Stendhal Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

It is a primary characteristic of Stendhal as a writer of fiction that he was incapable both of devising a plot and of embroidering characters with the fantasy of his own imagination. He needed to have his fundamental story line laid out for him; only then could he set to work creatively. His genius lay not in fashioning but in refashioning his material.


This is the pattern found in Armance. A certain Madame de Duras specialized in novels in which a pair of lovers are separated by an “insuperable” obstacle. In one of her novels, Olivier: Ou, Le Secret (written 1825), this obstacle takes the form of sexual impotence in the hero; the idea for the story was also used by Henri de Latouche for his Olivier (1826), which Stendhal reviewed. Stendhal, familiar with both works, had found his basic material; against that, however, was the fact that his whole idealistic sensibility was repulsed by the idea of setting out in black and white the unromantic physiological details of the “obstacle” that, for some four hundred pages, prevents his hero, Octave de Malivert, from marrying the beautiful, half-Russian Armance and that alone explains the hero’s suicide, with the result that the uninformed reader can close the book without even so much as guessing at the mysterious “secret” that alone makes sense of the situation. It is not surprising that, on its first appearance, Armance was a failure.

It is precisely to this overcareful concealment of the key to the mystery that the novel owes its most significant qualities, however. If the secret had been revealed, the tale could have been little more than a medico-psychological casebook of the type popularized by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt a generation later. As it is, the sense of living with some “inexpressible misfortune” transforms Octave into one of the earliest examples of the true Romantic hero in the French novel: moody, solitary, unpredictable, bored, frustrated by the world, incapable of accepting happiness even when it is offered to him—a Byronic creature whose inner self is at war with his outer semblance, possessed by a demon of inexplicable violence: a true “aristocrat of misfortune.” In response, Armance likewise assumes similar characteristics. Already remote, inaccessible, and coldly exotic, thanks to her Russian origins, she alternates between moments of passion and moments of withdrawal, reacting to the “mystery” of her lover by retreating behind the veils of her own mystery.

Among the diaphanous nuances of this game of emotional hide-and-seek, Stendhal weaves a number of other themes characteristically his own. All of Stendhal’s writings—even his studies on art and music—are to a greater or lesser degree “committed”; that is, they embody precise critical attitudes toward the political and social issues of his time. The 1820’s in France were a period of intense social malaise, as the ancien régime aristocracy, supported by the Catholic Church, attempted to reassert its control over the country against the temporarily defeated forces of Jacobinism and liberalism. A major victory in this effort to set the clock back came in April, 1825, when the Chamber of Deputies passed an “act of indemnity” granting financial compensation to those aristocratic families who had had their lands and châteaus confiscated during the Revolution. The “reaction” was in the ascendant.

Octave has a title: He is the Vicomte de Malivert. Thus, whether he likes it or not, he is an aristocrat, confined irrevocably within the perimeters of that class. By the very fact of his name, he is stamped indelibly as a reactionary. At the same time, however, he is a highly intelligent, modern, mathematically minded young man, trained at the École Polytechnique and a political idealist into the bargain; today one would call him a progressive intellectual. Thus, in the outcome, the “insuperable” personal and sexual dilemma is transformed into a symbol of something far more significant and universal: the irreconcilable claims of commitment to himself as an individual, on one hand, and to his class, family, and inherited background, on the other. Once again, suicide would appear to be the only solution. Even that, when it comes, bears the same hallmark of “impotence.” Octave remains his own divided self even in death. Lord Byron, faced with a parallel dilemma, at least got as far as Missolonghi in his flamboyant gesture of sacrificing himself to a “liberal” cause; not so Octave—a failed Byron if ever there was one. His ship, in Byron’s wake, is bound for Greece, and he, to fight the Turks. He dies, however, with careful timing, immediately before the coast is sighted. Octave is indeed a Romantic hero, but he is also the first of Stendhal’s antiheroes.

