Stendhal is often viewed as anticlerical, and in fact The Red and the Black may best be described as an anticlerical novel. The main Christian theme concerns the role of the French Catholic Church in society. The Church as portrayed by Stendhal is, like the society in which Julien lives, corrupted by materialism and hypocrisy. The black robe of the cleric privileges him and affords him a cover for his hypocrisy. In his seduction of Madame de Rênal and his affair with Mathilde, Julien brings to mind the play Tartuffe: Ou, L’Imposteur (pr. 1664, revised pr. 1667, pb. 1669; Tartuffe, 1732), in which Molière exposes the hypocrisy of the resident confessor in the person of Tartuffe. Julien plays much the same role in his position as tutor in Madame de Rênal’s house and later as secretary to Monsieur de La Mole.
The young seminarians—who are, for the most part, sons of peasants—see the Church as an avenue toward a career that affords them a full stomach and a way of life that is not as harsh as working in the fields. None of them is inspired with a religious vocation. At the seminary, Julien learns that a priest must be deceptive not only in what he says but also in how he appears. The Jansenist-Jesuit quarrel that split the Church in France appears in the novel as a strong influence in the political machinations within the Church. Julien makes many sarcastic remarks about his vocation when he is at the seminary, including a caustic statement about preparing to spend the rest of his life selling salvation to his parishioners.
Even at the end of the novel, the Church in the person of Julien’s confessor is trying to market itself by capitalizing on Julien’s predicament. Stendhal thus portrays a Christianity—or at least the institutions of Christianity—as corrupted by the greed, ambition, human self-interest, and sheer need to survive in the social and political climate of post-Napoleonic France.
Julien’s death and the way he regards it have been the object of much discussion by critics: first, because it seems a contrivance (the death sentence is not mandated, as Madame de Rênal does not die), and second, because Julien rejects every opportunity to reverse the death sentence despite the aid of powerful supporters. Instead, Julien seems to rush headlong and almost happily toward his fate, regarding it as “the only honour which cannot be bought.” Julien’s rejection of life and acceptance of death constitute the ultimate outcome of his pride and corruption.