Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2045
Stendhal’s prediction that his work would not be appreciated until fifty years after his death was not entirely borne out by events. In his lifetime, he won the esteem of, among others, Honoré de Balzac, the other major French novelist of the day. Yet, there is a certain amount of truth in Stendhal’s forecast, not merely because his first translation into English did not occur until the later years of the nineteenth century. Translations obviously gave his work a wider audience, but the fact that they came to the attention of an international readership at a time when the criticism of fiction was becoming a more pronounced fact of cultural life led to a more influential appreciation of his distinctive artistic ambitions and accomplishments as a novelist.
It is because of its psychological interest that Stendhal’s fiction is regarded so highly. That is also why it is significant that his first publications were works of criticism and of observation in a broad sense. These early works establish the bases for the kind of transition in imaginative prose that Stendhal’s novels represent. Many of his concerns may be crudely reduced to his fascination with the dual, and interdependent, relationship between reason and emotion. It is from this fascination that he derives his power as a portrayer of characters. As a result, his fiction was instrumental in elevating character over story.
The shift in emphasis revealed in Stendhal’s work is very much part of a larger shift in sensibility that occurred in European culture during Stendhal’s apprenticeship as a writer. This transition is from the ostensible stability and sense of proportion of the predominantly neoclassical art of the eighteenth century to the Romantic art of the nineteenth century. Such a reorientation of sensibility did not occur overnight, but gradually, through a publicly perceptible process of realignment. As Stendhal himself suggests, this realignment was not necessarily exclusively revealed in the literature of the day. His most comprehensive investigation of the phenomenon, Racine and Shakespeare, involves great writers from other eras and praises Shakespeare for his Stendhalian spontaneity, exuberance, and vividness.
Stendhal is not merely an important analyst of the culture of his day. As his biography reveals, he was also intimately involved with the history of his times. This history, and Stendhal’s experience of it, was dominated not merely by the activities of Napoleon but also by his mythic status. Napoleon was perceived by the European mind at large as the spirit of the age. To Stendhal, this spirit was dynamic, ambitious, energetic, resourceful, impassioned, and foolhardy. His response to it, as the characters of Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black and Fabrizzio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma reveal, was generous. At the same time, however, it was impossible for Stendhal to identify completely with it. The youth of a Julien and Fabrizzio inspires their daring, verve, and vitality. Yet it also inspires Stendhal’s most tenderly ironic critique of such qualities. His artistic ambition is to reconcile the passions of his heroes to his own dispassionate reason.
Stendhal’s most important contribution to the development of the novel is his use of it to produce systematic critiques. This use not only underwrites his conception of his heroes but also shows the novel to be a means of reflecting on contemporary individuals and morals. The irony that Stendhal applies to his youthful protagonists is used much more incisively to reveal the hypocrisies, evasions, and trivialities of public life in the wake of Napoleon. It is in the figures of Julien and Fabrizzio that Stendhal expresses most cogently the philosophy that he named Beylisme. This outlook lauded the energetic, and perhaps even reckless, pursuit of happiness as the highest human calling and the animating power of all activity. Such an emphasis on individuality is a testament to the range, originality, and significance of Stendhal’s writings.
The Red and the Black
First published: Le Rouge et le noir, 1830 (English translation, 1898)
Type of work: Novel
This story depicts the career of a talented young man in postrevolutionary France.
Originally published in 1830, Le Rouge et le noir first appeared in English translation as The Red and the Black in 1898. Its many subsequent editions in different English translations testify to its classic status. Written in an economic and, for the most part, slyly understated style, its claim to be counted among the finest novels of the nineteenth century is undoubted.
Perhaps the only feature of The Red and the Black that is not entirely original is its plot. It was taken by Stendhal from a story that appeared in a newspaper, the Gazette des Tribuneaux, in 1827, concerning Antoine Berthet, the son of a laborer, whose career had something of the same rise and fall as that of Julien Sorel, the novel’s hero. The similarity between the two cases is not merely an intriguing sidelight on the composition of The Red and the Black. It also speaks directly to the reality of the novel’s concerns, which draw not only on the newspapers of the day but also on the recent history of France. As Julien well knows, the example of Napoleon I, to which he is unwisely devoted, has made it possible for someone who is provincial, talented, and ambitious, but without social connections, to have his dreams of success realized.
Julien embodies the duality that Stendhal perceived to exist between spirit and reason. He is a lover who is also a hypocrite, a cleric who becomes a soldier, an innocent who commits a crime. He possesses a winning measure of spontaneity, verve, and daring. Yet these natural qualities are continually placed in the service of a socially inspired image of himself. It is to this image that Julien is enslaved. For all of his success, he spends much of his time unhappy, confused, and on the defensive. He wages two self-promoting campaigns, one in Verriere, the other in Paris. Though he wins a number of battles, he loses the war and becomes, like Napoleon, his idol, that war’s most visible and notorious victim.
