Man’s Fate is a fictional story based on the 1927 Chinese revolution in Shanghai. The main characters, Ch’en, Kyo, May, Katov, and Old Gisors represent different facets of Malraux’s belief system and personality.
The story opens where Ch’en is in the room of a sleeping man who he’s about to assassinate. The assassination of the businessman can be seen as the destruction of the capitalism Malraux saw as the cause of the “oppressed and exploited Chinese” (Greenlee 59). Malraux came from a broken home and had great empathy for the working class. As Ch’en is holding the dagger, he focuses on his victim’s foot because he is about to destroy a living thing. Ch’en is conflicted “…torn by anguish: he was sure of himself, yet at the moment he could feel nothing but bewilderment […]” (3). We can see Malraux’s own conflict here. In 1923, Malraux made a trip to Cambodia where he and his wife, Clara, “…were arrested by the Surete […] and charged with archaeological theft […] a moral failure that Malraux now at last recognized in himself” (Lebovics)
Assassination and violence were a common occurrence in China during the revolutionary years. The peasants were abused by the wealthy citizens and landowners,
…it was from among their relatives and protgs that those who oppressed and lived off the peasantry were recruited: the bailiffs and stewards who not only collected the rents and debts due to their masters, but also took a substantial cut for their own benefit; the tax-gatherers in whose registers the landlords’ holdings were on an authorized ‘special list’, allowing them to pay taxes in inverse proportion to their wealth, or not at all. (Chesneaux 81-82).
Malraux wants his readers to understand the reasons behind the revolt. Time and again, Malraux draws vivid scenes of violence and deprivation. The meeting place to which Ch’en flees after the assassination is that of a poor European shopkeeper, Hemmelrich. “At last a squalid shop […]” (11).
Kyo is the main character in the story; he is determined to do everything in his power to lead the Shanghai revolt.
“Kyo was one of the organizers of the insurrection, the Central Committee had confidence in him.” (14). Kyo wanted to see fairness for the proletariats. Likewise, Malraux was involved in leftist politics. “Malraux jumped into leftist politics in the 1930s, landing close to […] the French Communists […] visits to the Soviet Union, […] and direct involvement in the Spanish Civil War.” (Lebovics).
The revolution is to take place very soon, the prelude of which is a general strike. This is when Kyo and the other revolutionaries will make their move and attack the authorities. “The city seems shaken by a violent storm, and the reader cannot help seeing in the sudden outbreak of this cataclysm the uprising of the Shanghai people who, like nature, are capable of fury” (Dye).
When Kyo arrives in Hankow he begins to realize the hopelessness of his belief that communism will save them. “Was it possible that Hankow, the city to which the Communists of the entire world were looking to save China, was on strike? […] If Hankow was not what everyone believed it was, all his people were already condemned to death. May too. And himself” (139). By describing Hankow in such a way, Malraux shocks the reader into seeing a vision of the revolution’s outcome – the same outcome of the many French uprisings which didn’t significantly change the fate of the French proletariat.
Malraux reveals his insight into the events of the Shanghai insurrection, “Were Chiang Kai-shek’s troops waiting everywhere? Victors the month before, the Communists had known their moves hour by hour; today they knew nothing, like those who had then been the vanquished” (284).
For Chiang Kai-shek and the leaders of the Kuomintang it was possible […] to dispense with the support of popular forces […] Indeed it became a necessity to dissociate from such allies, whose activities threatened the position of the privileged classes in town and countryside. The peasant upsurge, like that of the labour movement, objectively contributed to the political polarization and the eventual explosion on the revolutionary front which the Communists had been trying to prevent. At Shanghai on 12 April 1927 Chiang Kai-shek broke with the Communist Party and massacred thousands of militant workers(Chesneaux 99).
In Hankow, Kyo meets with Vologin, the Russian leader in charge of Shanghai, to seek his support. But Vologin tells Kyo that the comrades must give up their arms to Chiang Kai-shek, even if it means their death. “You prefer to wait until Chiang has had our people murdered?” (147). Kyo feels betrayed – the Shanghai revolt is a success and Moscow wants them to give up their arms! (Moscow believes the Communists need Chiang Kai-shek in order to keep the other Chinese warlords in check.)