The Red and the Black

It was not a novel but the verbatim newspaper report of a murder trial that provided Stendhal with the plot and the denouement he needed for The Red and the Black. In four consecutive issues dated from December 28 to December 31, 1827, the Gazette des tribunaux had carried the story of the trial and subsequent condemnation of Antoine Berthier. Berthier, twenty-five years of age, a former tutor and a former theological student, had, on July 11, 1827, entered a church in the little township of Brangues, near Grenoble, where, during the celebration of the Mass, he had drawn and fired a pistol, thereby mortally wounding one Madame Michoud, mother of three children formerly entrusted to Berthier’s care and presumed at one time to have been his mistress. As the trial proceeded, more and more singular facts began to emerge, and on these, Stendhal’s imagination began to “embroider.” The novel, originally called “Julien,” was born.

Julien Sorel, youngest son of a peasant sawmill owner and endowed with ambitions well above his station, becomes tutor to the children of Monsieur de Rênal, mayor of the little township of Verrières, in the Jura. There Julien seduces Madame de Rênal; when suspicions of the relationship are aroused, he leaves the household and enrolls in a theological seminary at Besançon to study for the priesthood. In the seminary, he is befriended by the director, the Jansenist Abbé Pirard, who recommends Julien as secretary to the Marquis de La Mole, an aristocrat of ancient lineage moving amid the highest circles of Legitimist Paris. Julien seduces the Marquis’s daughter, Mathilde—with such success that when she becomes pregnant, the Marquis agrees to their marriage. All is set for the supreme realization of Julien’s ambitions when the Marquis receives a letter from Madame de Rênal, revealing Julien’s former relationship with herself. In a crisis of vengefulness and disillusion, Julien rides off to Verrières and shoots (but does not kill) Madame de Rênal during the celebration of the Mass. He is arrested, tried, condemned to death—and executed.

Julien Sorel is Stendhal’s total “egotist,” with all that that term implies: intelligence, willpower, and absolute lucidity, yet with so strong a sense of the highest ideal of his own self that no satisfaction of his ambitions or senses is acceptable, unless it should also satisfy that punctilious demand of “honor,” without which he is “a mere peasant.” Utterly contemptuous of his own peasant-capitalist background, of the provincial bourgeoisie of Verrières, and later even of the right-wing reactionary “high society” of Paris, nothing less than the highest aim of all can seem worthwhile to him. He would be a new Napoleon, a new Danton, yet at the same time he is only nineteen years old, uneducated, unsophisticated, and desperately timid. In the old days, under his hero, his model, Napoleon (he keeps a copy of Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases’s Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène hidden under the mattress of his bed—his bible), he might have risen through the ranks to become a marshal of France by the age of thirty (the “red”); but Napoleon is dead, and France, indeed the whole of Europe, lies in the grip of the reaction, controlled by the ancien régime aristocracy, by the right-wing bourgeoisie, and above all by the Church. As a soldier now, he would be destined to remain obscurely in the ranks for the rest of his days; but in the Church (the “black”), a man may become a bishop by the age of twenty-five, a cardinal by the age of thirty. In default of opportunity by way of the red, Julien Sorel opts, rationally and mathematically, for the black.

Not only does this situation set out the entire sociopolitical theme of the novel (a devastating condemnation of the whole state of France in the period preceding the July days of 1830, under the right-wing reaction that was perforce to follow a failed revolution), but also it introduces the second theme: hypocrisy. The nineteenth century, in the opinion of those who lived through it, was the most hypocritical century in the history of the world: To succeed, the first requirement was to pay lip service to whatever was in fashion. Thus, Julien Sorel decides to make himself a hypocrite, ruthlessly and lucidly. He is totally atheistic; he believes in no God, in nothing but himself. If the whole of society is corrupt and rotten, then he would be a fool not to profit by this corruption and this rottenness.

