kept following after my desire, like Saul after his asses; but a kingdom was waiting for him, while it was misery that I found — and still — ”

“Did you not take the wrong road?”

“I went straight ahead.”

“Are you sure of that? But there must be still other kingdoms, and lands without a king, to discover.”

“Who told you so?”

“I know it; I feel it. It seems to me that already I rule there.”

“Proud boy!”

“Oh, that is what our brother said to you. Why do you repeat it to me now? Had you only kept that pride, you would not have come back.”

“Then I never should have known you.”

“Yes, out there I should have joined you. You would have known I was your brother. Indeed it seems to me it is to find you that I am going away.”

“That you are going away?”

“Haven’t you understood? Are you yourself not encouraging me to go?”

“I should like to spare you the return — by sparing you the start.”

“No, no, don’t say that! That is not what you mean. Did you not, also, go away as a conqueror?”

“Yes, and that was just what made servitude seem so hard.”

“Then why did you submit? Did you tire so soon?”

“No, not till towards the end, but I began to doubt.”

“What do you mean?”

“To doubt about everything, about myself. I wanted to stop, to settle down somewhere. The comfort which the master promised me tempted me. Yes, I realize it now; I have failed.”

The Prodigal bows his head, shielding his eyes with his hands.

“But how was it at first?”

“I travelled for a long time across the great unconquered earth.”

“The desert?”

“It was not always the desert.”

“What were you looking for?”

“I no longer know myself.”

“Get up. Look on the table at my bedside — there near that torn book.”

“I see an opened pomegranate.”

“The swineherd brought it to me the other night after he had been away for three days.”

“Yes, it is a wild pomegranate.”

“I know. It is almost unbearably bitter; yet I feel that if I were thirsty enough, I would bite into it.”

“Then I may tell you now. It was a thirst like that that I was seeking in the desert.”

“A thirst that only this fruit without sweetness can quench?”

“Oh, but it makes one love that thirst.”

“Do you know where to gather it?”

“In a little neglected orchard you reach before nightfall. No wall now separates it from the desert. A brook flows through it. Some half-ripe fruit hangs from the branches.”

“What fruit?”

“Like that in our garden, only wild. — It had been very hot all that day.”

“Listen, do you know why I was waiting for you this evening? I shall leave before the night ends. This very night, as soon as the sky grows pale. I have girded my loins. To-night I have kept on my sandals.”

“What, are you going to do all that I could not do?”

“You have opened the way for me, and the thought of you will sustain me.”

“I can only admire you, but you must forget me. What are you taking with you?”

“You know very well that I, the youngest brother, have no part in the heritage. I leave empty-handed.”

“It is better so.”

“What are you looking at out of the window?”

“The garden where our forefathers lie buried.”

“My brother!” — the boy, who has risen from the bed, gently puts his arm around the neck of the Prodigal Son, and his embrace becomes as loving as his voice. “Come with me!”

“Leave me, leave me. I stay to comfort our mother. Without me you will be braver. Now it is time to start. The sky is growing pale. Don’t make any noise. — Kiss me, little brother. You take all my hopes with you. Be strong; forget us; forget me. And may you never come back. Go down the stairs softly. I’ll bring the lamp for you.”

“Let me keep hold of your hand as far as the door.”

“Mind the steps outside.”

André Gide was a French writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His works include La Symphonie Pastorale and L'Immoraliste.
Originally published:
June 1, 1929


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