Stendhal

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Article abstract: Stendhal combined the themes of Romanticism with the style of realism. His insistence on telling the truth about emotions in simple, stark terms resulted in novels that, although not very popular during his lifetime, have become classics.

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Early Life

Information about the life of Marie-Henri Beyle (who wrote as Stendhal) is voluminous and almost all suspect. Too much of it comes from his own autobiographical works—Vie de Henry Brulard (1890, 1949; The Life of Henry Brulard, 1925) and Souvenirs d’égotisme (1892, 1950; Memoirs of Egotism, 1949)—which are faithful accounts of Stendhal’s feelings about the events of his life but not necessarily faithful accounts of the events themselves. His father, Chérubin Beyle, was a lawyer and, according to Stendhal, acquisitive and stern. His mother, Henriette Gagnon Beyle, to whom he was exceptionally close, was gay and urbane. The loss of his mother in 1790 was a devastating blow. His Aunt Séraphie Gagnon took over the task of rearing the seven-year-old Marie-Henri, but he found her a sour-tempered disciplinarian. Their relationship was never warm. His grandfather, Henri Gagnon, provided not only a cheerful refuge from his father and Aunt Séraphie but also an introduction to the intellectual world of the Enlightenment. The young Marie-Henri found little companionship outside his family. He was kept away from the other children of the community, whom his father and aunt regarded as common. His tutor, the Abbé Jean-François Raillane, was cold and old-fashioned. One of the many things Beyle liked about the French Revolution was that in 1794 Raillane had to flee from it.

One of the many reforms generated by the Revolution was the creation of local schools. Such an institution opened in Grenoble in 1796, and Beyle was enrolled. It was his first opportunity to mix freely with people his own age. His performance was poor during his first year. He soon fell head over heels in love with a theater performer, Virginie Kubly, and although they never actually met, she was his first passion. Romantic turmoil would never again be long absent from his life. By 1799, he had the opportunity to study mathematics at the École Polytechnique in Paris.

Beyle, however, never enrolled at the school. With the fascination of a small-town boy in the big city, he began to explore Paris. Within a month, he was seriously ill and was rescued by cousins named Daru, who gave him a place to stay and an introduction to society. Later, they obtained for him a position as clerk at the Ministry of War. Although Beyle’s health returned, his illness caused him to lose much of his hair. From this time on, he wore a wig, and as he was stout, with short legs and a large head, he always felt physically inadequate. His luminous eyes were his only striking feature.

His position as a clerk proved depressing, but in May, 1800, Beyle was invited to join his cousins in Italy. En route, he visited Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s birthplace in Geneva and then joined Napoleon I’s army, which was passing through the St. Bernard Pass to surprise the Austrians. Milan entranced Beyle. He began learning Italian and was smitten by Angela Pietragrua, whose bureaucrat husband tolerated her many liaisons. Sexually uninitiated and still very shy, he was unsuccessful with Angela but contracted syphilis from a prostitute. Symptoms, apparently from this disease, recurred for the remainder of his life. In September, Pierre Daru was able to get his young cousin a provisional commission as sublieutenant in the cavalry. His posts in small rural villages proved boring, and Beyle soon finagled a staff position. Daru was angered because his name was used without his permission, and after a few months Beyle was ordered back to his regiment. He returned on October 26, 1801, only to fall ill; taking a medical leave, he set out for Grenoble.

He enjoyed his new...

(The entire section contains 2576 words.)

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