Stendhal: The Red and the Black

Le Rouge et le Noir was Stendhal’s first novel, written in 1830. It provides a rare insight into French life in a period of political turmoil following Napoleon’s abdication, known as the Bourbon Restoration (1815-1830). The Bourbons, Louis XVIII and Charles X, were on the throne as constitutional monarchs, and although France prospered, the country was politically, religiously and socially divided between the royalists and those who had supported the Napoleonic Revolution.  The few newspapers of the time were controlled by the government; but in Paris political factions met at dinner parties and in the numerous cafés and bars on the boulevards. Paris buzzed, but not always in a good way.

The plot follows the life of Julien Sorel, a village boy and son of a carpenter. He is clever; he can recite Latin texts from the Bible by heart and does so rather often. His intellectual skills are recognised and thus he advances through society, first becoming the tutor to the children of the local mayor Monsieur de Rênal. But when Rênal discovers Julian is having an affair with Madame de Rênal, Julian moves to a seminary. He is not happy there; he finds it dull and his fellow scholars do not take to him. However, the seminary director, Abbé Pirard, is greatly impressed by Julien’s abilities, and arranges for him to join the staff of a wealthy Parisian diplomat, Monsieur de la Mole. He becomes Monsieur de la Mole’s private secretary and is entrusted with important tasks including letter-writing and the handling of the family estate. However, he is always an outsider, belonging to a lower class. Socially he is out of his depth and has to keep quiet about his admiration of Napoleon because the family and their high-class friends are royalists. He finds it hard to adjust but nevertheless has a sexual adventure with the headstrong young daughter, Matilde. She becomes pregnant, and the couple wish to marry; but the father is furious, and at first refuses to give his consent. Julian is still a young man (early 20s) and he agonises with his emotional attachments both to his earlier love, Madame de Rênal, and to Matilde. He is apparently unhinged, and he shoots Madame de Rênal in church, but fails to kill her. For this he is executed by guillotine.

One of our members had the original French version, much thumbed, another had Roger Gard’s translation, but most had G.K. Scott Moncrieff’s. We made brief comparisons, but there was much of real substance to discuss and we didn’t dwell on this. My version (Wordsworth Classics) has an excellent Introduction by Moya Longstaffe but I didn’t read it until writing this blog. In fact, it’s clear that the book is one which repays research, and indeed it has often attracted scholars. We book-group folk approached the book as humble readers, most of us had not read it before.  ‘Let’s make a start’ said the proposer, ‘but wait: we have a longish email from one of our members who has been rushed to Tasmania to attend a family wedding’:

I found this a fascinating book, of great scope and depth. Perhaps the book started from a desire to write a Voltaire type satire about French society at all levels – rural, Church, and Parisian society. But the intriguing characters that emerge and the detailed analysis of the shifts and turns of their mental state make it so much more than that. The two main female characters are very well done. Sorel himself is pretty unappealing – self-centred, ambitious, hypocritical, struggling to have genuine feelings for others – but the story is so well told that the reader follows his exploits always with interest and sometimes with sympathy. There’s an appealing sense of adventure about many episodes, particularly those involving ladders and bedrooms!

 It is unusual to have a novel that is so bang up to date in its political context – its a ‘Chronicle of 1830’ – and you get a good sense of the times and all the factions and plotting as France struggles to move on from the Revolution and Napoleon. There is a strong underlying thread of nostalgia for the Revolution and also for Napoleon, to whose exploits Stendhal owed so much of his career. I found it difficult to be sure if Stendhal is in Julian’s camp on Napoleon or identifies with the more ambivalent voices. You might expect anyone who had been on the disastrous Russian Campaign to detest Napoleon and his unnecessary  wars, but plenty of the soldiers (but not so many citizens) remained loyal fans of Napoleon to the end. I guess that emerging nostalgia leads finally to the Second Republic and the Second Empire.

 I see it suggested that the title might refer to Church versus Army (the Hussars had some red or scarlet uniforms, but of course most French uniforms were blue) or it might refer to the secular versus the religious. I don’t think it matters what he intended – it’s a richly evocative title, with both colours symbolic of many contrasting aspects of life.

We didn’t all agree with this impression of Julian, which does however match in tone most descriptions and reviews we have come across, where he is ‘an ambitious young social climber in a cruel, monarchical society’. Our proposer, on the other hand, defends Julian in an email as follows:

My take is that Julian is only 22 when he dies. He starts the book as young and cut off from “civilisation “. Every piece of progress demands courage and his friendship with the retired army man helps him. When he makes the first move with Mme de Reynal it is clear he is testing his courage. This is a central theme.

