The Red and the Black

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The son of a simple carpenter, the headstrong and egocentric hero of this exuberant novel idolizes the lost leader, Napoleon. The Corsican adventurer who crowned himself emperor and humbled the aristocracy and the Church is Julien Sorel’s alter ego. Like Napoleon, whose brilliantly ruthless strategies in war and politics brought him great power, Sorel campaigns relentlessly to achieve his goals.

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His first conquest is Madame de Renal, the pious and dutiful wife of Julien’s employer, the mayor of the village, who hires the intelligent and reputedly pious carpenter’s son to be a tutor to his children. When the affair is exposed, the mayor rushes Julien off to a seminary in Besancon, where Julien continues to rise by attracting the attention of a powerful aristocrat, the Marquis de la Mole, who hires Julien as personal secretary. Once settled in the great nobleman’s Parisian estate, Julien first charms and then dominates the Marquis’ daughter, Mathilde. When she becomes pregnant, the Marquis overcomes his fury and, to make the penniless young upstart a suitable husband for Mathilde, gives Julien a title and a commission in the army.

Julien is now within reach of his Napoleonic goal. He has traveled from the obscurity of the Church’s first attention (the Black) to the splendor of military rank (the Red). Also like Napoleon, however, Julien has his Waterloo--Madame de Renal. When she exposes his past to the Marquis and dashes all of Julien’s splendid opportunities, he takes revenge. That revenge and its denouement constitute one of the most bittersweet moments in all nineteenth century fiction.

If Napoleon is Julien’s consciously chosen hero, the poet Byron--the legacy of his work and personality--provides the model for the balance of coldness and emotion, rational detachment and unbridled passion, that make Julien such a compelling hero. Stendhal’s ambivalence, the conflict between his dedicated liberalism and fascination with aristocratic hauteur, as well as the clash between his icy and realistic powers of psychological observation and his love of Romantic excess and posing--all this is splendidly Byronic. A “cult” writer ever since the 1880’s, when he was rediscovered by writers such as Henry James, Ivan Turgenev, and Gustave...

(The entire section contains 548 words.)

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