Last Updated on January 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1752
First published: 1855, 1894, 1926-1927 (wr. 1834-1835; English translation, 1950)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Psychological romance
Time of work: The 1830’s
Lucien Leuwen, a serious young man
Monsieur Leuwen, his father
Madame de Chasteller, a beautiful widow
Madame Grandet, an ambitious woman
Dr. du Poirier, a physician and a leader of the monarchist set
The revolution of 1830 was not a success; the armed rabble were victorious in the fighting, but afterward the rich bourgeoisie came to power. Although the king had lost much of his authority, France was not yet a true republic. The absolute monarchists remained loyal to the vanished power of the Bourbons, the people still hoped for a democratic rule, and the middle class steered a cautious, unsatisfactory path between the two extremes.
Lucien, son of a rich banker, had mild republican leanings. For daring to air his views, he was expelled from the Ecole Polytechnique, and for a time, he remained idle at home. His indulgent, wealthy father tried to induce him to work in the family bank, and his mother presented him to the polite, carefree society of her Parisian salon. Lucien, however, was dull and preoccupied. In despair, his father filled his pockets with money and bade him entertain the light ladies at the opera.
As a way out, Lucien took a commission as second lieutenant in a regiment of lancers going to maintain order in Nancy. Lucien liked his uniform with the magenta stripes, but he found his fellow officers insufferable. His lieutenant-colonel, especially, was a man of honorable reputation, but a bore. Only the soldiers in the ranks seemed genuine and unaffected.
The regiment was depressed on entering the town of Nancy. The land was flat, sewage ditches ran down the narrow, crooked streets, and the houses were mean. Lucien felt that he made an unsoldierly appearance because his mount, furnished by the regiment, was a mean-looking nag. As they passed a more pretentious house, a woman standing at an upstairs window seemed interested in Lucien, but as luck would have it, he was thrown from his horse just as he was trying to see her more clearly.
Lucien soon bought a good horse and rented a comfortable apartment, once occupied by a lieutenant-colonel who had left the regiment. In spite of his servants, his wine, and his stable, he was quite unhappy. His commanding officer, resenting his wealth, made his life miserable; the other officers had little to do with him. The townspeople held aloof from the military. One faction consisted of the aristocrats who were opposed to the moderate monarchy, and the other faction was the republican majority who smarted under any kingly rule. None of the officers was received in society; few of the enlisted men made friends with people of the suspicious working class.
Backed by his father’s money and his own Parisian graces, Lucien set out determinedly to be accepted by the nobility. He cultivated the wily Dr. du Poirier, the leader of the monarchist set. Little by little Lucien was welcomed to the various salons. Only his military life irked him now. Government spies even reported that he had gone into a republican reading room; to quiet rumors of political unreliability, Lucien fought and won two duels.
Several of the salons were presided over by beautiful, highborn women who accepted Lucien on friendly terms. The most beautiful of all, however, was Madame de Chasteller; and it was a long time before Lucien met her. He heard of her in some detail,...
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however, a rich widow dominated by a miserly father. She had had only one lover, so the gossips said, the lieutenant-colonel whose apartment Lucien had rented. When he finally met her, Lucien was smitten. Bathilde de Chasteller was lonely, proud, and shy.
Bathilde was an aristocrat, Lucien a commoner. As their love grew, they were both troubled. Bathilde felt that a marriage was impossible, and Lucien hesitated to try to make her his mistress. Unhappy much of the time, they were together so much that gossip soon spread. At a dinner at a country tavern, The Green Huntsman, they came to an open confession of their love.
The aristocratic young men were displeased. They were afraid that Lucien, a commoner, would marry the rich Bathilde and take her away. Some of the more hotheaded ones proposed to challenge Lucien to a duel. Scheming Dr. du Poirier guaranteed to rid them of the hated Lucien.
Bathilde, ill for days, was under the treatment of Dr. du Poirier, and Lucien had been given permission to visit her. As he waited in the hall, the doctor brought a baby in swaddling clothes from Bathilde’s chamber. From a conversation, Lucien understood that Bathilde’s illness had been a confinement. Sure that the lieutenant-colonel was the father, Lucien obtained leave and left Nancy.
In Paris, through his father, Lucien secured his release from the army. Then, through his father’s influence, he obtained a post as Master of Petitions in the Ministry of the Interior. Although he could not forget lovely Bathilde, Lucien threw himself into politics and soon was a valuable aid to the minister. At first, he had little idea of the trickery so common in high office, but his knowledge grew rapidly. The minister had speculated successfully with money borrowed from Monsieur Leuwen. When there was some danger that the transaction would come to light, Lucien managed to hide all traces of the affair.
