The Charterhouse of Parma, the second of Stendhal’s great masterpieces, was written three years before his death. Written in its entirety over a seven-week period, the novel represents its author’s return to his spiritual homeland of Italy. With its intensely beautiful landscapes and vividly detailed descriptive passages, the book is on one level a poetic hymn to the Italian spirit and land. On another level, it is the complicated story of the search of four people for happiness, a story rich in psychological revelations and social and historical insights. On whatever level The Charterhouse of Parma is read, it unfailingly impresses readers with its unmistakably magical quality and its pervasive atmosphere of happiness fraught with gentle melancholy and romantic yearning.
The Charterhouse of Parma has often been likened to a Mozart symphony; the important section at the beginning of the novel, in which the young Fabrizio runs away to join Napoleon’s army, can easily be read as a musical prelude that contains the seeds of all the themes and action to follow. When Fabrizio, after a series of mishaps and near escapes, manages to find the scene of the Battle of Waterloo, it is already in progress. Instead of giving a panoramic, chronologically accurate account of the event, Stendhal fires a barrage of impressionistic detail at the reader, which leaves him or her overwhelmed and bewildered. The reader is as lost as Fabrizio, who, in his confusion, spends a whole day searching for the regiment from which he has been separated. He repeatedly stops soldiers and officers to ask them, amid smoke and grapeshot, where the battle is. Slowly, however, the individual, seemingly random details accumulate. Fleeing soldiers, deafening noise, a corpse trampled in the grass, the incessant cannon booming, fire, smoke, and infantry crowded so close that all sense of direction and movement is lost—these images gradually coalesce to produce a total effect of the horror of war remarkable in its vividness and realism. At the same time, this portion of the novel serves as prelude by showing the crucial aspects of Fabrizio’s personality which are to be focal points in the narrative’s later action. Against the grimness of the war backdrop, the figure of Fabrizio stands in happy contrast. He is youthful, fresh, and innocent; he has boundless enthusiasm and natural curiosity; he enjoys invincible high spirits and is filled with innate courage and grace. Furthermore, although he is still young, he retains throughout the narrative these essential qualities, which make him the ideal protagonist to search tirelessly for happiness through a multitude of loves and adventures.
Surrounding Fabrizio are the twin heroines of The Charterhouse of Parma, Clelia Conti and Gina Pietranera. The two women provide an important contrast in their respective characters: Clelia is young and innocent, pure and idealistic, religious and superstitious; Gina is mature and worldly, witty and intelligent, beautiful and passionate. The fourth major character, Count Mosca, combines within his character the qualities of a supreme diplomat and an ideal...
(The entire section is 1291 words.)