Into this pattern of controlled and rationalized egotism there intrude successively two women: Louise de Rênal and Mathilde de La Mole. Each is the absolute antithesis of the other: The first is married, deeply religious, humble, and passionately adoring; the second is a Diana-huntress, a fair-haired virgin inviolate, as implacably Voltairean as Julien himself. Both are infinitely far above Julien in social status; neither can be attacked, save by the stratagems of war. With a degree of male-oriented military objectivity that profoundly shocked Stendhal’s contemporaries and that is still more than a little disconcerting even today, Julien prepares his assault on one after another of these “fortresses”—and succeeds. Here, it is the red that is in the ascendant. Cold courage, icy calculation, “devotion to duty”—these are what drive Julien onward, when he would much rather retreat. In each case, when he is “victorious,” he is rewarded by no pleasure whatsoever. “Is that all it was?” he asks himself after his first subjugation of Madame de Rênal; “she had done her duty” is the only comment that Stendhal allows Julien after his first night with the previously virginal Mathilde de La Mole.

The total cynicism of the assault and the cold, mathematical assessment of the “conquest” are, however, only a beginning. In his essay Maxims of Love, Stendhal had written a sentence whose originality, for its time, is easy to overlook: “Sexual intimacy is not so much theclimax of happiness, as the last step before reaching it." This apparently simple statement implies the reversal of an entire psychologico-literary tradition in the treatment of the theme of love—the tradition that assumes that, between “true lovers,” the physical coming-together is the beginning and the end. For Stendhal, sexual intimacy is only a single step on the road to a complete relationship. Both in the case of Louise de Rênal and in that of Mathilde de La Mole, the lovers only begin to appreciate the significance of their relationship weeks, or even months, after their first moment of physical surrender, and by then it is too late. It is at this point that the irrational begins to take over.

The sheer irrationality of the ending of The Red and the Black has puzzled, and continues to puzzle, innumerable commentators—simply because there is no rational explanation. Poor Antoine Berthier could no more explain his actions than could Julien Sorel. Julien, after his assault on Madame de Rênal, could easily have escaped sentence; Madame de Rênal had not died, and powerful friends were working for him. Every chance that is offered to him, however, he refuses. He condemns himself, as it were, against all the evidence. His vaulting ambition appeased at last, he positively exults in the prospect of death. At an earlier point in the novel, meeting the failed revolutionary Count Altamira, condemned to death in absentia by the government of his country, Julien had observed significantly: “A death-sentence is the only honour which cannot be bought.” Perhaps this is the key. Caught in the toils of an utterly corrupt society, even the most sublime moments of his love for Madame de Rênal and for Mathilde were tainted with corruption: the corruption even of being alive in the nineteenth century in France. Alone in his cell during the final hours, Julien at last finds himself confronted with the only worthy opponent whom his pride acknowledges: himself. This is the ultimate sublimation of “egotism”—an egotism so vast and pure and perfect that it can find satisfaction in nothing less than the Absolute; because there is no Absolute in life, death is the most welcome of lovers.

Lucien Leuwen

Among all of Stendhal’s novels, Lucien Leuwen is the most immediately and overtly political. In fact, it was probably the realization that to see it in print was likely to cost him his job as French Consul in Civitavecchia that caused Stendhal finally to abandon it two-thirds of the way through. Even so, the two parts that have come down to us are longer than The Red and the Black. In spite of their incomplete and unpolished state, they nevertheless represent one of Stendhal’s major achievements.

As usual, Stendhal “borrowed” his plot—in this case, from an unpublished “first novel” by one of his oldest friends, Madame Jules Gaulthier. Unfortunately, the original manuscript has vanished; it nevertheless seems to have supplied the material at least for part 1 of Lucien Leuwen.

Since July, 1830, when Stendhal had enthusiastically welcomed the Revolution, which brought in the new regime of Louis-Philippe, things had gone very wrong indeed, and, once again, the country stood on the brink of civil war. There were three factions: the aristocracy, supported by the...

(The entire section is 5829 words.)