Saturday, August 20, 2016

Betrayed by His Passions

The Red and the BlackThe Red and the Black 
by Stendhal

“Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.”   ― Stendhal, The Red and the Black

I have enjoyed rereading Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendahl. It is a historical psychological novel in two volumes, published in 1830, that chronicles the attempts of a provincial young man to rise socially beyond his lowly upbringing through a combination of intelligence, talent, hard work, deception, and hypocrisy. He ultimately allows his passions to betray him. 

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.  It is his first moments at the home of the Marquis de la Mole that I found most memorable (as a reader who loves books);  Julien rises with the help of Father Pirard to private secretary for Marquis de la Mole. His office is to be the library. ”A few minutes later, Julien found himself alone in a magnificent library; it was a delightful moment. So no one would come to him, excited as he was, he hid himself in a dark corner. From there, he looked out at the books’ glittering spines. ‘I could read every one of them,’ he told himself.”  

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.

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Brian Joseph said...

Insightful review James.

I have wanted to read this for awhile.

The concept of “mimetic desire” sounds so interesting. I think that there is much truth to it. I think that we see it reflected in real life, as well as in a lot of literature and films.

James said...


Thanks for your observation. The relation to real life, presented in a very modern way, is one aspect that makes this novel a great one. If you decide to read this I would recommend the translation by Burton Raffell that is available in the Modern Library edition.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Now that I have read your fine review, I guess I have no more excuses. I've procrastinated, and Stendahl's novels -- _The Charterhouse of Parma_ and _The Red and the Black_ -- keep moving to the end of my "TBR." You've persuaded me to give Stendahl a fighting chance. Thanks!

James said...


Thanks for your comment. The novel, despite having no major characters that are likable, is definitely fascinating and modern in its psychological approach. I must admit that I have yet to read The Charterhouse, so I will try to get to it in the near future.

paul said...

I read this book twice, but years ago and in English; so I suppose I am twice removed from having read it in some way that might be relevant now.

However, something I never understood about it, and which will occur to me on annual basis as something I do not understand in general, but would like to, is why Julien Sorrel attacked Mdm. de Renal, -- Mdm. de Renal, about whom the worst that could be said is that, under duress, she told the truth about Sorrel?

Does Stendhal intend that we are to respect Sorrel's shooting of her, and if so, why?

James said...


That's a good question. While Mdm. de Renal did tell the truth about Julien to Mathilde it is Julien's reaction to her action that leads to his response. I would attribute his reaction to his lack of control over his passionate side. In retrospect he almost immediately regrets his attempt on her life and as a result, far from trying to defend himself, he instead pleads guilty and during the trial expounds in suicidal fashion why he deserves to be convicted. As for our reaction to all of this, I have no idea what Stendhal intended for us to think. I believe each reader must decide for himself.

I find Mdm. de Renal's forgiveness of his action at least as interesting if not moreso. She seems also to be moved by her passion, that is her love for Julien, both in the forgiveness and in her original jealous action informing Mathilde of Julien's real intentions. All of this and much more of the intrigue in the novel provides evidence of Stendhal's brilliant depiction of the psychology of the major characters.

paul said...

Thank you for the thoughtful response -- I need to read this again.

However, for me, that response of Sorrel to the letter, taking the plain truth about himself as if it were the most malicious aspersion --a blow to his honor the truth of himself-- is something I see so often, I wish Stendhal had explained it better, on top of depicting it so well.