The son of a carpenter, Julian Sorel is inspired by the writings of Napoleon to conquer the heights of society. His initial plan to work his way up through the church is, however, thwarted when he is forced to accept employment as a tutor--and this rash social entrepreneur certainly has not considered the dangers of falling in love. Stendhal's novel is an amusing and piquant study of hypocrisy and free will in post-Napoleonic France.
The novel reflects Romanticism at its heart, but it is firmly — and at the time daringly —grounded in the Realism of the years leading up to the Revolution of 1830 in France. Life there since the 1789 Revolution had been unstable economically, socially and politically and fraught with concerns, especially among the nobility, that the tables could once more turn against them at any moment. Anxiety among the aristocracy is reflected in their constant reference in this novel to "the Emigration," which refers to the mass exodus of the upper class from France beginning in 1789, but is also by extension an oblique reference to the horrors of ten thousand of their kind having been guillotined in 1793.
Self-censorship was the order of the day even in the salon as political correctness had almost stifled discourse. Consequently, a new level of boredom had set in among the nobility and the table was laid for exactly the kinds of events that unfold in The Red and the Black. Understanding the historical milieu in which the novel takes place is essential to fully appreciating the plot elements and the behavior of some if not all of its characters. So much more needs to be said about this, but I will leave it here and say that the reader must discover for him or herself how much the novel reveals about these rather tumultuous years.
The protagonist of the novel is Julien Sorel a very young man of the lower classes whose mother is dead and whose brutish father and older brothers have consistently abused him. The father is clever enough to have sent him for tutoring, but then he resents his son's interest in books in the face of his own illiteracy.
Somewhere in his tutoring Julian discovers his own eidetic memory and perhaps the kindly abbé Chélan encouraged his memorizing the entire New Testament — in Latin! His Latin skills lead to employment as a live-in tutor in the household of the town mayor Monsieur de Rênal. He is more than a servant in that he is allowed to take meals with the family.
Julien is a blank slate when he leaves home for the mayor's house, so blank that while he knows the text of the New Testament by rote, much of the meaning seems to have escaped him.
The town is Royalist in its politics, but Julian idolizes Napoleon about whom he dare not speak because any form of liberalism is frowned upon, but especially Bonapartism. There is also a division between two factions of Catholicism — Jesuits versus Jansenists — which contributes to tensions among not only the local clergy but also residents of the town. The paternal, political and religious intolerance that Julien has witnessed during his formative years causes him to adopt the posture of a conscious hypocrite. He cannot read in his father's presence without risking a beating, he cannot openly idolize Napoleon, and he cannot reveal his lack of true religious feeling. At age nineteen, his purposeful dissembling, lack of an ethical core and profound ignorance combine to reveal what seems to be a hopelessly feckless youth who has acquired only a few parlor tricks along the way featuring his prodigious memory. Beneath this unschooled exterior, however, lies a better than average intelligence. But resentful of his poverty and hampered by his ignorance of how the world works, he has only the vaguest notions of how to better himself, although occasionally Julien witnesses an event that provides a glimmer of possible future advancement through the Church. His real education begins when he enters the household of M. de Rênal.
Julien has been accepted into the mayor's family, and when free of tutorial duties, he finds himself frequently in the company of Madame de Rênal. One day he decides to seduce her — a cold and bloodless calculation devoid of emotion. Once having made the decision, he becomes obsessed with Madame. She of course resists at first but eventually succumbs to the unrelenting onslaught. Madame de Rênal, too, is unschooled, but in every other respect she is the complete opposite of Julien: She is warm and kind and has good instincts with regard to raising her children.
We are then treated to a seemingly endless succession of he-loves-me-she-loves-me-not episodes that remind one of scenes from comic opera. Wild swings of emotion are evident on both sides. What began as a calculated move on Julien's part gradually evolves into his belief that he is in love. This becomes a template for Julien's relationships with women.
Eventually suspicions of this affair begin to seep into the channels of local gossip, and the elderly abbé Chélan convinces him to leave the mayor's household and enroll in a seminary at nearby Besançon. The director of the seminary, abbé Pirard, becomes Julien's clerical mentor; and eventually they both become beneficiaries of a prominent Parisian aristocrat, the Marquis de la Mole, who provides a living for the abbé and who employs Julien as his private secretary.
Once in Paris Julien's education shifts into high gear. The Marquis sees him as a boorish peasant but provides him with a new wardrobe, dancing and riding lessons and begins the process of molding Julien into a competent amanuensis. Julien's rough edges are gradually smoothed out, and he becomes a rival to the best dressed men in Paris. The Marquis also takes Julien into the family, requiring him to live and dine with them every evening and attend the salon and pay attention to the comportment of the aristocratic young men in attendance. Before our eyes we see Julien being transformed from a country peasant to at least the semblance of an aristocratic dandy.