I agreed whole-heartedly. We might ask the question, how would we ourselves have behaved in Julian’s circumstances?  Even today, clever village boys and girls living in rural surroundings anywhere in the world need a bit of help from a wise grown-up if they are to be self-fulfilled. And, to succeed, they need to go away. Julian’s humble origins meant he might never become a military officer even though he was an admirer of Napoleon and his military campaigns. A career in the church seemed like a good idea, given his interest and ability in Latin.  And if he had been a social climber he would have handled himself much better. At the end, he didn’t need to go to the guillotine. Aided by his lovers, he could have easily saved himself and must have seen that. As our proposer wrote in his reply to our in-Tasmania member:

So often he could have played his hand better [if he was just self centred]. Most obviously he should have cited Mme Reynal and Matilde for the trial and claimed Crime of Passion. He instead did not ask to see Reynal and yet realised he really loved her. He tried to sort out Matilde’s life with that of the child after his death. Note how realistic he was when facing his decision to sacrifice himself for their honour. In court he chose to speak and addressed the jury on the basis of a class vendetta. Thus he sealed his fate but this was calculated because he could see things being OK if he died, but not if he lived. It is so interesting to see him develop as a man and gradually cast aside the artifices he had relied on.

Yes, we all know young men (less often women) with savant-like skills (language, music, art, science) who are poor at managing their affairs. Julien is one of those. Stendhal wasn’t, he was a witty, man-about-town. But some of Julien’s characters and incidents may have been drawn directly from his own life. Like Julian, he engaged in sexual adventure and tried to understand the nature of love, writing a non-fictional work about it (De L’Amour in 1822). Both fell in love with an aristocratic girl called Matilde (or Métilde). Both went to Paris as young men and felt socially inferior. And Stendhal also learned to recite the New Testament by heart.

Stendhal is known today as a pioneer of literary realism, presenting and analysing everyday events unembellished by romantic overtones. Much of this book is about what Julien is thinking, introspection, indecision, especially in relation to love (his name Sorel is a palindrome of L’Eros). In navigating the mental labyrinth, he is sometimes guided by what his hero Napoleon may have done – he thinks that amorous affairs are like military campaigns. And he isn’t sure whether or not he is in love. Distinctions between infatuation, desire, love and lust cannot easily be made. But once he’s made up his mind, his actions are immediate and often dramatic (for example, the poignant scenes of Julien climbing into the bedroom of a lover using a ladder that is conveniently placed in the shrubbery nearby).  The author does not of course describe the intimate details. We get this sort of language instead:  ‘when she had no longer anything to refuse him, she thrust him from her, with genuine indignation, and then flung herself into his arms’. Our own mind minds can work on this as we choose. Feminists seem to have appreciated Stendhal’s work. Simon de Beauvoir liked Stendhal’s tendency ‘to say things like it really is’. Here is an extract from a recent scholarly article on the subject (Scott, 2008):

Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Stendhal ou le romanesque du vrai’ occupies a privileged position as the fifth of five literary essays located towards the end of a section devoted to myths of femininity, which closes the first volume of (her 1949 book) Le Deuxième Sexe. Stendhal is introduced by Beauvoir as an exception to the rule according to which male authors …. traditionally represent women as passive Others rather than active Subjects within their work.

Stendhal was not much appreciated in his own time, the romantic period. The Red and the Black presents a deeply unattractive picture of France – it satirizes and offends, it deals with taboo subjects. Even recently, Justino Alves Bastos, commander of the Third Army during the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état ordered the burning of all ‘subversive books’ which, astonishingly to us, included The Red and the Black (he must have been a well-read commander). The final chapter called Exit Julien was NOT considered to be a happy ending, not endearing itself to the book-buying bourgeoisie. He was however appreciated by several influential writers in the decades following his death: Hippolyte Thaine, Freidrich Nietzche and Tolstoy. He was labeled France’s last great psychologist by Nietzche. The young Tolstoy was especially fond of him. Generally though, Stendhal’s reputation did not develop until the 20th Century; now he is considered to rank alongside Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas in any list of the greatest French novelists.

Some parts of the story do seem implausible. Why would a person with such good literary skills copy someone else’s love-letters rather than write his own? His behaviour towards the end of the novel stretches credibility – his final demise is almost a suicide. Throughout, Stendhal is irritatingly obscure. Obscure is evidently one of the author’s affectations. For example, what does the book’s title mean? Red might refer to blood, military uniform, passion or the Phrygian cap, the headwear of Marianne, symbol of the revolution. Black is presumed to represent clerical dress, or perhaps the frequent mental state of Julien. Red and black are the colours on the roulette wheel, and Julien was a risk taker. Like black and white, the match red and black represents contrast, divergence, the colour of hearts and spades the playing cards. So the title works at many levels. But what about the dedication he writes ‘to the favoured few’. Who are the few? Perhaps he realised that those who truly appreciated his story would be just a few, at least in his own generation. It doesn’t really matter.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed this book, perhaps for our own different reasons. For some, appeal came from the psychological insights during character development, for others the rich prose which so nicely and delicately represents complex human emotions, for others the historical content and the admiration of Stendhal’s creative imagination.

Stendhal’s grave is in Paris. He specified the epitaph and wanted a marble slab shaped like a playing card. The epitaph is ‘He lived, he wrote, he loved’. In Latin of course.


Scott, M (2008) Irish Journal of French Studies 8, 55-71, downloadable from