Stendhal Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5829

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...

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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 Church (the Legitimists), who had never accepted Louis-Philippe and were conspiring with foreign powers for the return of the Bourbons; the Republicans (mainly intellectuals, but backed by the rising power of the proletariat), determined on a new and definitive revolution; and, sandwiched between the two and loved by no one, the Middle Way (le juste milieu), the compromise government actually in power. Early in 1834, a series of incidents had occurred in which troops had been called in by the bourgeois government to suppress rioting workers. One of these frays, known to history as the Affaire de la rue Transnonain, had caused an explosion of resentment throughout the country. The Affaire de la rue Transnonain not only signaled the beginning of real trouble for Louis-Philippe and gave the term “bourgeois” for the first time its modern, pejorative sense but also provided the spark in Stendhal’s mind that set off Lucien Leuwen.

Lucien Leuwen himself is a bourgeois, the sophisticated and intelligent son of a fabulously wealthy banker (modeled on Baron Mayer Rothschild), who, because of his dictatorial powers in the financial world, has every ministry in his pocket. A student at the École Polytechnique, Lucien has been expelled as being suspect of Republicanism; now, to his father’s indulgent amusement, he decides for a career in the army, for, like Julien Sorel, he has been brought up on the great Napoleonic legend, besides which, as a handsome young man, he appreciates the elegance of the uniform. His father’s influence assures him of a commission as second lieutenant in the Lancers, and he is stationed in Nancy, a near-frontier garrison town in northeastern France.

With Lucien’s arrival in that city, the themes of the novel immediately begin to take shape. Life in the army is anything but what his romantic imagination had pictured. After nearly twenty years without firing a shot at an enemy, it is boring; in consequence, it is disillusioning, barbaric, inefficient, and philistine. The officers spend their time quarreling, drinking, and seducing; its other ranks are sullen and recalcitrant, because the only time they see action is against their own countrymen “armed with cabbage-stumps.” Moreover, there is no longer anything glorious about being an officer: Despised as a “policeman” employed by a corrupt government of financial speculators, the new second lieutenant is lampooned in the press by the Republican Left and systematically snubbed in the aristocratic salons of the Right. Even the latter have little to offer: This is not intellectual, sophisticated Paris, but a remote provincial township bearing a remarkable resemblance to Grenoble—few writers in the entire European tradition have such utter contempt for provincial mediocrity as does Stendhal.

After one farcical “campaign” against the local cabbage-stumps, and a long, drawn-out, inconclusive love affair with an unapproachable Legitimist widow, Lucien is tricked somewhat melodramatically into leaving Nancy, having made himself unpopular in all quarters. Seeing him unemployed, his ever-indulgent father secures for him a post as private secretary to the Comte de Vaise, Minister of the Interior in Louis-Philippe’s government. From this point onward, the satire of a corrupt democracy in action becomes progressively more ferocious. It is a society controlled exclusively by two forces: cupidity and fear—on one hand, bribery and peculation; on the other, spying and a ruthless censorship. Every chance acquaintance, in this first portrait of the modern police state, is a potential government agent; every post office clerk will open letters and report their contents to the authorities. To be observed reading a suspect article in the press may herald the end of a promising career.

Lucien is wiser now, his early idealism giving way to an utterly ruthless cynicism. (In its own way, Lucien Leuwen is a bildungsroman: a novel of indoctrination into the manners of a society.) In two memorable episodes, he is first required to “cover up” a failed attempt by a government agent provocateur to portray the workers as dangerous animals intent on destroying the forces of law and order (the “Kortis affair”); then, by a mixture of corruption and intimidation, to manipulate election results in favor of the regime. In the first of these enterprises, Lucien succeeds, almost with the sleekness of a modern secret agent; in the second, he fails but emerges with honor. Again, Stendhal asks the question: How can any idealism survive amid the unmitigated moral pollution of modern society? Can an honorable man so much as touch politics with his little finger and not be sullied? The answer is an emphatic no.

Into the fabric of this sociopolitical diatribe, which constitutes the essential element of the novel, there are woven two psychological portraits, which are among Stendhal’s most fascinating. The first is that of Bathilde de Chasteller—another variation of the Métilde/Mathilde dream figure—a slightly prudish provincial widow who is the great love of Lucien’s life and who alone redeems the misery of his sojourn in the garrison town of Nancy. The second, more interesting still, is the portrait of Lucien’s own father, the successful banker Monsieur Leuwen, père.

