The Red and the Black by Stendhal is the story of Julien Sorel, a young Frenchman of middle - class origins. The tale centers on his love affairs and his attempts to socially advance himself in a mostly aristocratic world. I found this to be brilliant book and character study. The novel worked on several levels.
The work was first published in 1830 in French. I read the Burton Raffel translation of this novel. As is the case with many famous books, there is a lot of disagreement about the quality and accuracy of translations. Thus, as I went, I reread some passages from the Horace B. Samuel translation to try to get a little better feel for the original.
Julien is a carpenter’s son. His father and brothers are abusive to him and his family does not understand his bookish ways. Early on, he develops a strong desire for social advancement. While still only eighteen, he begins an affair with Madame de Rênal. She is a woman married to an insensitive and boorish man. She is trapped between her love of Julien and guilt over the affair.
When the affair is discovered and runs into other difficulties, Julien flees and enters a seminary. He does not do this out of religious devotion as he has no faith. Rather, he believes that a religious occupation is the only way that a man of little means can advance in the world. As he romanticizes the recent past, he often laments that in Napoleon’s time, he would have been able to advance in the military. Thus, some interpret the book’s title to relete the black to the clergy and red to the military and glory.
Julien finds corruption and petty jealousy at the seminary and thus, after about a year, leaves for a clerical/religious position working for Marquis de La Mole, a wealthy nobleman involved in politics. Julien becomes trusted assistant to the Marquis. He makes friends and earns the admiration of people in the highest echelons of society. He also begins a clandestine affair with the Marquis’s daughter, Mademoiselle de La Mole. This young woman has a volatile, changeable personality. Her character is also complex and marvelously well drawn. The relationship undergoes a lot of ups and downs. When Mademoiselle de La Mole’s father discovers the affair, Julien runs into terrible trouble due to his non - aristocratic origins.
Julien is a marvelously drawn character. However, he is often unlikable. Early on, his prime motivation is to climb in the world socially to the exclusion of all else. He enters a seminary despite that fact that he has no faith because he believes that the religious life is the best way for him to achieve social and financial success. However, when he begins to fall in love, he does begin to humanize and show a few positive virtues.
Julien romanticizes the previous Napoleonic era. He laments the fact that in that era, a young man of modest means could have achieved great success in the military, a path now only open to the aristocracy. He also professes to believe in Republican ideals. This is a key facet of his worldview and personality.
The portrait of Julien is interwoven and works well with Stendhal’s tone and prose style. The narrative is third person but often gets into the minds of the characters, especially Julien and his girlfriends’, by placing their thoughts into quotations.
The prose is playful and lively. It is surprisingly so, especially for a book that was written in 1830. One reason that I delved onto the Samuel translation, which is much older than Raffel’s version, was to try to ascertain the true tenor and tone of the original writing. Though the Samuel translation seems a little more restrained then Raffel‘s, both exhibit a certain amount of playfulness and cynicism that I assume is inherent in the original French. The narrative is full of criticism, sometimes light and humorous, of the society that Julien finds himself in.
At one point Julien attends a dinner party also attended by a host of intellectuals,
"The dinner was mediocre; the conversation irritating. “It’s a bad book’s table of contents,” Julien thought. “They proudly tackle all the important themes of human thought. But after you listen for three minutes, you have to ask yourself which stands out more clearly, the speaker’s sheer bombast or his abominable ignorance.”"
I believe that in the above passage, Stendhal is taking shots at the dinner party guests and Julien’s tendency to be a smart alack.
Conventions, ideas and religion are also poked at. Later, when Julien is contemplating death,
"“if there is another life? Oh, if what I find is the Christian God, I’m ruined. He’s a despot, so He’s obsessed with revenge: all His Bible talks about is atrocious punishments. I’ve never loved Him; I’ve never even wanted to believe anyone honestly loved Him. He’s utterly devoid of pity (and here Julien remembered several passages from the Bible). He’ll punish me with abominations.”"
The above illustrates a lot about the way in which Julien thinks. He tries to punch holes in the universe. He does often so irreverently.
This book is also an examination on love. Stendhal wrote a work of philosophy called On Love. I have not read that work, but a little research indicates that the author identified four types of love in it: physical love, love as a social game, vanity love and passionate love. Julien and his two lovers seem to transition between all three forms throughout the narrative. I would need to devote a separate post to this subject in order to do it justice.
A basic knowledge of late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century French history will be helpful to readers of this novel as much this history is intertwined with the book’s plot, characters and themes. Julien is obsessed with the past. He also rubs noses with a lot of political and religious figures who are very involved with political and social situation in France during the period known as The Bourbon Restoration.
This book is a brilliant character study. It is also an interesting examination of relationships. It is a lively social commentary. In some ways, it seems very much ahead of its time. I highly recommend this to those who like the above attributes in novel.