Stendhal Essay - Stendhal World Literature Analysis

Marie-Henri Beyle

Stendhal World Literature Analysis

Stendhal’s prediction that his work would not be appreciated until fifty years after his death was not entirely borne out by events. In his lifetime, he won the esteem of, among others, Honoré de Balzac, the other major French novelist of the day. Yet, there is a certain amount of truth in Stendhal’s forecast, not merely because his first translation into English did not occur until the later years of the nineteenth century. Translations obviously gave his work a wider audience, but the fact that they came to the attention of an international readership at a time when the criticism of fiction was becoming a more pronounced fact of cultural life led to a more influential appreciation of his distinctive artistic ambitions and accomplishments as a novelist.

It is because of its psychological interest that Stendhal’s fiction is regarded so highly. That is also why it is significant that his first publications were works of criticism and of observation in a broad sense. These early works establish the bases for the kind of transition in imaginative prose that Stendhal’s novels represent. Many of his concerns may be crudely reduced to his fascination with the dual, and interdependent, relationship between reason and emotion. It is from this fascination that he derives his power as a portrayer of characters. As a result, his fiction was instrumental in elevating character over story.

The shift in emphasis revealed in Stendhal’s work is very much part of a larger shift in sensibility that occurred in European culture during Stendhal’s apprenticeship as a writer. This transition is from the ostensible stability and sense of proportion of the predominantly neoclassical art of the eighteenth century to the Romantic art of the nineteenth century. Such a reorientation of sensibility did not occur overnight, but gradually, through a publicly perceptible process of realignment. As Stendhal himself suggests, this realignment was not necessarily exclusively revealed in the literature of the day. His most comprehensive investigation of the phenomenon, Racine and Shakespeare, involves great writers from other eras and praises Shakespeare for his Stendhalian spontaneity, exuberance, and vividness.

Stendhal is not merely an important analyst of the culture of his day. As his biography reveals, he was also intimately involved with the history of his times. This history, and Stendhal’s experience of it, was dominated not merely by the activities of Napoleon but also by his mythic status. Napoleon was perceived by the European mind at large as the spirit of the age. To Stendhal, this spirit was dynamic, ambitious, energetic, resourceful, impassioned, and foolhardy. His response to it, as the characters of Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black and Fabrizzio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma reveal, was generous. At the same time, however, it was impossible for Stendhal to identify completely with it. The youth of a Julien and Fabrizzio inspires their daring, verve, and vitality. Yet it also inspires Stendhal’s most tenderly ironic critique of such qualities. His artistic ambition is to reconcile the passions of his heroes to his own dispassionate reason.

Stendhal’s most important contribution to the development of the novel is his use of it to produce systematic critiques. This use not only underwrites his conception of his heroes but also shows the novel to be a means of reflecting on contemporary individuals and morals. The irony that Stendhal applies to his youthful protagonists is used much more incisively to reveal the hypocrisies, evasions, and trivialities of public life in the wake of Napoleon. It is in the figures of Julien and Fabrizzio that Stendhal expresses most cogently the philosophy that he named Beylisme. This outlook lauded the energetic, and perhaps even reckless, pursuit of happiness as the highest human calling and the animating power of all activity. Such an emphasis on individuality is a testament to the range, originality, and significance of Stendhal’s writings.

The Red and the Black

First published: Le Rouge et le noir, 1830 (English translation, 1898)

Type of work: Novel

This story depicts the career of a talented young man in postrevolutionary France.

Originally published in 1830, Le Rouge et le noir first appeared in English translation as The Red and the Black in 1898. Its many subsequent editions in different English translations testify to its classic status. Written in an economic and, for the most part, slyly understated style, its claim to be counted among the finest novels of the nineteenth century is undoubted.

Perhaps the only feature of The Red and the Black that is not entirely original is its plot. It was taken by Stendhal from a story that appeared in a newspaper, the Gazette des Tribuneaux, in 1827, concerning Antoine Berthet, the son of a laborer, whose career...

(The entire section is 2045 words.)