The Red and the Black is a fictional depiction of French society in the 1820’s, two decades after the French Revolution and its ensuing Terror. The plot was based on Stendhal’s personal experiences, on legal documents, and on historical accounts. Specifically, the story was prompted by a real-life case reported in a French newspaper over four days in late December, 1827. The story concerned Antoine Berthier, a twenty-five-year-old tutor and former theological student who a few months before had murdered a woman whose children he had tutored; the murder took place in a church during Mass. This case was the seed for Stendhal’s novel.
Stendhal portrays a society fraught with materialism and hypocrisy at all levels. The peasants know how to ingratiate themselves with the rural bourgeoisie in order to profit; the bourgeoisie are in constant competition to outdo each other in status, as is the Parisian aristocracy. Even the Catholic Church is not exempt from this materialism and hypocrisy. Stendhal’s protagonist, Julien Sorel, is a young peasant who is ill suited to work in his father’s sawmill in the provincial town of Verrières. Julien is an opportunist intent on rising in society. He hates his peasant class and his status as a member of that class; he idolizes Napoleon, but Napoleonic France is dead, and rather than get ahead through the military (the “red”), Julien recognizes the Church (the “black”) as the means of rising beyond his station. Having learned Latin from the Abbé Chélan, he finds first opportunity when Abbé Chélan recommends him as a tutor for the children of the Rênals.
Julien impresses the family with his ability to recite Bible verses from memory, but he remains an outsider to the bourgeois society in which he lives. He is a prize about which Monsieur de Rênal enjoys bragging. Julien becomes more and more intent on overcoming his sense of inferiority. Madame de Rênal becomes the means for him to accomplish this goal. Sensitive and susceptible to Julien’s youth, she is seduced by him and becomes his mistress. Monsieur de Rênal begins to suspect something, and Madame de Rênal uses an anonymous letter to make her husband believe rumors are being circulated so that he agrees when she asks him to send Julien away. Julien goes to stay with Abbé Chélan, who has been removed as curate through machinations within the Church hierarchy.
Julien’s second opportunity to rise in society and make a name for himself comes when he...
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Originally published in 1830, Le Rouge et le noir first appeared in English translation as The Red and the Black in 1898. Its many subsequent editions in different English translations testify to its classic status. Written in an economic and, for the most part, slyly understated style, its claim to be counted among the finest novels of the nineteenth century is undoubted.
Perhaps the only feature of The Red and the Black that is not entirely original is its plot. It was taken by Stendhal from a story that appeared in a newspaper, the Gazette des Tribuneaux, in 1827, concerning Antoine Berthet, the son of a laborer, whose career had something of the same rise and fall as that of Julien Sorel, the novel’s hero. The similarity between the two cases is not merely an intriguing sidelight on the composition of The Red and the Black. It also speaks directly to the reality of the novel’s concerns, which draw not only on the newspapers of the day but also on the recent history of France. As Julien well knows, the example of Napoleon I, to which he is unwisely devoted, has made it possible for someone who is provincial, talented, and ambitious, but without social connections, to have his dreams of success realized.
Julien embodies the duality that Stendhal perceived to exist between spirit and reason. He is a lover who is also a hypocrite, a cleric who becomes a soldier, an innocent who commits a crime. He possesses a winning measure of spontaneity, verve, and daring. Yet these natural qualities are continually placed in the service of a socially inspired image of himself. It is to this image that Julien is enslaved. For all of his...
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