Stendhal 1783-1842

(Pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle) French short story writer, novelist, travel writer, critic, and biographer.

One of the most highly regarded French authors of the nineteenth century, Stendhal achieved his lasting reputation mainly on the strength of his two major novels, Le rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black) and La chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma). Like other writers of the Romantic era, he celebrated extreme emotional states and actions, coining the term "Beylisme" to describe the passionate pursuit of self-fullfilment that was his personal goal. Unlike other Romantics, however, he wrote in a straightforward, realistic manner, critically examining the social climate and manners of his time.

Biographical Information

Stendhal adored his mother, who died when he was seven. However, he despised both his lawyer father and his native provincial town of Grenoble, and escaped as soon as he could under the pretense of attending a school in Paris that he never actually enrolled in. Earning his living as a civil servant and military bureaucrat, he cultivated friends among the literary salon socialites of Paris, and served as a supply officer with Napoleon's army. In Milan, where he was stationed for several years, he became a heartfelt devotee of Italian art and culture. For the rest of his life he divided his time between Paris and Italy, devoting himself to the two major interests of his life, pursuing romantic adventures with women and writing.

Major Works of Short Fiction

As a young, aspiring writer, Stendhal failed in his ambition to become a playwright specializing in comedy, but found some success as a critic and travel writer. In middle age he devoted himself increasingly to fiction. Beginning with the unsuccessful novella Armance (1827), a study of a young man driven to suicide by sexual impotence, he went on to create the novels that critics regard as his most significant works, The Red and the Black, The Charter-house of Parma and the unfinished Lucien Leuwen. He also wrote a small number of short stories. These include "Mina de Vanghel," about the tragic romantic affairs of a German heiress, which was later reworked into the novella Le rose et le vert (1837; The Pink and the Green), and the handful of tales that were later collected under the title Chroniques italiennes (1855; Italian Chronicles). These Italian stories, including "The Cenci," "Vittorio Accoramboni," and the novella-length "Abbesse de Castro," were for the most part adaptations of old manuscripts dating from the Renaissance that Stendhal had collected while living in Italy. Dealing with forbidden sexual desires and gruesome murders, they reflect Stendhal's fascination with the sort of passionate Romantic experience he felt could be found in Italy but not in the rational civilization of France.

Critical Reception

For the most part, Stendhal's short fiction has been regarded as secondary to his more accomplished full-length novels and nonfiction writings. However, scholars have found value in studying these shorter pieces as reflections of his developing skills as a storyteller, finding in them themes that would take shape in his more important works. Particularly interesting to contemporary critics is Armance, its depiction of a psychosexually tormented hero inviting a wide range of interpretations.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Armance; ou, quelques scènes d'un salon de Paris en 1827 (novella) 1827

Le rose et le vert [The Pink and the Green] (novella) 1837

L'Abbesse de Castro (novella) 1839

Chroniques italiennes [Italian Chronicles] (short stories) 1855

Other Major Works

Vie de Haydn, de Mozart, et de Métastase (biography) 1814

Histoire de la peinture en Italie (nonfiction) 1817

Rome, Naples, et Florence en 1817 (travel essay) 1817

De l'amour [On Love] (nonfiction) 1822

Racine et Shakespeare [Racine and Shakespeare] 2 vols. (criticism) 1823-25

Vie de Rossini (biography) 1823

Promenades dans Rome (travel essay) 1829

Le rouge et le noir [The Red and the Black] (novel) 1830

Mémoires d'un tourise [Memoirs of a Tourist] (travel essay) 1838

La chartreuse de Parme [The Charterhouse of Parma] (novel) 1839

Lucien Leuwen (unfinished novel) 1855

Lamiel (unfinished novel) 1889

La vie de Henri Brûlard [The Life of Henri Brulard] (autobiography) 1890

Souvenirs d'égotisme [Memoirs of an Egotist] (autobiography) 1892

Oeuvres complètes 72 vols. (prose) 1927-37

The Private Diaries of Stendhal (diaries) 1954


Matthew Josephson (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "The Eternal Tourist," in Stendhal; or, The Pursuit of Happiness, Doubleday and Co., 1946, pp. 401-17.

[In the following excerpt, Josephson examines Stendhal's thematic approach to the Italian Chronicles.]