François Leuwen is one of Stendhal’s finest creations. He is the father Stendhal wished he had had; he is the father, perhaps, that every truly intelligent young man would allot to himself, were the choice his. He is the creative critic to his own son; he is generous, even indulgent; he will accept anything except incompetence or stupidity. He is a banker, but he is totally indifferent to money. For him, banking is a game, just as, later in the novel, when he chooses to indulge in politics, politics is a game. He is brilliant, witty, totally in control of his world, and, after twenty-five years of marriage, still adored by his wife. He is (in a different context) the fifty-year-old Stendhal in relation to his own heroes, for all of them—Octave, Julien, Lucien, Fabrice, Feder de Miossens—are of the age to have been his own sons. All of them, Lucien in particular, are Stendhal as he might have been, had he been born twenty or thirty years later. Leuwen, père, however, is sixty-five years old when the novel opens; by the end of part 2, he is dead. Seemingly, once he had vanished, Stendhal no longer had the courage to go on with his own story.

The Charterhouse of Parma

Into The Charterhouse of Parma, the last and greatest of his completed works, Stendhal poured the entirety of his life’s experience: his passionate love of Italy, his cult of energy and unexpectedness, his worship of the young Napoleon, his memories of Métilde, his confrontation of absolutes (the battlefield and the monastery), his contempt for the new, get-rich-quick bourgeoisie of modern Europe, his philosophy of egotism and of the pursuit of happiness (“la chasse au bonheur”), his irony, his cynicism, his frivolity when confronted with anything solemn or pompous, and his unquenchable idealism. The origin of the story lies in an Italian manuscript of the Renaissance titled The Origins of the Greatness of the Farnese Family, a summary of the manner in which Alessandro Farnese had risen, in 1534, to be elected to the throne of Saint Peter under the name of Pope Paul III. Stendhal had had thisnarrative in mind for four or five years when, in 1838, some unrevealed incident recalled to him an event that, a decade or so earlier, had moved him deeply: the death of a child, Bathilde, daughter of his sometime mistress Clémentine Curial. This gave him the ending that he needed and, as was so frequently the case, the end was his true starting point. At the same time, he decided to set the story not in Renaissance Rome but in post-Napoleonic Parma. On November 4, 1838, he began to write, or rather, to dictate. By November 8, he had completed the Waterloo episode, and on that same day, he changed his hero’s name from Alexandre to Fabrice. By December 26, the novel was complete; it had taken him exactly fifty-two days to write it.

Like The Red and the Black, The Charterhouse of Parma falls into two parts, the dominant themes and characters of part 2 being fleetingly, but nevertheless carefully, etched in in part 1. The story opens in 1796, the year in which Napoleon, in the first and most exhilarating of his campaigns, liberated Milan from the Austrians. Into these scenes of delirious rejoicing, Stendhal pours all the excitement of his own first discovery of Milan following the battle of Marengo. A penniless young French officer, Lieutenant Robert, is lodged in the palazzo of the noble del Dongo family. There he is welcomed, not by the Marquis (who, being a die-hard, pro-Austrian reactionary, has prudently retreated to his ancestral castle at Grianta on the shores of Lake Como), but by the Marquise, his wife, and by his young sister, the thirteen-year-old Gina del Dongo. This state of euphoria lasts for nearly three years, before the French are driven out once more after the Battle of Cassano, but at some point during the second year, the Marquise has given birth to a son, Fabrice. Stendhal never states, nor even specifically hints, that Fabrice’s father is not the avaricious and cantankerous Marquis but rather Lieutenant Robert; nevertheless, the reader is entitled to his or her surmises. At all events, Fabrice’s character, as it develops, is a judicious balance between the French and the Italian: He has, on one hand, something of the lucidly calculated egotism and the hypocrisy of a Julien Sorel and, on the other, a degree of spontaneity, of superstition, and of sheer frivolity that, in Stendhal’s view, is “typically Italian,” although nowhere else does he insist so markedly on these particular aspects.

