Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1291
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 knight. Among these four men and women grow the three love relationships that are the focal point of the novel: the love of Gina for Fabrizio, of Count Mosca for Gina, and of Fabrizio for Clelia.
Stendhal’s portrait of Gina is a triumph of characterization. Charming, stubborn, astute, devoted, erotic, and intelligent, Gina and her richly varied personality are revealed through her relationship with Count Mosca and, most crucially, through her love for Fabrizio. What begins as maternal affection for a small boy grows over the years into a love that is undefinable; Gina’s feelings, which under acceptable circumstances would immediately...
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flow into erotic channels, must be sublimated; she struggles to control her boundless energies, to guide them into outlets of devoted maternal concern and to disguise from herself all the while what she really feels. Ironically, Fabrizio is not genetically related to her, since a French soldier, rather than Gina’s brother, is the hero’s father; for all practical purposes, however, given their background and Fabrizio’s attitude of boyish admiration for his aunt, any sexual relationship between the two would be psychologically incestuous.
The second love relationship in the book is that between Count Mosca and Gina. It is a one-sided affair insofar as the intensity of passion is all on the count’s side; Gina feels a great affinity for Mosca and loves him in a certain fashion but not in the same way as he loves her. The count is a fascinating figure—intelligent, skilled in diplomacy, powerfully ambitious, warm, faithful, benevolent, yet capable of jealousy and anger. What draws Mosca and Gina together are their common wisdom tempered with skepticism, their basic love of humanity, and their fierce hatred of the petty tyrants who hold authority over the rest of humanity. In many ways, Stendhal wrote his own personality not only into Fabrizio but also into the gallant Mosca; it has been said that within him Stendhal “deposited, with his artist’s curiosity, the residue of his knowledge and his disappointments—the supreme irony of a too ambitious ego which ’set its nets too high.’” Significantly, at the close of the novel, only Mosca is strong enough to survive the pain of loss and intense suffering.
The love Fabrizio and Clelia will later feel for each other is foreshadowed very early when Fabrizio gives twelve-year-old Clelia and her father a ride in his carriage. When the hero saves Count Conti, who is traveling in disguise, from exposure to the police, the little girl does not fully understand what is happening but suspects that the young man is somehow noble and admires him shyly from a distance. Years later, when they meet again as adults, their love blossoms slowly as they move through phases of the process which Stendhal called “crystallization.” For Fabrizio, the feeling is new in its degree of intensity and joy; his love is so vehement that, at one point, it causes him to wish for death and to refuse help in escaping rather than to lose it. On Clelia’s side, the reaction to love is more complex. She becomes increasingly passionate and demanding, yet purer in the sense that into her love for Fabrizio she pours her entire soul, concentrating in him all of her capacity for feeling. Her commitment is so total that she can feel compassion toward Gina; yet, simultaneously, jealousy taints her pity, and she leans toward hatred for the older woman. Her love allows her to sleep with Fabrizio after he has become a bishop and she is married, yet superstition makes her cling to her vow to meet him only in darkness and never see his face. The lovers’ depth of emotion extends to their child so strongly that when the child Sandrino dies, his mother follows him shortly afterward, while his father retires to the Carthusian monastery that gives the novel its title.
Behind these four extraordinary figures is ranged a gallery of minor characters, the most memorable being those associated with the court in Parma. People are paraded before the reader’s eyes in all of their vanity and pomposity to instruct the audience in the venality and pettiness of humanity. The Grand Duke Ranuce-Ernest IV leads this gallery of comic figures; in quick flashes, Stendhal reveals a man at once cruel and terrified to indulge his cruelty, proud of his power yet ashamed that it is not greater, affected and overbearing but inwardly filled with fear and indecision. While the main characters are used to show how humans can commit themselves wholly to love, through the minor characters, Stendhal ridicules, in a comic fashion reminiscent of the works of Molière, all the vices and follies of humankind.