Stendhal organizes The Red and the Black so that his conception of duality becomes inescapable. Its overriding presence is obviously called to the reader’s attention in the title. There has been much critical debate as to what “red” and “black” refer. “Red” is thought to suggest the hot-blooded vigor of the Napoleonic era. That era’s conservative and small-minded aftermath, on the other hand, is said to be denoted by clerical black. Julien’s career seems to confirm what his advisers imply, that the church’s uniform is the only one in which he will be able to secure the career to which his talents entitle him. A narrower reading of the color code calls attention to the political climate of the post-Napoleonic period, with red standing for republicanism and black for clerical conservatism. It is also possible to see the colors as referring exclusively to Julien. His inner life is vivid, while on the outside he seems largely colorless.
While Stendhal allows the reader to ponder the title’s various possibilities, he is quite explicit in providing by other means a comprehensive sense of the dual elements in his protagonist’s career. Not only does The Red and the Black have a two-part structure, but the stories in each of them are counterparts of one another. The natural world of Verriere, with its walks, gardens, and children, yields to the artificial world of Paris, with its salons, carriages, and callow youths. More important, Julien’s affair with Madame de Renal is conducted with a ruthlessness that belies his spontaneous nature and exploits hers. The affair with Mathilde de la Mole, on the other hand, shows Julien to be the exploited one, in turn a victim of a loved one’s bad faith. Thus, not only is each of Julien’s two stories complementary; each provides an ironic commentary on the other. Aware of the twin force of image and reality, artifice and nature, hypocrisy and honesty, but deprived by his character of the power necessary to regulate this awareness, Julien falls afoul, not of the time but of his inability to secure his place within it.
The Charterhouse of Parma
First published: La Chartreuse de Parme, 1839 (English translation, 1895)
Type of work: Novel
This tale describes a fateful conflict between emotional idealism and political reality, set in early nineteenth century Italy.
Stendhal’s second great novel, The Charterhouse of Parma, was first published in Paris in 1839 and had to wait more than fifty years before appearing in an English translation in 1895. Like The Red and the Black, its vivid characterizations, intriguing plot, and ironical style immediately confirmed its status as one of the major achievements of the nineteenth century novel.
Almost ten years separate the original publication of The Charterhouse of Parma from The Red and the Black. The interval did not, however, produce a change in Stendhal’s fictional themes or methods. Once again, the protagonist is a young man, and the environment in which he comes face to face with the world and his situation and destiny in it is one of political intrigue. Again, the protagonist’s fate seems to be decided by his emotional nature, and the expression of that nature is subject to ruinous social manipulation. The larger backdrop to the novel’s plot is the Napoleonic era. Yet it is used to illuminate the character of the protagonist, Fabrizzio del Dongo, and to prepare the reader for the struggle for autonomy and individuality that Fabrizzio must undergo. As in The Red and the Black, this struggle constitutes the bulk of the novel.
What might be referred to as the Fabrizzio narrative in The Charterhouse of Parma opens with a series of his misadventures in pursuit of military glory. The presentation of an ignorant, inexperienced, confused, but spirited Fabrizzio at the battle of Waterloo has long been considered not only a high point in the depiction of the individual in history but also a telling instance of the essentially modern character of Stendhal’s imagination. The impetus that inspires Fabrizzio to flounder self-deceivingly in the wake of Napoleon’s army, however, is the same one that guides his behavior throughout the novel. This impetus is romantic in nature. Its generous and outgoing aspects are dramatized, but with a more sensitive irony than that of The Red and the Black.
Fabrizzio’s angelic appearance is, understandably, taken at face value by those who love him. Yet their acceptance of him is the basis of the tragic experiences that he brings their way. This acceptance places a far greater emphasis on the moral and spiritual dimension of the characters, which the remoteness of the novel’s setting accentuates. The persistence with which remoteness of setting is featured throughout, ending in the charterhouse itself, and the fact that it tends to force the characters to tap their own internal resources, lends the work as a whole a distinctly operatic air, which Stendhal, the author of a biography of Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini and a lifelong lover of opera, undoubtedly cultivated.
The interest of The Charterhouse of Parma is at once more intimate, more desperate, and of greater human significance than that of The Red and the Black because the plot revolves around the inescapable nature of feeling. This orientation is embodied most substantially by the Duchess Sanseverina, who is the novel’s most operatic, and most memorable, character. Through his development of the Duchess, Stendhal underlines his conception of duality. The means of doing so are quite different from those used in The Red and the Black. There, the focus was on ambition, mediated through the inadequacies of human society. The focus of The Charterhouse of Parma is love, mediated through the frailties of human nature. Fabrizzio is the most obvious embodiment of these frailties. The manner in which he embodies them, however, reveals their existence more critically in the women around him. Of these, the Duchess is the most affecting, the most compelling, and the character above all others in Stendhal’s fiction who reveals this author’s belief that the pursuit of happiness is ironically life’s joy and tragedy.