Superstition and frivolity: These are the characteristics (in alliance with courage, passion, generosity, and an innate nobility of mind) that distinguish Fabrice from any other Stendhalian hero. Both traits, alternately qualities and defects, Fabrice owes to the total nullity of his education (his is a Jesuit-dominated society that is terrified by ideas, because ideas lead ineluctably to atheism and to revolution)—an education whose supreme achievement is to maintain the child in a state of perfect innocence, that is, ignorance. On the other hand, Stendhal exploits both traits for purposes of his own. The superstition (above all, the faith in omens as guides to decision making or as forewarnings of the future) will gradually evolve into a complex pattern of symbols—trees, towers, walls, prisons, and so on—which themselves form a coherent and autonomous substructure to the novel; the frivolity acquires status as a positive ethic, insofar as it is opposed to all that is humorless and self-important and bourgeois and puritanical in nineteenth century society. In Lucien Leuwen, the operations of high finance were redeemed by being “taken as a game”; in The Charterhouse of Parma, even the crude machinations of party politics become acceptable, provided that they are conceived as “a game of chess, or whist,” or perhaps even as the artfully distracting intrigues of an Italian opera buffa.

Fabrice is sixteen years old when Napoleon escapes from Elba and begins the campaign that is to finish at Waterloo. Fabrice, in enthusiasm for his hero, escapes from his gloomy family castle and rushes off to join him as a volunteer—a disastrous impulse of emotional naïveté that culminates in the famous description of the battle itself. These fifty-odd pages offer a truly realistic description of a battle, one that, some twenty-five years later, so impressed Leo Tolstoy that it gave him the first inspiration for Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). It is a picture of total chaos, a situation in which no one—least of all Fabrice—has the faintest idea of what is happening: “Was that a battle? Did I take part in a battle?” This, in the end, as he makes his way out of the rout, is the only question that torments him.

Back in Lombardy, Fabrice finds himself politically suspect as a result of his escapade, and, under the protection of his aunt, the Countess Pietranera, he is smuggled out of the Austrian dominions, first into Piedmont, later to Naples to study theology. This Countess Pietranera is that same Gina who, at the age of thirteen, had first appeared in the palazzo of the del Dongo family in the opening scene of the novel. On growing up, she has made a love match with an army officer, General Count Pietranera, subsequently killed in a duel; now an impoverished widow in her early thirties, at the same time that she takes Fabrice under her protection, she attracts the attention of a certain Count Mosca, who is scintillatingly competent, sophisticated, cynical, and middle-aged, currently the power behind the throne of Ranuce-Ernest IV, Prince of Parma. Gina is attracted to him. On his advice, she makes a purely nominal marriage with an aged courtier, the duke of Sanseverina-Texis, and Count Mosca and the new Duchess Sanseverina take up their residence at the court of Ranuce-Ernest IV, where they are eventually joined by Fabrice. Fabrice is now a fully fledged monsignore (a candidate for higher ecclesiastical office in the Roman Church), with pretensions to succeed, thanks to Mosca’s influence, to the Archbishopric of Parma.

The first polarization of the novel is now complete. Against a brilliantly handled background of political intrigue in this comic-opera court, there evolve the emotional relationships of Stendhal’s three most complex and convincing characters. Mosca is ever more deeply in love with Gina; Gina progressively falls in love with her own nephew, Fabrice; and Fabrice is in love with no one but quite prepared to have adventures with any pretty woman he meets. In the last analysis, the novel is the most subtle observation of the balance between maturity and immaturity in three completely sincere and generous individuals. Mosca, no less passionate for being past fifty, is able to observe himself lucidly, knowing exactly what he wants from life and how to get it, and is always able to defer immediate and present satisfaction in the interests of some more distant, but more rewarding, end. Gina, a woman at the very height of her maturity and powers, is deeply grateful to Mosca for the richness and excitement of the life he has made for her and is fully aware of the absurdity of falling in love with a man who is fifteen years younger than herself, and who is her own nephew at that, yet is unable to do anything about it. She is given, in consequence, to sudden violent and unpredictable actions that will shake the whole foundation of the state. Fabrice, revering in Mosca the father he might have had, is warmly attached to Gina in a kind of admiring and generous amitié amoureuse. At bottom, he is still an adolescent, emotionally dormant, prepared to commit the wildest extravagances for one woman one day, only to make love to another the day following.

One of Fabrice’s ephemeral adventures involves him with a little commedia dell’arte actress called Marietta, a harmless enough amusement in all conscience, save that Marietta has a “protector,” an uncouth lout named Giletti. Giletti, not without reason, becomes jealous of Fabrice, attacks him, and, in the resulting scuffle, gets himself killed. In this (given the prevailing ethos of Parma), there is nothing reprehensible for Fabrice—for a noble del Dongo to dispose of an ignominious, fifth-rate strolling player is, ordinarily, not too unusual. In the hothouse atmosphere of court intrigue that flourishes about Prince Ranuce-Ernest, however, Mosca’s enemies recognize the opportunity to topple the all-powerful minister by having his favorite protégé indicted and executed for murder. Thus, Fabrice is arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Farnese Tower.

