The Red and the Black

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 548 words.)