The Red and the Black
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) is a novel by French writer Stendhal, published in 1830. Set in France circa 1827-30, it relates a young man's attempts to rise above his plebeian birth through a combination of talent, hard work, deception and hypocrisy, only to find himself betrayed by his own passions.
Like Stendhal's later novel The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme), Le Rouge et le Noir is a Bildungsroman. The protagonist, Julien Sorel, is a driven and intelligent man, but equally fails to understand much about the ways of the world he sets out to conquer. He harbours many romantic illusions, and becomes little more than a pawn in the political machinations of the influential and ruthless people who surround him. Stendhal uses his flawed hero to satirize French society of the time, particularly the hypocrisy and materialism of its aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church, and to foretell a radical change in French society that will remove both of those forces from their positions of power.
Explanation of the title
The most common and most likely explanation of the title is that red and black are the contrasting colors of the army uniform of the times and of the robes of priests, respectively. Julien Sorel observes early on in the novel that, under the Bourbon restoration it is impossible for a man of his class to distinguish himself in the army (as he might have done under Napoleon); now, only a career in the Church offers social advancement and glory. Alternative explanations are possible, however: for example, red might stand for love and black for death and mourning; or the colours might refer to those of a roulette wheel, and may indicate the unexpected changes in the hero's career.
The Red and the Black is the story of Julien Sorel, the ambitious son of a carpenter in the fictional French village of Verrières. The novel comprises two “books”, but each book has two major stories within it. The first book introduces Julien, who would rather spend his time with his nose in books or daydreaming about the "glory days" of Napoleon’s army (long-since disbanded) than work in his father's timber yard alongside his brothers, who beat him for his intellectual affectation. Julien ends up becoming an acolyte of the local Catholic Abbé, who later secures him a post as tutor for the children of the Mayor of Verrières, M. de Rênal. Julien acts as a pious and austere cleric, though in reality he has little interest in the Bible beyond its literary value and the way he can use memorized passages to impress important people (passages which he has moreover learned in Latin, and of whose meaning he has only an imperfect grasp). Over time, Julien begins an affair with the wife of M. de Rênal, one that ends badly when the affair is exposed throughout the town by her chambermaid, Elisa, who had designs of her own on Julien. M. de Rênal then banishes Julien, who moves on to a seminary in Besançon which he finds cliquish and stifling. Despite his initial cynicism, the director of the seminary M. Pirard (a Jansenist and thus a figure of hate for the more powerful Jesuit faction in the diocese) takes a liking to Julien and becomes his patron. When M. Pirard leaves the seminary in disgust at the political machinations of the Church’s hierarchy, he rescues Julien from the persecution he will almost certainly encounter in the absence of his Jansenist protector, by recommending Julien as a candidate for private secretary to the diplomat and aristocratic Roman Catholic legitimist, the Marquess de la Mole.
Book II, which begins at the time of the July Revolution, chronicles Julien’s time in Paris with the family of M. de la Mole. Julien tries to participate in the high society of Paris, but the nobles look down on him as something of a novelty — a poor-born intellectual. Julien, meanwhile, finds himself torn between his ambitions to rise in society and his disgust at the base materialism and hypocrisy of the Parisian nobility. In an exhilarating episode, Julien risks life and limb when he embarks at M. de la Mole's behest upon a cloak-and-dagger political mission to England, where he is to use his phenomenal memory to repeat a sensitive message to an unidentified addressee. As before, Julien learns the message by rote but fails to appreciate its significance — it is in fact part of a legitimist plot, and the addressee is presumably a friend of the Duc d'Angoulême, then in exile in England; Julien has thus risked his life to serve precisely the faction which he most opposes.
Back in Paris, Mathilde de la Mole, the bored daughter of Julien’s employer, falls in love with Julien, and the two begin a comical on-again, off-again affair, one that Julien feeds (when he can muster the emotional strength) by feigning disinterest in Mathilde. At one point after what appears to be a permanent rupture with Mathilde, Julien successfully attempts to provoke her jealousy by using second-hand love-letters, written by a lothario he knows, to woo a widow in the de la Mole’s social circle. Eventually, Julien and Mathilde reunite when she reveals she is pregnant with his child. M. de la Mole is livid at the news, but relents in the face of Mathilde's determination, and grants Julien a stipend, a place in the army, and his grudging blessing to marry his daughter. But M. de la Mole has a dramatic change of heart when he receives a letter from repentant Mme. de Rênal, warning him that Julien is nothing but a cad and a social climber who preys on vulnerable women. (In a perfect example of irony, Julien had suggested to M. de la Mole that he write to Mme. de Rênal for a character reference.) On learning of this treachery and M. de la Mole’s decision to rescind all he had granted the couple, Julien races back to Verrières, buys bullets for his pistols, heads to the Church, and shoots Mme. de Rênal twice — missing once and hitting her shoulder blade the second time — during Mass. Although Mme. de Rênal lives, Julien is sentenced to death, in part due to his own rambling, anti-patrician speech at his trial. Mathilde attempts to bribe a high official to sway the judgment in Julien's favour, but the trial is presided over by a former romantic rival for Mme. de Rênal’s affections, who refuses to show clemency.
