Criticism of The Red and the Black might well begin with the novel’s subtitle, A Chronicle of 1830. The thirty years of the nineteenth century that had elapsed at the time Stendhal wrote his novel divide rather neatly into two periods: the Napoleonic era, which ended with the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and the Bourbon Restoration, the restoration of the French monarchy, which extended from 1815 to 1830.
The first of these periods, dominated by Napoleon, is often associated with the “red” of Stendhal’s title, red signifying, among other possibilities, military distinction (the means by which Napoleon began his rise to eminence) or revolution (the means by which the liberal bourgeoisie undertook to secure a measure of power). The second period, probably signified by Stendhal’s “black,” is associated with the clergy, who recaptured some of their former influence after 1815 and thus became a means to personal advancement, or reaction, political and social retrenchment by which the aristocracy undertook to recover their former dominance.
Julien Sorel, possessed of both ability and ambition, admires Napoleon in private, but he also knows that the former emperor is anathema to those who now hold power. His only escape from the coarse and limited world that seems to suit his father and brothers is through the exercise of learning. He has achieved a mastery of Latin, particularly of the New Testament, which he has practically memorized. When he becomes tutor to the Rênal children, he takes his first step toward the life he desires, but that step also requires him to assume a role similar to one played by minor clergy. Julien knows that there will be no further steps unless he is willing to practice a hypocrisy that, while not pervasive among all clergy, almost always characterizes those who hope to get on in life.
Julien’s clerical advancement begins, ironically enough, in his illicit affair with Madame de Rênal. This affair, which Julien starts not out of passion but rather as a self-test of his resolve, becomes something serious and creates the necessity for sending the young man away to a seminary, where he further cultivates the hypocrisy necessary to achieve his goals. Though Julien recognizes and even honors the sincerity he occasionally discovers in a clergyman, his own goals have little to do with spiritual life. As he sees more of the world, he comes to realize that his ambition is larger than most of what the church can offer. What he finds attractive is not the liberal bourgeoisie, which might fit with his admiration of Napoleon, but the reactionary aristocracy, who may be shallow in their thinking but represent both the power and style to which he aspires.
Although Julien begins with attitudes that might be identified with Napoleonic liberalism, his belief in his own self-worth and in his right to a place among the aristocracy impels him toward the very structures of power and authority that had attempted to quell liberalism. One of the ironies of liberalism, in Stendhal’s time and now, is that it tends to promote a democratization of style with which the Julien Sorels of the world have little sympathy. If the aristocracy resists free thought as something threatening to their privilege, they may nonetheless exercise their power in the protection of a style that continues to exert appeal.
All of this becomes clear to Julien after he leaves the seminary to assume duties as secretary to the Marquis de La Mole. He finds himself in the world he has coveted. When he discovers that he is not alone in reading Voltaire in secret, that...
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- Critical Essays