Another incident added to his standing. The government hired agents provocateurs to harass the military. One agent made the mistake of trying to intimidate a sentry, who shot him in the abdomen. Gravely wounded, the agent was taken to a hospital. Afraid that he would make a deathbed statement as to who had employed him, a government spy tried to induce a doctor to poison the wounded man. When the doctor objected, the minister gave Lucien the job of hushing up the scandal. Lucien succeeded in bribing the dying man and his wife so that they both maintained silence.
Lucien was sent to Caen to try to influence an election. On the way, he was set upon by a mob and spattered with mud. Heartsick at the way people reacted to the corrupt government, he nevertheless did his best. By paying a hundred thousand francs to bribe the legitimist party, he almost prevented the election of a favored candidate.
The minister showed his displeasure by passing over Lucien on the honors list. Not willing to have his son slighted, Monsieur Leuwen went into politics himself and became a deputy. With his wealth and charm, he soon was powerful enough to dictate who should be in the cabinet. He arranged to have the fatuous Grandet made a minister if his beautiful and ambitious wife would become Lucien’s mistress. Madame Grandet accepted the proposition and soon genuinely fell in love with Lucien.
Monsieur Leuwen made the mistake of revealing the bargain to Lucien, who thought he had won by his own merit the most beautiful woman in Paris. He was greatly upset and even thought himself unfaithful to his lost Bathilde. Taking leave from the ministry, he left for a stay in the country.
Monsieur Leuwen died suddenly, leaving his affairs in bad state. Lucien, insisting on paying all creditors in full, saved only a modest income for his mother and himself. He got an appointment to the embassy at Capel. He was happy in his new post and felt only a faint melancholy for Bathilde.
Published posthumously, LUCIEN LEUWEN is a long unfinished work divided into two novels: THE GREEN HUNTSMAN and THE TELEGRAPH. In it, Stendhal gives a subtle, penetrating analysis, Freudian in tone, of a young commoner in the difficult days after the revolution of 1830. Lucien is considered an idealized portrait of Stendhal. The novel, though rewarding, is frustrating, for Stendhal never revised the manuscript; indeed, parts of the narrative were not completed. The grand passion of Lucien for Bathilde, for example, is not concluded; from his notes, it is known that Stendhal intended them to marry. Despite these imperfections, the novel is regarded in France as Stendhal’s third masterpiece.
The novel is exceptionally long (though unfinished), exceptionally brilliant, and complex. It successfully integrates the life of an individual, for whom the novel is named, with the historical and institutional life of French society. Containing a vast panorama of major and minor characters, many of whom were modeled on the functionaries of Louis Philippe’s regime, the novel also offers penetrating psychological and social analysis. In a sense, LUCIEN LEUWEN resembles Stendhal’s other major works: a young man, unable to bear the hypocrisy of the society in which he finds himself, is forced to grow, rebel, and compromise all at the same time. LUCIEN LEUWEN is especially interesting because of the personality and situation of the major character and because of the setting into which he is born.
Lucien Leuwen is a decent fellow, with democratic ideals and a heart in the right place, who must either become dishonest or be wholly isolated. In the army he is forced to “think right” (that is, stop thinking and start cultivating the local aristocrats), and in the service of the Minister of the Interior, Lucien “plays the game.” Indeed, his father’s only worry is that Lucien will not be crooked enough for the life of politics. Lucien, however, proves himself capable of carrying out all sorts of dishonest political tricks. In one scene, the local population is so enraged at his spying and attempted subversion of their election that they throw mud in his face and cry that now “his soul is on his face.”
The government of Louis Philippe was run by the bankers; and the king himself—as well as his closest associates—was perpetually engaged in the most dishonest financial manipulations. It is this corruption, and not merely middle-class blandness, that suffused French society and French officialdom, which Stendhal exposes with utter ruthlessness. Lucien’s father, who is one of these bankers, offers his son opportunity and a position against which Lucien finally rebels. After the father died, and the second part of the novel was completed, Stendhal’s notes indicated that he would have had Lucien travel to Rome to be united with his first love; this third part, however, was never written. Completed or not, LUCIEN LEUWEN remains a superb portrait of personal rebellion, compromise, and sacrifice.