Journey to the End of the Night is a modernist novel by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, first published in French in 1932 by the Parisian publisher Éditions Denoël et Steele. It is a semi-autobiographical work focused on the life and travels of the cynical anti-hero Ferdinand Bardamu, set over several decades of Bardamu’s life, beginning with the outbreak of the First World War.
Summary and Synopsis
When the novel opens, Ferdinand is a medical student in Paris. Despite his political leanings, the theater of a military parade moves him and he decides to enlist in the French army. At the front, Ferdinand takes over as a runner, and the seemingly useless brutality of the war quickly strips him of his momentary nationalism.
During one of his missions, he meets a fellow soldier and coward, Leon Robinson, with whom he plans a failed defection. Ferdinand is wounded (for which he receives a medal) and goes to Paris for medical treatment. There, he meets an American volunteer nurse named Lola with whom he has an affair. When Lola realizes that Ferdinand is trying to avoid returning to active duty, her passion for him diminishes and she abandons her adventure.
Lola’s loss precipitates Ferdinand’s mental breakdown and he is transferred to a number of psychiatric hospitals. Eventually he is declared in good health but not fit for duty, and ensures his release. Another romance begins with a dancer and violinist named Musyne. She breaks things up after a few months, and Ferdinand travels to West Africa.
It occupies a rubber trading post inside, which turns out to be a shack. There, he takes the place of a mysterious merchant who later realizes that he is his former comrade Robinson. Ferdinand falls ill with fever and begins to rave, causing the cabin to burn down. He leaves, still in the midst of delirium, with nothing on his person but canned stew and three hundred Robinson’s francs, to head for the coast. His money is stolen by other travelers, and he meets a Spanish priest on the coast, who arranges for him to serve as a rower on a ship bound for America.
Landing in New York City, Ferdinand is detained by immigration authorities, but he makes his way to work in the port, and is ultimately tasked with delivering a report to a city office, allowing him to escape. He manages to find Lola, who sends him with a hundred dollars.
Then he goes to Detroit and works on the Ford Motor Company assembly line. He falls in love with a prostitute named Molly, who offers to help him settle there. He also runs into Robinson once again, who is struggling with the English, unable to get along in the United States, and wants to return to France. Although she loves Molly, she wants freedom and decides to leave the United States.
Back in Paris, Ferdinand completes his medical studies and becomes a doctor. He establishes a practice in Rancy, a poor suburb of Paris, exposing him to poverty and to the dark and miserable side of humanity. He does not earn much money and mainly performs abortions. He becomes involved with the Henrouilles, a man and a woman harassed by the costs of caring for their relative, an elderly woman who lives in a shack behind her home.
Ferdinand is offered a bribe to certify that the old woman is crazy, but he rejects it. Instead, they turn to Robinson, who they pay to murder her. Robinson places a bomb near his hut, but fails in the attempt, blinding himself. The Henrouilles propose to get rid of Robinson and the old woman at the same time while preventing him from revealing his plot to the police. The two must flee to Toulouse and work side by side in an exhibition of mummies. The Henrouilles successfully bribe Ferdinand to persuade Robinson to follow his plan, and the strange duo is sent away.
Struggling with medical practice, Ferdinand moves to Montmartre and works for a time as an extra in a music room. It is then sent by an associate from Henrouilles to verify that Robinson is still in Toulouse. He discovers that Robinson is regaining his sight and that the old woman is proving fit for her job in the mummy display.
Robinson is engaged to a woman named Madelon, with whom Ferdinand has a brief affair. When the old woman dies by falling down the stairs, Robinson is clearly implicated, and Ferdinand runs away from Toulouse.
Back in Paris, Ferdinand finds work on the staff of a psychiatric hospital run by Dr. Baryton. Ferdinand teaches him English, and Dr. Baryton is so captivated by tales from England that he runs away on a journey, leaving Ferdinand to run the madhouse. Soon Robinson appears, penniless and on the run from Madelon, who threatens to turn him over to the authorities if he does not marry her.
Ferdinand gives him work while he hides, but Madelon catches up with him. At the suggestion of his favorite nurse, Sophie, Ferdinand organizes a carnival outing for the four of them, hoping to calm all tensions. They take a taxi to her house, during which Robinson continues to reject Madelon and she shoots him. Robinson dies, leaving Ferdinand to reflect on life’s problems and the lack of meaning in everything.
Genre: Biographical novel
Journey to the end of the night is a novel full of satire and with a very particular and sarcastic style. His plot completely influenced by the author’s personal experiences has his style in his language, making extensive use of ellipses and hyperbolics. His writing has the flow of natural speech patterns and uses the vernacular, at the same time employing more learned elements. This has greatly influenced French literature.
- Ferdinand Bardamu: a war-wounded, disappointed, cynical, and rogue neurotic. Successively a medical student, soldier, mental patient, pimp, flea expert, Ford worker, doctor, music-hall supernumerary, and madhouse manager.
- Léon Robinson: his friend, an unscrupulous cynic who appears, like a personal devil, everywhere Ferdinand goes.
- Madelon: an attractive young woman of easy morals. Engaged with Leon, she becomes madly jealous when he tries to get rid of her.
- Lola: An American Red Cross worker who becomes Ferdinand’s mistress in France and then allows him to live with her for a time after his arrival in New York.
- Musyne: a dancer and prostitute, another of Ferdinand’s lovers.
- Madame Hérote: a Parisian lingerie-glove-bookseller and prostitute.
- Doctor Bestombes: psychiatrist in a psychiatric hospital.
- Roger Puta: a jeweler for whom Ferdinand works before the war; during the war, he is the driver of a cabinet minister.
The journey describes the metaphysical wanderings of men condemned to the absurdity of life and human folly. Deeply misanthropic and nihilistic, the novel’s thesis can be summed up as follows: man has no place for comfort or life, since the travel metaphor is useless.
Celine analyzes all human illusions: the nation, technological progress, order, love, war, and others.
It has a conception of the subject based on subjectivity. Men are spectators of their own lives: Bardamu, engaged in war, involuntarily left Africa in a state of madness, involuntarily runs the psychiatric hospital … men are shaken by life, unable to take control. This vision of subjectivity has its origin in Cartesian, especially Malebranche and Leibniz.