A landmark in the development of psychological realism, Stendhal's masterpiece chronicles a young man's struggles with the dualities of his nature. Julien Sorel, a young dreamer from the provinces whose imagination is afire with Napoleonic ideals, sets off to make his fortune in Parisian society of Restoration France. His encounters and experiences along the way incite constant inner conflict, drawing him back and forth between sincerity and hypocrisy, idealism and cynicism, humility and pride, love and ambition.
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From Bruce Robbins’s Introduction to The Red and the Black
Climbing a ladder in the darkness, a young man is about to tap at the window of a woman’s bedroom. This tableau, twice repeated in The Red and the Black, reveals two essential things about the novel. First, Julien Sorel is a social climber, on his way up in the world. And second, seducing the two women who become his lovers, both of them social superiors whose doors he cannot afford to be seen entering, turns out to be the major means of his social ascent.
The reader is under no obligation to sympathize with this erotic agenda for career advancement, however accidentally the ambitious young protagonist falls into it, or for that matter with the protagonist himself. Again and again, especially in the scenes of romantic courtship, Stendhal takes pains to show Julien’s conduct as animated, if that is the right word, by cold-blooded self-interest more than by genuine passion or desire. A military campaign aimed at conquering the enemy, one of Julien’s favorite metaphors for what he is up to, is not a particularly appetizing way to think about love. Why then have generations of tenderhearted readers found this tough-minded novel so compelling?
To begin with, it is because Stendhal makes the reader feel how heavy the odds are against ascending the social ladder from the point where Julien starts out. The stubborn incomprehension Julien gets from his peasant father, while it falls somewhat short of monstrous tyranny, does set him up (like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre) as a sort of nineteenth-century Cinderella: a suffering, sensitive, disadvantaged figure with whom it is almost impossible not to identify, at least at the outset. In bringing this fairy-tale structure forward into the dense, realistically observed detail of early-nineteenth-century France (the novel’s subtitle is “A Chronicle of 1830”), Stendhal also puts French history itself to work in making his protagonist more palatable. Though the Revolution of 1830 is not in fact discussed—the novel was finished before it broke out, and it was his publisher’s idea, not Stendhal’s, to use the subtitle to capitalize on reader interest in this topical and momentous event—one can hardly avoid the sense of unbearably oppressive social weather on the eve of a devastating political thunderstorm. In the period after the defeats of Napoléon in 1813 and 1815, conventionally described as the Restoration (the monarchy was restored to power), the term “reactionary” was not a piece of mud-slinging hyperbole. Hard though it may be for a twenty-first-century reader to take in, the French Revolution’s proposal that democracy should be realized in the world was still, to its opponents, unnatural and terrifying. The people who ruled France during the Restoration were self-consciously reacting against the democratic idea itself, and not merely against the violence of the terror with which that idea had been visited upon the king and the aristocracy. In restoring the monarchy, the rulers were restoring a natural social order in which, as God willed, one’s place was determined by one’s birth. Piety, hierarchy, and social immobility were cherished moral values of the age. Seen against this backdrop, Julien looks a lot more sympathetic. He seems to have little choice but to pretend he believes things he doesn’t believe, like the dogmas of the church. If he wants to improve his lowly condition, history decrees he must be a hypocrite. In love, as in religion and politics, he must ignore the empty banalities he is fed and take a hungrily scientific interest in how the gears and levers of social power really work.
Stendhal also softens our view of Julien by refusing to offer morally attractive alternatives. When Julien asserts that “‘the people whom the world honors are merely villains who have had the good fortune not to have been caught red-handed’”, he is both a rebel against his time and, less obviously, a representaative of it. Behind the Restoration’s pious façade there was in fact significant social motion, even if such motion was deemed illegitimate and was officially denied. The increasing prosperity of Julien’s shrewdly business-like father, which complicates the image of Julien’s own rise as unique and unprecedented, is an obvious example, and there are others. An amoral skill in worldly matters—what the French call mondanité—was prized even in ecclesiastical circles, as we see in Stendhal’s accounts of priestly maneuverings over church titles and positions, over land, and, in the case of the Abbé Frilair’s dishonorable intentions with regard to Mathilde, over sex. If Julien differs from the people around him, it is in part by being honest with himself, which is to say (given his place at the novel’s center of consciousness) honest with us. And this honesty helps offset the impact his hypocrisy with others has on us.
To complicate matters further, Stendhal leaves us guessing as to whether Julien’s career might after all embody some higher moral principle than merely getting ahead. What are the deep motives for his social ascent? When his father knocks Julien’s book out of his hands and into the stream beneath the sawmill, the blow is struck not against reading as such; Julien’s talent for memorizing Latin texts, which will do almost as much as his good looks to aid in his rise, has not been discouraged at home. Symbolically, the target is Julien’s passionate attachment to the ideals and accomplishments of the French Revolution and its recently defeated hero, Napoléon. (The book he is absorbed in when caught by his father is a record of conversations with Napoléon from prison.) Stendhal, who had himself marched with Napoléon’s armies in defense of the Revolution, made no secret of his own revolutionary loyalties. Dreaming of a greatness higher than his father’s money-making, Julien acts out his author’s feelings about the sordidness of Restoration France. And in so doing he also acts in the name of upward mobility, which one might have thought entirely consistent with money-making. “Careers open to talent!”, Napoléon’s meritocratic motto, at that moment still sounded (mainly) revolutionary, however ambiguous it may have come to seem since then. Stendhal seemed to think upward mobility could mainly be aligned against money-making. The novel’s early chapters find various ways, subtle and not so subtle, of associating Julien with those still poorer and more unfortunate than himself, like the prisoners on the other side of M. Valenod’s wall, who are stopped from singing so as not to disturb Valenod’s distinguished guests as they carouse. Even the scene in which M. de Rênal decides to hire Julien as his children’s tutor, thereby setting the novel’s plot in motion, is framed by concern—not M. de Rênal’s, of course, but the novel’s—over how the poor of the village are being treated by its constituted authorities. As he climbs his various ladders, Julien somehow carries this concern with him. One of the novel’s ongoing interpretive mysteries is what exactly he is striving for or, more precisely, to what extent his goals transcend the acquisition of money and power for himself.
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