The novel tells the story of a man, Michel, who had always lived according to strict principles, moral values and society’s standards; until he became sick with tuberculosis and almost died. To recover from his disease, Michel, who happens to be on a honeymoon in Northern Africa, acquires a new appreciation for life as the sight of young and healthy Arab boys makes him want to fight for his own life and health. The road to recovery becomes a journey of self-discovery that leads Michel to free his spirit from all strict moral sense that used to dictate his behavior. He gets to know himself and finds that true happiness means shedding the weight of society’s standards, quit taking a straight course of action and living in the present. He learns that any attachment to the past, be it a good memory or a terrible one leads to unhappiness.
Gide highlights the fact that society despises those who get off the beaten track although it secretly envies their courage and freedom. But in order to fit in, some choose to wear social masks to hide their true self, not to be judged.
The immoralist also warns the readers on the danger of egoism in the quest of happiness and/or self-discovery, as it can run counter to its primary goal and lead to unhappiness. The author depicts the inner battle that occurs within a man who, on one hand wants to live life to the fullest and on his own terms, with no strings attached, on the other hand has to take care of his loved ones. Michel finds that loving, cherishing and taking care of his wife feels more like a burden to his newfound appetite for Life. He neglects her, she gets sick and dies of disease, abandonment and sadness. He ends up alone, remorseful and unhappy.