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The impulsive young Fabrizio del Dongo, longing for a life of adventure outside his wealthy Italian family’s palatial home, is caught up in the romance surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Europe—to which his family is steadfastly opposed. Changing his name to join the French forces, he has numerous misadventures that place him in the Battle of Waterloo; after escaping, he makes his way back to Italy. His doting Aunt Gina has become involved with Parma’s prime minister, Count Mosca; together they become Fabrizio’s patrons and enroll him in seminary to prepare him for a career in the Church hierarchy.

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Fabrizio goes along with the plan, but his romantic nature leads to infatuation with several young women, which lands him in trouble. After a budding romance with Marietta, an actress, is quashed by her protector, Giletti, Fabrizio ends up killing him. While he initially escapes, soon he is convicted and sent to prison. Through a series of complicated machinations set in motion by Aunt Gina, not only does Fabrizio escape, but the prince responsible for his conviction is also murdered.

At last, Fabrizio can take his place as a Church official, even becoming an archbishop—a position that does not prevent him from falling in love once more. While it seems this time that his happiness will be less ephemeral, his lover Clelia and their infant soon die. Now disillusioned of his worldly ambitions, the brokenhearted man retreats to a monastic life in Parma’s charterhouse.

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Stendhal’s second great novel, The Charterhouse of Parma, was first published in Paris in 1839 and had to wait more than fifty years before appearing in an English translation in 1895. Like The Red and the Black, its vivid characterizations, intriguing plot, and ironical style immediately confirmed its status as one of the major achievements of the nineteenth century novel.

Almost ten years separate the original publication of The Charterhouse of Parma from The Red and the Black. The interval did not, however, produce a change in Stendhal’s fictional themes or methods. Once again, the protagonist is a young man, and the environment in which he comes face to face with the world and his situation and destiny in it is one of political intrigue. Again, the protagonist’s fate seems to be decided by his emotional nature, and the expression of that nature is subject to ruinous social manipulation. The larger backdrop to the novel’s plot is the Napoleonic era. Yet it is used to illuminate the character of the protagonist, Fabrizzio del Dongo, and to prepare the reader for the struggle for autonomy and individuality that Fabrizzio must undergo. As in The Red and the Black, this struggle constitutes the bulk of the novel.

What might be referred to as the Fabrizzio narrative in The Charterhouse of Parma opens with a series of his misadventures in pursuit of military glory. The presentation of an ignorant, inexperienced, confused, but spirited Fabrizzio at the battle of Waterloo has long been considered not only a high point in the depiction of the individual in history but also a telling instance of the essentially modern character of Stendhal’s imagination. The impetus that inspires Fabrizzio to flounder self-deceivingly in the wake of Napoleon’s army, however, is the same one that guides his behavior throughout the novel. This impetus is romantic in nature. Its generous and outgoing aspects are dramatized, but with a more sensitive irony than that of The Red and the Black.

Fabrizzio’s angelic appearance is, understandably, taken at face value by those who love him. Yet their acceptance of him is the basis of the tragic experiences that he brings their way. This acceptance places a far greater emphasis on the moral and spiritual dimension of the characters, which the remoteness of the novel’s setting...

(The entire section contains 1858 words.)

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