The Marquis de la Mole has a young daughter Mathilde who, out of the aristocratic boredom symptomatic of the age, begins to importune Julien. His natural antipathy to the ruling classes creates in him a kind of reverse arrogance, and his initial attitude toward Mathilde is one of contempt.
But almost like clockwork, it enters his head to seduce her. Immediately, Julian enters into the same kind of emotional dance with Mathilde that he had led with Madame de Rênal. Funny enough, In both conquests Julian employs ladders in launching his mock-heroic midnight attacks on the ladies' boudoirs. The on-again-off-again farce plays itself out to a breaking point, but this time self-destructive behavior becomes the order of the day, and now the melodrama begins. Prepare to be shocked.
So we have a novel featuring passionate love affairs which are fueled largely by jealousy, real or imagined. Love triangles abound. Whether real love is a factor or mere high-strung adolescent emotionalism is for the reader to decide. In addition to emotional intrigues, there are also political intrigues which anticipate the imminent Revolution.
Stendhal's omniscient narrator was unique in its abundant use of interior monologue through which the reader gains insight into the psychology of the characters (I almost said patients!), especially Julien. The Red and the Black represents the very best of nineteenth century French fiction. Even though I had accidentally learned of at least part of the outcome in advance, I still wandered around here in a state of stupefaction for a good twenty-four hours when I had finished. Highly recommended.
And yet the book after an initial hump held me tightly in its grip--even fascinated me. I think that's because this is one of those books that completely convinces you these are flesh and blood people, closely and intimately--and convincingly--following the thoughts and feelings of the characters. And Julian did have a redeeming feature as a character--he made me laugh, or at least smile. Despite his success with women, he often displays a spectacular social ineptitude and awkwardness. Ultimately he reminded me a bit of that other very famous fictional French provincial--Madame Bovary. Like her, he has aspirations beyond the station he was born into--one sustained by books, even if they're dreams of glory inspired by Napoleon rather than dreams of a grand passion born of too many romance novels. And the women in this book don't come across as porcelain dolls, the way too many of Dickens' heroines have to me. Madame de Renal and Mathilde de la Mole are complex and fascinating characters in their own right. The second a bit larger than life (or unbalanced?) but both are resourceful and intelligent--arguably more so than anyone else in the book.
The further I read into the book, the more I fell under its spell. Stendahl is a master of the omniscient point of view--a way of narrative associated with and much more popular in the nineteenth century--and yet the novel feels very contemporary in its sophisticated treatment of the psychology of the characters. Not light, happy reading--no. But ultimately satisfying.
While the novel is usually classified as a bildungsroman or novel of education, in entitling it Le Rouge et le Noir: Chronique du XIXe siècle (The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th Century) Stendhal suggests a two-fold literary purpose as both a psychological portrait of the romantic protagonist, Julien Sorel, and an analytic, sociological satire of the French social order under the Bourbon Restoration. The title refers to the tension between the clerical (black) and secular (red) interests of the protagonist, which is a matter of some debate.
The story tells of a young man, Julien Sorel, whose provincial nature is inflamed with the passion of youth, a passion for the ideals of the Napoleonic age, but whose greatest passion is his ambition which, overwhelming any natural pudency, takes him to the heights and sets in motion his tragic fall. His passion is contrasted with his intellect which is strong enough to allow him to escape both his difficult home life and his lowly status. Stendhal is able to present his narrative with unmatched, for his time, psychological depth and realism. The love affairs of Julien and the political intrigues in which he participates are spellbinding for the reader even today. This novel truly presents a "mirror" of reality and provides an engaging challenge for the reader. The story presents a protagonist torn between his passion for the ideal of Napoleon represented by the red of the cavalry dragoons and the black of the bishops of the church. Ultimately he finds hypocrisy on all sides and turns upon one of his loves while rejecting his only true friend.
Stendhal repeatedly questions the possibility, and the desirability, of “sincerity”, because most of the characters, especially Julien Sorel, are acutely aware of having to play a role to gain social approval. In that 19th-century context, the word “hypocrisy” denoted the affectation of high religious sentiment; in The Red and the Black it connotes the contradiction between thinking and feeling. Le Rouge et le Noir is set in the latter years of the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30) and the days of the 1830 July Revolution that established the Kingdom of the French (1830–48). Stendhal was consciously writing a historical novel set in the present. The subtitle, "a chronicle of 1830," made his contemporary readers aware of not only the historical context of the novel but of their own lives as well. Julien's choice between the black of the Church and the red of the army was a decision that many of Stendhal's readers had to make themselves. His worldly ambitions are motivated by the emotional tensions, between his idealistic Republicanism (especially nostalgic allegiance to Napoleon), and the realistic politics of counter-revolutionary conspiracy, by Jesuit-supported legitimists, notably the Marquis de la Mole, whom Julien serves, for personal gain.