One cherished literary project that Stendhal reserved for his leave of absence was that of adapting into French the collection of Italian memoirs which he had been gathering for many years. These genuine documents, he held, formed a veritable "introduction to the knowledge of the human heart." They teemed with conspiracies, robberies, rapes, and murders, often committed for the sake of ambition; they were for him penetrated still with "the fierce energy . . . the gigantic passions of the Middle Ages."

Modern Italian thinkers, like Benedetto Cróce, tend to smile a good deal at the habit of most Italophiles, including Stendhal, of seeing everywhere the Italy of pagan voluptuousness, Machiavellian perfidy, and Borgian crime. Stendhal doubtless exaggerated in picturing the Italy of his time in such colors as he used; but his interpretation of seventeenth-century Italy as an era of relative anarchy and large-scale brigandage, following the downfall of most of the city-republics, scarcely errs, and was later corroborated by the more extensive researches of Jacob Burckhardt.

But whereas Burckhardt, and also the French historian, Michelet, popularized the idea that the Renaissance civilization was a "final flowering" of culture, engendered by the revival of Hellenistic learning (Humanism), Stendhal, before them, shrewdly suggested that there was a strong relationship between the whole "rebirth" of the fine arts in Italy and the social tendencies and drives dating from the Middle Ages—a view that is much closer to that of today's historical theorists. To his mind the men of the Renaissance, and even their near descendants, approached what might be called "the state of nature." They were what "noble savages" were to Rousseau, and "primitives" to aesthetes of today. Stendhal, then, saw "natural man" in the contemporaries of Lorenzo de' Medici and Leonardo. In those days society was a miracle of courtly refinement and artistic creativeness; yet the age was notable also for its excesses of lust, violence, and treachery. To Stendhal this was no paradox. He wrote in a letter of November 21, 1835:

It was those bold morals that nurtured the Raphaels and Michelangelos whom people pretend to imitate so stupidly by means of academies and schools of fine arts. What they forget is that it needs a bold spirit to wield the brush of a master, and not that of some poor devil condemned to pay court to a bureaucrat in order to get a commission for a picture.

To the uninhibited violence and passion of the earlier Italians, Stendhal, like some psychoanalysts of today, attributes their creative genius. It was, for his time, a challenging and advanced notion, very close to Freud's idea that the great creative artist may be defined as "a successful neurotic." In the same spirit, Stendhal, so lawabiding himself, fondly regards the seventeenth-century banditti and assassins who are heroes of the tales he writes or adapts, in his volume of Italian Chronicles (Chroniques italiennes), as individual manifestations of the drive toward liberty and justice. All previous ideas about these people, as given by writers of the "melodramatic" school, are false, he declares at the beginning of the story of "The Abbess de Castro." "One may say, in general, that those brigands were the opposition to the cruel governments which in Italy succeeded the republics of the Middle Ages." How often they used poison or the stiletto to dispatch some petty tyrant!

In 1821, Stendhal had appealed to Sir Walter Scott by letter, urging him to turn to Italy for his subjects, and "paint a true picture of the Middle Ages. . . . " He had suggested stories based on the lives of Rienzi, Cosimo de' Medici, and others. But Scott never replied to him, though other English authors such as Byron and Shelley were already utilizing the lore of Italy with notable results. Stendhal had continued his reading and purchasing of old Italian manuscripts until this became a mania with him throughout the 1820s and 1830s. Eventually he possessed a hundred quarto volumes of manuscripts. He wrote to Sainte-Beuve, in December 1834, "I have selected that which appealed to...

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Andre Gide (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Preface to Armance," in Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality, Meridian Books, 1959, pp. 260-74.

[In the following essay, Gide discusses the theme of impotence in Armance.]

To speak properly of Stendhal, one would have to have something of his style. If we take his word for it, he almost always writes out of boredom; but so lively is his pleasure in doing so, that we never share his boredom, but only the pleasure that follows it. There is no struggle; he never says anything excepting when he wants to; that is, with the least effort. As others yield to idleness, he gives himself over to thought. When he is logical, he is naturally so because...

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Martin Turnell (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Stendhal's First Novel," in Art of French Fiction, New Directions, 1959, pp. 63-90.

[In the following excerpt, Turnell examines Armance to see what light it sheds on Stendhal's later work, his times, and nineteenth century psychology.]