Fabrice’s imprisonment at the very summit of this gigantic fortress (a magnified version of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome) marks the beginning of the most hallucinatory episode of the whole novel. From the window of his aerie, Fabrice can glimpse the residence of the Prison Governor, General Fabio Conti, some twenty-five feet below; there he watches the Governor’s daughter, Clélia Conti, tending the bird cages on her balcony. Between them springs a love that is so exalted, so ineffable (its very impossibility on the human level carrying it into the domain of the transcendental), that the months of his imprisonment come to represent to Fabrice the most sublime moments of happiness on earth. The devoted and indefatigable Gina arranges his escape, but it takes all of Clélia’s powers of persuasion to convince him that he must save his own life. Once restored to the world, he is as a being returned from another dimension, a being allowed a glimpse of Paradise and then wrenched away from it, a being forced to exchange the freedom of imprisonment for the imprisonment of freedom. All appears to him unreal and transparent. His life, his soul, his whole being is “on the other side.”

Eventually, the novel draws to its (characteristically abrupt) close. Fabrice and Clélia, amid virtually insuperable difficulties, discover each other again. A child is born to them, a son, Sandrino, but Sandrino dies. A few weeks later, in despair and grief, Clélia dies also. Fabrice renounces the world and retires to a monastery—the Charterhouse of Parma—where his cell recalls to him the sublime moments of his imprisonment in the Farnese Tower. Then he, too, dies, and his death is followed by that of Gina, yet there is nothing tragic about these deaths.

The Charterhouse of Parma retained its singular density, perhaps, until the Russian novelists achieved its equivalent. Even absolutely minor characters—the Abbé Blanès, the astrologer-priest of Grianta, or Ferrante Palla, the brigand-poet, or “La Vivandière” (the canteen woman following the regiments at Waterloo), or Aniken, the Flemish-speaking innkeeper’s daughter at Zonders, where Fabrice recuperates from his wounds—all of these and a score of others have an immediacy that makes them unforgettable. The Charterhouse of Parma is Stendhal’s last will and testament, embracing all that he knew of good and evil in the world.


The last of Stendhal’s novels, Lamiel, left unfinished at his death, is of more interest to scholars than to the general reader. Whether Stendhal’s creative powers had been exhausted by The Charterhouse of Parma or he was experimenting with new narrative forms that he never had time to master is not clear. As the fragments of Lamiel have come down to us, there are two quite distinct versions, of which the first (1839) is of greater originality than the second.

The first version of Lamiel is an extended novella in the picaresque tradition. It owes much to Voltaire’s contes philosophiques—particularly to his Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749)—and it may well constitute an attempt to write such a tale in a setting of the year 1830. The heroine, Lamiel, an orphan adopted into a family of nouveau riche peasants in Normandy, sets out to discover “what love is all about.” With a degree of cynicism redeemed only by absolute naïveté, Lamiel, after each amorous-sexual experience, echoes Julien Sorel’s words after his first night with Madame de Rênal: “So that’s all it was!” After Stendhal’s death, a decade or so later, Gustave Flaubert, in Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, with Germinie Lacerteux (1865; English translation, 1887), were to tackle similar questions, albeit using a different tonality.

Stendhal’s novels concern overall the revolt of the individual against the compulsive forces of conformism; his men and women are utterly and ruthlessly cynical in pursuit of their own self-realization, yet cynicism is only one element in the pattern. Through his novels, Stendhal has bequeathed a philosophy that is frequently known as Beylism and that, with its inextricable mixture of egoism and idealism, holds an appeal that increases from generation to generation. This philosophy can be summarized as follows: I am Myself, and outside Myself, there is no God, there is nothing. Consequently, my ultimate objective can only be the realization of my own potential, my “happiness.” I can realize my ultimate happiness only if this happiness corresponds to the highest ideal that I can conceivably formulate for myself; anything less than that is mere vulgarity, sordid, nauseating, and unforgivable. Once that “sublime ideal” is achieved, then there is nothing beyond it—only time, which will destroy its perfection.

It is logical, therefore, that virtually all of Stendhal’s novels and stories have the outward form of tragedies, ending in death. They are not tragedies, however. Rather, they are shot through with exaltation: records of men and women striving to realize the highest ideal of themselves in defiance of a faceless, sordid, corrupt, and materialistic society determined to reduce them to its own level of dreary mediocrity.

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Stendhal World Literature Analysis