The Red and the Black

by Marie-Henri Beyle

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Verrières. (vehr-ee-YER). One of the prettiest little towns in the Franche-Comté, a province in eastern France, located south of Lorraine and north of Switzerland. Both the province’s main river, the Doubs, and its mountain range, the Jura, figure in Stendhal’s initial description of setting. The Verrières he presents, however, does not actually correspond to any of the towns by that name in the Doubs valley; instead, it seems a fictionalized version of Stendhal’s own hometown, Grenoble—south of the Franche-Comté—which he detested as parochial and repressive. The novel’s counterpart to Grenoble stagnates in bourgeois moneymaking, vanity, and hypocrisy. Verrières’s many walls, its clipped trees, and finally the prison cell to which Julien is confined at the end of the novel symbolize the repressiveness of society and especially of such petit-bourgeois towns; by contrast, the several episodes throughout the novel in which he contentedly views the world from above—the mountains outside Verrières, the top of a cathedral tower—mark not only his solitary contentment in nature but also his moral elevation.


*Besançon (buh-zohn-SOHN). Capital city of the Franche-Comté, nestled beneath a hillside fortress. This locale marks a movement for Julien into the broader world in the last third of book 1. As a key nineteenth century military center where Julien enters not the army but a seminary, Besançon offers scope for both his red (soldierly) and his black (clerical) aspirations. In the Besançon seminary, as in Verrières, Julien is alienated from his peers by his finer values.


*Paris. Capital of France. Book 2 shifts the action to Paris, where Julien takes up residence in his employer’s sumptuous home, the Hôtel de la Mole, situated in the fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain. Having imagined the city both as the theater of the world, where he can achieve success, and as the center of intrigue and hypocrisy, Julien appreciates his new patron’s kindness alongside the greater political stimulation, breeding, and sophistication of the capital. Even so, in this aristocratic milieu he suffers no less than before from the mediocrity and conventionality that Stendhal consistently attributes to postrestoration French society at all levels. Two historical locations in particular emphasize the gulf between the heroic passion and vigor of the past and the anemic lives of the de la Moles: Malmaison, the only site Julien visits on his arrival, formerly Napoleon’s home outside Paris, and the Place de Grève, where the lover of Queen Marquerite de Navarre, Boniface de la Mole, written into the novel as the fictional family’s ancestor, was unjustly beheaded.


*Vergy (vehr-ZHEE). Small French town near Dijon named after a thirteenth century heroine of romance who committed suicide because of love rivalry. It is here that Stendhal locates the country home of Verrières’s philistine mayor, Monsieur de Rênal. The author describes these surroundings in terms evoking the countryside outside Grenoble, where he himself spent happy childhood days with his sister. In the novel, Vergy becomes the quintessential pastoral retreat from social corruption: In its garden, its woods, and its closeness to nature, Julien attains some peace of mind, falls in love with Madame de Rênal, and wins her love as well as her children’s. In the last chapter of the novel, he recalls Vergy as an idyll from which he foolishly let his ambitions lure him.


Bray-le-Haut (BRAY-luh-oh). Fictional abbey outside Verrières, possibly modeled on the St. Marie d’en Haut church and convent outside Grenoble. Here Julien, dazzled by the glamorous power of a young bishop officiating at ceremonies for a visiting king, participates in celebrations first as a guard of honor, then as a subdeacon—his cassock and the spurs showing...

(This entire section contains 686 words.)

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beneath it symbolic of his two possible career choices.


*Strasbourg. Northeastern French city where Julien stays as a courier, taking the opportunity to visit nearby Kehl, a town where two of Napoleon’s generals won a glorious victory in 1796. Once again, Stendhal suggests that contemporary France is a lackluster shadow of its revolutionary past.


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Sources for Further Study

Adams, Robert M. Stendhal: Notes on a Novelist. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1959. Does not include a thorough discussion of The Red and the Black but provides a readable, intelligent, and frequently amusing introduction to Stendhal.

Auerbach, Erich. “In the Hotel de La Mole.” In Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953. One of the most important twentieth century studies of literary realism. The chapter on Stendhal is excellent.

Haig, Stirling. Stendhal: “The Red and the Black.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Examines how Stendhal combines personal experience, historical facts, and legal documents with fictional technique to create his novel.

Jones, Colin. The Cambridge Illustrated History of France. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Chapter 7 provides good historical background for understanding the France of the novel.

Pearson, Roger. Stendhal’s Violin: A Novelist and His Reader. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1988. A long chapter entitled “Time and Imagination in Le Rouge et le noir” is divided into subchapters that are partly self-contained and partly sequential.

Talbot, Emile J. Stendhal Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. The chapter on The Red and the Black, subtitled “The Play of the Text,” discusses playfulness in literature.

Tillett, Margaret. Stendhal: The Background to the Novels. London: Oxford University Press, 1971. References to The Red and the Black are scattered throughout the book. A generally useful source.

Turnell, Martin. The Art of French Fiction: Prévost, Stendhal, Zola, Maupassant, Gide, Mauriac, Proust. New York: New Directions, 1959. One of the best critics on nineteenth and twentieth century novelists. Discusses Stendhal’s use of language and keywords to elucidate attitudes and situations in his novels.

Unwin, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the French Novel: From 1800 to the Present. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Chapter on reality and its representation in the nineteenth century novel. Places Stendhal’s work in relation to that of other novelists of the century. Chronology and guide to further reading.


Critical Essays