The Communists “continued to treat Tchiang like a trustworthy revolutionary leader. […] they nevertheless left the militias and the whole Shangai labor force politically unprepared for a possible attack from Tchiang. They were taken by surprise when he attacked on the night of April 12.” (Chesneaux, Barbier and Bergre 174)
By developing Kyo’s character as a passionate leader who is concerned for the poor, Malraux reflects a part of his own childhood. Malraux’s writings… stand principally as testimony to his efforts to overcome the disadvantages of his childhood and establish a career in a profession normally reserved, in France, to the more comfortable bourgeoisie. So ashamed was Malraux of his origins that it took Clara Goldschmidt, his first wife, several months of marriage to learn of them …” (Greenlee 13).
The character May is Kyo’s wife and a German doctor. She’s independent and sexually liberated, strong, compassionate, and intelligent. “She was a doctor in one of the Chinese hospitals […] German, but born in Shanghai” (44). May tells Kyo about a sexual encounter she had, “I finally yielded to Langlen and went to bed with him.”(46) Although Malraux portrays May as sexually liberated, he doesn’t attribute the same sexual liberation to his female Chinese characters. “[…] while sexual liberation is inherent in Western feminism, most Chinese feminists in the 1920s still valued virginity and chastity.” (Li)
Malraux’s confidence in Communism gives him a more liberalized perspective of women. One of the tenets of Communism is feminism. “[…] gender issues played an important role in the political culture of the early phase of the Chinese Communist Party […] during the early 1920s.” (Levine).
As a matter of fact, Malraux’s admiration for a strong and intelligent woman is evidenced by his courtship with his wife Clara. “Malraux courted her successfully by, among other little sweet things, telling her that she was the most brilliant person – after Max Jacob – he had ever met.” (Lebovics).
Although Malraux understands the value of feminism, he also recognizes that Chinese women were treated no better than chattel. Arranged marriages were a common practice. “[…] the parents intervened directly in their children’s marriage; they could betroth them at a very early age to someone they would see for the first time on the day of their wedding” (Langlois 105). After May returns from work at the Chinese hospital, she tells Kyo “Always the same story you know. I’ve just left a kid of eighteen who tried to commit suicide with a razor blade in her wedding palanquin. She was being forced to marry a respectable brute” (44).
Malraux’s whole political indoctrination comes from being raised in France. The attitude of proletariat versus bourgeoisie is a long standing conflict within the French culture. “The decade or so after 1902 has become known as the ‘heroic age of syndicalism.’ Revolutionary syndicalists, in their emphasis on an immediate, face-to-face struggle between workers and capitalists, continued the emphasis on daily confrontations, […]” (Haine 231).
Malraux depicts Old Gisors as an intellectual “[…] he found his room filled with white flowers from the students […]” (66), artist “His exquisitely pure sense of Chinese art, of those bluish paintings on which his lamp cast only a dim light […]” (67), and an opium addict “He got up, opened the drawer of the low table where he kept his opium tray […]” (67). Malraux himself was an artist and a lover of art, he was also considered an intellectual. In his later years, De Gaulle appointed him France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs.
Malraux’s depiction of Gisors as an opium addict was a popular literary theme of the time and he has a clear understanding of how opium affects the user:
At the time opium was in fashion […] It is above all a literary theme, linked both to decadence and to all that we connect with exoticism. To this drug is attributed all the power of heightening perception and sharpening the mind. It is the opium of splendid daydreams, of heightened knowledge of the world, of sharpened sensations, the opium which consoles and puts right, the adventurer’s companion. However, it is also the opium of the poor, the terrible misery of destitution and dependence, a poison of degeneration and suicide. It thus combines both the magic of sophistication and the intoxication of abandonment.” (Copin).
Malraux describes Gisors getting ready to take his daily measure of opium, no more than five pellets a day. “His hands, which were preparing a new pellet, were trembling. Even his love for Kyo did not free him from his total solitude. But if he could not escape from himself into another being, he knew how to find relief: there was opium” (68). In attributing opium addiction to Gisors, Malraux is again able to symbolically show the reader the abuses of the Chinese people, the sense of hopelessness of their condition.
Katov is a Russian communist and one of the organizers of the insurrection. He is the quintessential existentialist. In the end, Katov gives the poison he saved for himself to the other captured comrades, allowing them to avoid the unbearable torture and death by fire that he will eventually suffer. He is a hero who demonstrates Malraux’s:
…conviction that the best in man is inviolable […] man’s capacity to maintain his dignity, in the teeth of life’s degradations, humiliations and disfranchisements, so that man’s ever threatened and always dubious existence derives its ultimate meaning from his ability to maintain his dignity for its own sake” (Langlois 161).