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Man's Fate  
Early Eng. trans. edition cover
Author André Malraux
Original title La Condition Humaine
Translator Haakon Chevalier
Country France
Language French
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher H. Smith and R. Haas
Publication date 1933 (Eng. trans. 1934)
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 360 pp (Eng. trans first edition, hardback)

Man's Fate (French: La condition humaine) is a 1933 novel written by André Malraux about the failed communist revolution that occurred in Shanghai in 1927, and the existential quandaries facing a diverse group of people associated with the revolution.


Plot summary

The novel occurs during a 21 day period mostly in Shanghai, China, and concerns mainly the socialist insurrectionists and people involved. The four protagonists are Ch’en Ta Erh (whose name is spelled Tchen in the French version of the book), Kyo Gisors, the Soviet emissary Katow, and Baron De Clappique. Their individual plights are intertwined throughout the book.

Chen Ta Erh is sent to assassinate an authority, succeeds, and is later killed in a failed suicide bombing attempt on Chiang Kaishek. After the assassination he becomes governed by fatality and desires simply to kill, and thereby fulfill his duty as a terrorist, a duty which controls his life. This is largely the result of being so close to death since assassinating a man. He is so haunted by death and his powerlessness over inevitability that he wishes to die, simply to end his torment.

Kyo Gisors is the lcommander of the revolt and believes that every person should choose his own meaning, and not be governed by any external forces. He spends most of the story trying to keep power in the hands of the workers rather than the Kuomintang (KMT) army, and resolving a conflict between himself and his wife, May. He is eventually captured and, in a final act of self-determination, chooses to take his own life with cyanide.

Katow had faced execution once before, during the Russian Civil War, and was saved at the last moment - which gives him a feeling of psychological immunity. After witnessing Kyo's death, he watches with a kind of calm detachment as his fellow revolutionaries are taken out one by one, to be thrown alive into the chamber of a steam locomotive waiting outside - intending, when his own turn comes, to use his own cyanide capsule. But hearing two young Chinese activists talk with trembling fear of being burned alive, he gives them the cyanide (there is only enough for two), himself being left to face the more fearsome death - and so he dies in an act of self-sacrifice and solidarity with weaker comrades.

Baron De Clappique is a French merchant, smuggler, and obsessive gambler. He helps Kyo get a shipment of guns ended, and is later told if he doesn’t leave the city in 48 hours he will be killed. On the way to warn Kyo he gets involved with gambling and cannot stop. He considers gambling “suicide without dying”. Clappique is very good humored and cheerful all the time but is suffering inwardly. He later escapes the city dressed as a sailor.


Characters in "Man's Fate"

  • Chen Ta Erh – the assassin. Protagonist.
  • Kyo Gisors – the leader of the revolt. Protagonist.
  • Baron De Clappique – a French merchant, smuggler, and obsessive gambler. Protagonist.
  • Old Gisors – Kyo's father, one-time Professor of Sociology at the University of Peking, and an opium addict, acts as a guide for Kyo and Ch’en
  • May Gisors – Kyo's wife and a German doctor, born in Shanghai
  • Katow – A Russian, one of the organizers of the insurrection, he is burned alive for treason.
  • Hemmelrich – A Belgian phonograph-dealer.
  • Yu Hsuan – His partner.
  • Kama – A Japanese painter, Old Gisors' brother-in-law.
  • Ferral – President of the French Chamber of Commerce and head of the France-Asiatic Consortium. He struggles with his relationship with Valerie because he only wishes to possess her as an object.
  • Valerie – Ferral's girlfriend.
  • Konig – Chief of Chiang Kaishek's Police.
  • Suan – Young Chinese terrorist who helped Ch’en, later arrested in the same attack in which Ch'en was killed.
  • Pei – Also helped Ch’en.

Major themes

The most noticeable theme is the existential one of choosing one's own meaning. This was exemplified by Kyo, and its alternative was shown in the fatality of Ch'en. Katov for example chooses to give his cyanide pill to two other prisoners and thus accepts being burned alive himself, having saved those two men from suffering.

Another point presented in the book addresses how people interact with one another. Ferral and Old Gisors both believe they can understand and possess in a person only what they change. Ferral is shown this through his relationship with Valerie, and Old Gisors through his with Ch'en.

Awards and nominations

This book won the Prix Goncourt French literature award in 1933.

Film Adaptations

Three attempts have been made to adapt Man's Fate as a motion picture. The first involved Fred Zinnemann, who spent three years preparing his film version of Man's Fate before the producing studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, cancelled the production one week before filming was to begin in November 1969. [1] The Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci proposed adapting the film in the 1980s to the Chinese government; they preferred his alternative proposal, The Last Emperor, a 1987 biopic based on the life of the Chinese Emperor Puyi. During 2001, U.S. filmmaker Michael Cimino announced he would create a film version of Man's Fate. [2] To date, the proposed film has not been made.

See also



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