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 receives a scholarship to the seminary. Here, he meets Abbé Pirard, the director, who is in danger of losing his position because of his Jansenist leanings and his involvement with Monsieur de La Mole. At the seminary, Julien once again feels a sense of alienation, of being different because he is more intelligent than his fellow seminarians. An innately distrusting person, he quickly concludes that everyone is his enemy. Julien sets about developing his skills of deception even further. He realizes he has harmed himself in his efforts to be first in his studies. He discovers that the Church seeks blind obedience, not intellectual brilliance. Abbé Pirard resigns and leaves the seminary. He has become fond of Julien and obtains a post for him as secretary to Monsieur de La Mole.
Julien thus rises to a still higher social class. He is now in the company of the Parisian aristocracy. Although Julien is revolted by the even greater materialism and hypocrisy of this social group, his ambition to be somebody has not lessened. His sense of alienation continues to torment him, however, for once again he finds himself to...
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be different from the individuals with whom he associates. They are members of the aristocracy; he is intelligent and entertaining but is still the son of a peasant.
At this point in the novel, Julien becomes involved in his second love affair. He meets Monsieur de La Mole’s daughter Mathilde. This time, it is Mathilde who is the seducer, not Julien. The relationship between Julien and Mathilde is very different from the one he had with Madame de Rênal. Julien and Mathilde seem to take pleasure in humiliating each other, yet the affair continues chaotically and finally results in Mathilde becoming pregnant with his child. Contrary to what the reader would expect, Monsieur de La Mole, although upset at first discovery, not only accepts the situation but also offers Julien an income, a place in the army, and Mathilde in marriage. It would appear that Julien has finally acquired a true place in society. He has received the money and is enjoying his post in the army; Mathilde is very much in love with him and anticipating the marriage.
Then an ironic twist of fate ruins everything for Julien. Monsieur de La Mole, wishing some assurance of Julien’s character, has asked him for a reference. Julien tells him to contact Madame de Rênal. Having repented of her sinful affair with Julien and become extremely devout, Madame de Rênal informs Monsieur de La Mole that Julien is a hypocritical opportunist without religious principles who seduces women in an attempt to rise in society. The marriage plans are dashed. Julien, obsessed with the need for vengeance, returns to Verrières and shoots Madame de Rênal. The shooting takes place in, of all places, the church, during Mass. Madame de Rênal is only wounded and does not die, but Julien is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.
Both Mathilde and Madame de Rênal try unsuccessfully to save Julien. Julien falls in love with Madame de Rênal again, and she with him. Mathilde nevertheless remains faithful to Julien. His confessor comes to him with a scheme to obtain a pardon for him and aid the cause of religion. He wants Julien to undergo a very showy conversion back to Catholicism. He believes that with the Church’s influence, a pardon can be obtained. Julien refuses and is guillotined. The novel ends with a macabre description of the two women with Julien’s head and his decapitated body.
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 success, he spends much of his time unhappy, confused, and on the defensive. He wages two self-promoting campaigns, one in Verriere, the other in Paris. Though he wins a number of battles, he loses the war and becomes, like Napoleon, his idol, that war’s most visible and notorious victim.
Stendhal organizes The Red and the Black so that his conception of duality becomes inescapable. Its overriding presence is obviously called to the reader’s attention in the title. There has been much critical debate as to what “red” and “black” refer. “Red” is thought to suggest the hot-blooded vigor of the Napoleonic era. That era’s conservative and small-minded aftermath, on the other hand, is said to be denoted by clerical black. Julien’s career seems to confirm what his advisers imply, that the church’s uniform is the only one in which he will be able to secure the career to which his talents entitle him. A narrower reading of the color code calls attention to the political climate of the post-Napoleonic period, with red standing for republicanism and black for clerical conservatism. It is also possible to see the colors as referring exclusively to Julien. His inner life is vivid, while on the outside he seems largely colorless.
While Stendhal allows the reader to ponder the title’s various possibilities, he is quite explicit in providing by other means a comprehensive sense of the dual elements in his protagonist’s career. Not only does The Red and the Black have a two-part structure, but the stories in each of them are counterparts of one another. The natural world of Verriere, with its walks, gardens, and children, yields to the artificial world of Paris, with its salons, carriages, and callow youths. More important, Julien’s affair with Madame de Renal is conducted with a ruthlessness that belies his spontaneous nature and exploits hers. The affair with Mathilde de la Mole, on the other hand, shows Julien to be the exploited one, in turn a victim of a loved one’s bad faith. Thus, not only is each of Julien’s two stories complementary; each provides an ironic commentary on the other. Aware of the twin force of image and reality, artifice and nature, hypocrisy and honesty, but deprived by his character of the power necessary to regulate this awareness, Julien falls afoul, not of the time but of his inability to secure his place within it.