Even though Stendhal does not directly refer to the 1830 Revolution, he highlights the political tensions and corruption that had reached a recent boiling point. But this emphasis on history also serves as a warning to readers: Julien's failure to succeed in French society and his betrayal by M. Valenod present a foreboding distrust of the victorious liberal bourgeoisie. Would the death of the aristocracy mark the death of French society? Stendhal's comparison of the gamble of revolution to the red and black of a roulette wheel, presents a harrowing glimpse of the volatility of French politics--a vision that still fascinates readers today.
In his famous book of literary criticism, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, philosopher and critic René Girard identifies in Le Rouge et le Noir the triangular structure he denominates as “mimetic desire”, which reveals how a person’s desire for another is always mediated by a third party, i.e. one desires a person only when he or she is desired by someone else. Girard’s proposition accounts for the perversity of Julien's relationship with Mathilde, the daughter of the Marquis de la Mole. This becomes clear when he begins courting the widow Mme de Fervaques to pique Mathilde’s jealousy, but also for Julien’s fascination with and membership of the high society he simultaneously desires and despises.
To help achieve a literary effect, Stendhal headed each chapter with epigraphs—literary, poetic, historic quotations—that he attributed to others. The first book of the novel is headed with the following epigraph, "Truth, bitter truth." - Danton. This quote, presumably from the works of the famous revolutionary leader who was sent to the guillotine in 1794 by Robespierre is prescient in hindsight as we read of the rise and ultimate fall of young Julien. With its psychological insight, social criticism, and political intrigue this is still an exciting, even exhilarating read and truly a great book for all time.
The question, therefore, is whether bringing a single character to life is enough to make a book great. Besides the rise and fall of Julien Sorel The Red and the Black does little else besides having a backdrop of Parisian society at that time (something Balzac and Proust depict with far more depth and skill in their works). Furthermore, Julien himself is not always a particularly compelling character. From early on it is established that he's a selfish ass, and this remains true throughout the rest of the story. His combination of pride, perpetual dissatisfaction with his lot in life, and lack of superior ability make it clear from very early in the book that his story will end in tragedy. It's still interesting to see how he reaches his end, but the impact of it is dulled when you've seen it coming from 400 pages away.
For having created one of the most fully-realized characters ever to appear in fiction I give this book four stars. If it had combined that with revelations about virtues and vices that I hadn't thought of before, or a deeper connection with the France of that period, then this could have been a five-star work for me (though perhaps the deeper connection to the time period would have made the character of Sorel feel less timeless, it's hard to say). For many people the character of Sorel alone will be worth five stars, and I understand that, but I require something more than that for a book to climb that high in my esteem. Certainly worth a read, unless you're the type who requires a sympathetic main character.
A note on my edition: I was happy with the Burton Raffel translation, I found that the prose flowed well.
Green Hills of Africa, pg. 71
"Stendhal was a great writer with one good book-- Le Rouge et le Noir-- some fine parts of La Chartreuse de Parme (wonderful) but much of it tripe and the rest junk."
Letter to Paul Romaine, 1932
Selected Letters, pg. 366
What made The Red and the Black stand out is that the main character, despite his high intellect and ambitions, was almost as lost as I was about these high society people and their moral codes. Stendahl does a very good job explaining the things that always puzzle me. Why certain things are not talked about, how the aristocracy thinks of itself and what that means even at the height of emotion or passion, who owes whom what, etc. There is a lot of politics, some of which is apparent, and some, were lost to me (as I do not read every footnote!) In the end, I think I kind of got why people did what they did, well, until the end...
What's most puzzling, to me at least, is who Julien loves. In a way, this novel is about a sociopath who will charm his way into any household or bosom to get ahead and rise above his "caste." So is he capable of loving anyone? It is clear that he is prone to bouts of hating himself. And others. Towards the end his love seemed fickle to me. And perhaps that's because I didn't get it entirely, perhaps not. And the women? I think Mathilde is easy to figure out eventually (if you can get over the "hypocrisy"). But Madame Renal? Who knows... Religion messes with your head? Is that the lesson here?
Don't sleep with other people's wives. Don't try to rise above your class. Rural and urban high classes are different, but a sorry bunch nevertheless. Religious authorities are a bunch of scheming petty folk.
A bleak outlook on humanity, with very nice nature scenes. Though, I must admit, a page turner as well.
I found it atmospheric, urgent, engaging. Typically, he starts with a provincial portrait built upon Hobbes, the provincials themselves "less bad, but their cage less gay." The respect of fools, the amazement of children: importance (of a provincial mayor)--is it not something? The puzzle is the contentment of these provincials. Julien Sorel is surely not so.