The last few chapters show Julien in prison, reconsidering all of his actions over the three years during which the story takes place and considering his place in the world and the nature of society. Mme. de Rênal forgives Julien, and is in turn forgiven for her letter of denunciation (written, we learn, under the influence and at the insistence of a particularly severe confessor), and she and Mathilde both attempt to bribe and cajole local officials to overturn Julien’s death sentence. Julien’s affections, meanwhile, have returned to Mme. de Rênal. The novel closes with Julien’s execution, and Mathilde collecting his severed head and kissing it in a characteristically melodramatic gesture. Mme. de Rênal, who pledged to Julien that she would not take her own life and that she would care for Mathilde’s baby, dies three days later, most likely of grief.
Le Rouge et le Noir is in one sense a novel of its time. The plot unfolds against the historical background of the later years of the Bourbon Restoration and the events of 27, 28 and 29 July 1830 which led to the July Monarchy. The plot is motivated by tensions between Julien Sorel's own Republican tendencies — in particular his nostalgic allegiance to Napoleon — and the schemes of the Catholic aristocrat legitimists, notably the Marquess de la Mole, and their Jesuit supporters, who represent the opposite political extreme, yet whose interests Julien ends up serving. While this historical context is treated highly allusively by Stendhal (who takes for granted his reader's familiarity with the politics of France at the time), he nevertheless considered it important enough to 'subtitle' the novel 'Chronique de 1830' ('Chronicle of 1830'; the subtitle is unfortunately not reproduced in all editions). Readers who wish to read a less guarded treatment of these historical themes should see Stendhal's unfinished novel Lucien Leuwen (published posthumously but written 1834-35), which offers a clearer exposé of the political tensions of the time.
The major theme of the novel is, on the other hand, timeless. Le Rouge repeatedly questions the possibility, and even the desirability, of sincerity: most of the characters and particularly Julien are acutely aware of the need to play a particular role in order to gain the approval of those around them (although they are not always successful). The word 'hypocrisy' recurs in this context, and while the meaning of this term was more limited in nineteenth-century France than it is today (it referred specifically to the affectation of high religious sentiments, as any nineteenth-century dictionary will attest), it can nevertheless be understood as the key word in a novel where the characters' words and their inner thoughts are frequently at odds.
In his book Deceit, Desire and the Novel (Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, 1961), the critic and philosopher René Girard identifies another key thematic structure in Le Rouge et le Noir, which he dubs triangular or "mimetic" desire. On Girard's showing, Stendhal's novel reveals how any individual's desire for another is always "mediated" by a third party - put crudely, that we desire something (or someone) because we see that someone else desires that thing. This theory attempts to account not only for the apparent perversity of Mathilde's and Julien's relationship, in particular the episode in which Julien begins a courtship of Mme de Faverolles to pique Mathilde's jealousy, but equally Julien's fascination with and aspirations to the high society he longs to despise.
Literary significance & criticism
André Gide felt that The Red and the Black was a novel far ahead of its time, and called it a novel for readers in the 20th century. At the time Stendhal wrote The Red and the Black, the prose in novels included dialogue or omniscient descriptions, but Stendhal's great contribution was to spend much of the novel inside the characters' heads, describing their feelings and emotions and even their inner conversations. As a result of this book, Stendhal is considered the inventor of the psychological novel.
Stendhal's style was highly allusive, with copious references to the works of Voltaire, Friedrich Schiller, and William Shakespeare; quotes from Racine's play Phèdre and Byron's Don Juan; and to philosophers and thinkers who influenced Stendhal, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
- Most of the chapters begin with epigraphs that appear to be quotes from literature, poetry, or notable historical individuals. In reality, Stendhal himself wrote the majority of these epigraphs, but attributed them to writers whom he thought capable of writing or saying such things.
- Stendhal left the last four chapters untitled. These are also the only four chapters that lack epigraphs.
- The novel ends with Stendhal's standard closing quote, "To the Happy Few." This is often interpreted as a dedication to the few who could understand his writing, or a sardonic reference to the happy few who are born into prosperity (the latter interpretation is supported by the likely source of the quotation, Canto 11 of Byron's Don Juan, a frequent reference in the novel, which refers to 'the thousand happy few' who enjoy high society).
- In Jean-Paul Sartre's 1948 play Les Mains Sales, the protagonist Hugo suggests several pseudonyms for himself, including Julien Sorel, with whom he shares many similarities.
The title has been translated into English variously as Scarlet and Black, Red and Black, and The Red and the Black.