Julien Sorel is the son of a carpenter in the little town of Verrières, France. After Napoleon is defeated, Julien comes to believe that the church rather than the army is the way to power. Because of his assumed piety and his intelligence, Julien is appointed as tutor to the children of Monsieur de Rênal, the mayor of the village.
Madame de Rênal has done her duty all of her life. Although she is a good wife and a good mother, she has never been in love with her husband, who is coarse and hardly likely to inspire love in any woman. Madame de Rênal is immediately attracted to the pale young tutor and gradually falls in love with him. Julien, thinking it a duty he owes himself, makes love to her to gain power over her. He discovers after a time that he has actually fallen in love with Madame de Rênal.
Julien goes on a holiday to visit his friend, Fouqué, who tries to persuade Julien to go into the lumber business with him. Julien declines, for he enjoys his new life too much. His love affair with Madame de Rênal is, however, revealed to Monsieur de Rênal by an anonymous letter written by Monsieur Valenod, the local official in charge of the poorhouse. Valenod, who had become rich on graft, is jealous because Monsieur de Rênal had hired Julien as a tutor and because he himself had at one time made unsuccessful advances to Madame de Rênal.
Monsieur de Rênal agrees to send Julien to the seminary at Besançon, principally to keep him from becoming tutor at Monsieur Valenod’s house. After Julien departs, Madame de Rênal is filled with remorse for her adultery and she becomes extremely religious.
Julien does not get on well at the seminary, for he finds it full of hypocrites. The students do not like him and fear his sharp intelligence. His only friend is the Abbé Pirard, a highly moral man. One day, Julien helps decorate the cathedral and by chance sees Madame de Rênal there. She faints, but he cannot help her because of his liturgical duties. The experience leaves him weak and shaken.
The Abbé Pirard loses his position at the seminary because he had supported the Marquis de La Mole, who is engaged in a lawsuit against Monsieur de Frilair, the vicar general of Besançon. When the Abbé Pirard leaves the seminary, the marquis obtains a living for him in Paris and hires Julien as his secretary.
Julien is thankful for his chance to leave the seminary. On his way to Paris, he calls secretly on Madame de Rênal. At first, conscious of her previous sin, she repulses his advances but then yields once again to his pleadings. Monsieur de Rênal becomes suspicious and decides to search his wife’s room. Julien has to jump from the window to escape discovery, barely escaping with his life.
Finding Julien a good worker, the marquis entrusts him with many of the details of his business. Julien also is allowed to dine with the family and to mingle with the guests afterward. He finds the Marquise de La Mole to be extremely proud of her nobility. The daughter, Mathilde, seems to be of the same type, a reserved girl with beautiful eyes. The son, the Comte de La Mole, is an extremely polite and pleasant young man. Julien finds Parisian high society...
(The entire section is 1319 words.)