Well, his saga, his ironic take on the decadence of the society he claws his way ahead in, sometimes on a lover's parapet, is gripping today as it was when written. (My missing fifth star may well be due to the level of my French comprehension--I may be grading myself, as Julien Sorel seems to now and then.)
The LT automaton had warned me that I would love this book (with a very high probability). The first volume, when Julien Sorel lives in Verrières, is rather solidly built. To me, the great mystery of this first volume is how Stendhal could make his hero so despicable and antipathetic.
I was not so sure to meet the LT automaton prediction when I began the second volume : I got the impression to be lost by Stendhal, first in the midst of the atmosphere of a seminary, then in the multitude of characters met in balls and parties in the Parisian high society. It was as if Stendhal was trying to make money in selling pages. Luckily, the end of the novel has a more steady pace and ends romantically, but also in a rather grand guignol way.
The novel is the story of Julien Sorel, a romantic social climber who lives in Paris at a time where it's nearly impossible to get ahead if you weren't born into money and titles. He somehow convinces himself his avarice is actually the love he feels for various women (all wealthy with all the right connections.) He alternately loves these women and hates them for their position and frivolousness.
I found the first half of the book just plain tedious...I was literally reading about five pages in a sitting before putting it down. However, the second half of the book moved from tolerable to interesting -- I'm not sure whether that was because the second half has decidedly more action and less of Julien's thoughts or because I got used to Stendhal's style.
I'm glad I plowed through this book, rather than abandoning it, but it's not a book I really liked or got much out of either.
There are still many aspects of the novel to be appreciated and even admired. Stendhal clearly had acute insight into the minds of young lovers (both male and female), and the ambitions of the not-yet-cynical or apathetic. The writing is certainly old-fashioned but easy to read, though my translation used and reused some obscure adjectives to death.
I would recommend this book to anyone who makes a serious study of literature and wants to understand its influence on later writers. I also think it might be a good choice for an especially precocious teenager.
This novel narrates the progress of a Julien Sorel, son to a carpenter, who is rather disenchanted with his family and is very ambitious of becoming a person of value.
He progresses thanks to his prodigious memory which he uses first to memorize the bible in latin. This impresses the local church and is admitted to a seminary. This also helps him get a job with the local mayor, where he takes advantage of the mayor's wife, Madame de Rhenal, and becomes her lover. He moves from there to a seminary in Besancon but from then he is able to procure a job with the Marquis de la Mole in Paris. There he falls in love with the marquis' daughter who gets pregnant by him.
The marquis, needless to say, is not very happy at the prospect of his daughter marrying this commoner, so he tries to buy him off to get Julien to leave France. Julien refuses and while this activities are going on, Madame de Rhenol at the instigation of a priest writes a letter to the marquis denunciating Julien as a scoundrel who left her. When the marquis shows Julien the letter, the latter becomes enraged, acquires a couple of pistols and goes back to Mathilde's town and shoots her in church.
He is apprehended and taken to jail. A trial will take place but while in jail, both Mathilde and the Marquis' daughter come to see him. Mathilde, the marquis' daughter, is his wife since she's expecting his child. At this point, Julien realizes that he is really in love with Madame de Rhenal and despises Mathillde.
At the trial, despite the efforts of his friends to buy the jury, Julien goes into a diatribe chastising the jury. So he is found guilty and a few days later faces the guillotine.
Julien, like most of the other characters in the novel, is very self-centered and egotist. In fact heis almost a mysoginist- he despises nearly everybody, even those he claims to love. His affections for people are mostly ways to get gains for himself.
A striking aspect of the novel is the rigidity of the classes in France at that time (and perhaps today too). The only hope for a person born in te low classes was that he'd be found to be the abandoned child of some nobleman- otherwise he is doomed to a life of poverty and privation. Class distinctions play a crucial role throughout the novel, being the impediment for Julien's progress. And perhaps the reason for his continuous resentment.
Julien is a peasant in the early 1800s France. Napoleon is gone and the monarchy has been restored. Julien secretly idolizes Napoleon and despises the rich and the clergy.
His father and brothers are carpenters, and he is weak and studious. They of course pick on him and slap him around, until one day Julien is asked to be a teacher for the children of a local family.
Eventually he ends up at a monestery (I think) and then a secretary to a marquis. And then the downfall; and yes, it involves women!
I had trouble liking the book until I got to the last 100 pages. I really think I would have liked it more if the translation had been more modern.
For an English speaking student in high school, my exposure to the history of Napoleon and the French Empire after the Revolution was minimal. I will try to remedy this by reading a set of 4 books by Max Gallo that I picked up in the bargain bin at the Chapters book store recently. That should give another really good rehearsal of all the facts of the life of this enigmatic leader.