Stendhal's first novel was not the work of a beginner. Armance was published in 1827 when he was forty-four years old and already had seven other books to his credit. It was unpopular in his lifetime, and has been criticized by Stendhalians of unimpeachable orthodoxy. It is not a masterpiece, but it is a book that only Stendhal could have written and deserves to be read for four reasons: its intrinsic merits as a...

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Albert J. George (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Stendhal, Balzac, and Merimee," in Short Fiction in France: 1800-1850, Syracuse University Press, 1964, pp. 65-134.

[In the following excerpt, George offers a survey of Stendhal's Italian-themed short fiction.]

With the exception of the Chroniques italiennes, Stendhal's ventures into short prose have received scant attention. The creator of Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme has so dazzled scholars that they pass lightly over the author of the "Souvenirs d'un gentilhomme italien," "Le Coffre et le Revenant," "Le Philtre," and "Ernestine ou la Naissance de l'amour." Nowhere are they treated as representatives of a genre long...

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Michel Déon (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in The Pink and the Green, Followed by Mina de Vanghel, by Stendhal, New Directions, 1988, pp. vii-xi.

[In the following essay, Déon examines the character of Mina as depicted in The Pink and the Green and "Mina de Vanghel."]

The writer, too, knows the state of grace. At the start of his books, it governs his docile characters who readily believe that their author will lead them toward a "happy end." In this new world—entirely new—he creates at will certain faces, certain characters. But the state of grace cannot always persist. It is generally brief. Creatures born of the imagination rebel, difficulties accumulate, the author...

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Richard Sieburth (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Downwardly Mobile Mina," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, p. 26.

[In the following essay, Sieburth offers a favorable appraisal of The Pink and the Green and "Mina de Vanghel."]

"Many of the works of the ancients have become fragments," observed Friedrich von Schlegel. "Many of the works of the moderns are fragments at their very inception." If incompletion, as Schlegel suggests, is the crucial condition of modernity, then Stendhal must certainly stand as the most modern of 19th-century authors. He published only three novels during his lifetime—Armance (1827). The Red and the Black (1830) and The Charterhouse of...

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Marie J. Diamond (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Letter of Repression in Stendhal's Armance," in Nineteenth Century French Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1989-90, pp. 41-55.

[In the following essay, Diamond discusses Oedipal symbolism in Armance.]

Armance is a tantalizing text. Its dominant protagonist, Octave de Malivert, is tormented by some terrible secret, something "unspeakable," the nature of which he hints at and continually promises to reveal to his loving cousin Armance de Zohiloff. Finally married to Armance and on the point of death by his own hand, he writes her a letter naming what he has never dared say. However, his secret is not revealed to the reader. Armance...

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Emile J. Talbot (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Tales of Action," in Stendhal Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 109-22.

[In the following excerpt, Talbot examines characteristic themes in Stendhal's short fiction.]

While Stendhal is better known as a novelist than as a writer of short stories, his interest in short fiction was considerable and can be traced to the earliest stages of his career. Practically all his nonfiction contains anecdotes that, though often only a few lines long, are embryonic short stories. His first published work, The Lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Metastasio, contains, for example, an anecdote about a seventeenth-century singer and his mistress that is then retold in a...

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Margaret Waller (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Taking the Woman's Part: Stendhal's Armance" in The Male Malady: Fictions of Impotence in the French Romantic Novel, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 114-35.

[In the following excerpt, Waller analyzes Armance as a male writer's reworking of the traditionally femaleauthored sentimental novel.]

By the 1820s, the mal du siècle was no longer primarily a phenomenon to which a certain number of writers alluded in the prefaces to their novels. The male malady, a literary commonplace, had become a recognized social phenomenon. In the salons of Restoration France, young noblemen had begun to bear their aristocratic privilege as a burden and wear their...

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Further Reading

Pearson, R. A. G. "Stendhal's Armance: The Comedy of 'Une Chasse au Malheur." Forum for Modern Language Studies 19, No. 3 (July 1983): 236-48.

Questions whether or not Armance should be read as a tragedy.

Rosa, George M. "Sailing to Mount Kalos: The Poetical Dénouement of Armance." Forum for Modern Language Studies 23, No. 1 (January 1987): 21-37.

Traces the influence of Lord Byron on the depiction of the protagonist of Armance.

Additional coverage of Stendhal's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 119; DISCovering...

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