The Red and the Black is a fictional depiction of French society in the 1820’s, two decades after the French Revolution and its ensuing Terror. The plot was based on Stendhal’s personal experiences, on legal documents, and on historical accounts. Specifically, the story was prompted by a real-life case reported in a French newspaper over four days in late December, 1827. The story concerned Antoine Berthier, a twenty-five-year-old tutor and former theological student who a few months before had murdered a woman whose children he had tutored; the murder took place in a church during Mass. This case was the seed for Stendhal’s novel.
Stendhal portrays a society fraught with materialism and hypocrisy at all levels. The peasants know how to ingratiate themselves with the rural bourgeoisie in order to profit; the bourgeoisie are in constant competition to outdo each other in status, as is the Parisian aristocracy. Even the Catholic Church is not exempt from this materialism and hypocrisy. Stendhal’s protagonist, Julien Sorel, is a young peasant who is ill suited to work in his father’s sawmill in the provincial town of Verrières. Julien is an opportunist intent on rising in society. He hates his peasant class and his status as a member of that class; he idolizes Napoleon, but Napoleonic France is dead, and rather than get ahead through the military (the “red”), Julien recognizes the Church (the “black”) as the means of rising beyond his station. Having learned Latin from the Abbé Chélan, he finds first opportunity when Abbé Chélan recommends him as a tutor for the children of the Rênals.
Julien impresses the family with his ability to recite Bible verses from memory, but he remains an outsider to the bourgeois society in which he lives. He is a prize about which Monsieur de Rênal enjoys bragging. Julien becomes more and more intent on overcoming his sense of inferiority. Madame de Rênal becomes the means for him to accomplish this goal. Sensitive and susceptible to Julien’s youth, she is seduced by him and becomes his mistress. Monsieur de Rênal begins to suspect something, and Madame de Rênal uses an anonymous letter to make her husband believe rumors are being circulated so that he agrees when she asks him to send Julien away. Julien goes to stay with Abbé Chélan, who has been removed as curate through machinations within the Church hierarchy.
Julien’s second opportunity to rise in society and make a name for himself comes when he receives a scholarship to the seminary. Here, he meets Abbé Pirard, the director, who is in danger of losing his position because of his Jansenist leanings and his involvement with Monsieur de La Mole. At the seminary, Julien once again feels a sense of alienation, of being different because he is more intelligent than his fellow seminarians. An innately distrusting person, he quickly concludes that everyone is his enemy. Julien sets about developing his skills of deception even further. He realizes he has harmed himself in his efforts to be first in his studies. He discovers that the Church seeks blind obedience, not intellectual brilliance. Abbé Pirard resigns and leaves the seminary. He has become fond of Julien and obtains a post for him as secretary to Monsieur de La Mole.
Julien thus rises to a still higher social class. He is now in the company of the Parisian aristocracy. Although Julien is revolted by the even greater materialism and hypocrisy of this social group, his ambition to be somebody has not lessened. His sense of alienation continues to torment him, however, for once again he finds himself to be different from the individuals with whom he associates. They are members of the aristocracy; he is intelligent and entertaining but is still the son of a peasant.
At this point in the novel, Julien becomes involved in his second love affair. He meets Monsieur de La...
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