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The Red and the Black, Book I

November 18, 2010 7 comments

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. Translated as The Red and The Black by C K Scott Moncrieff. I will use this translaction for the quotes.

The Red and the Black is a coming-of-age novel, relating the story of Julien Sorel. This is a book I tried to read as a teenager, at the same time I read – and loved – Madame Bovary. It is one of the rare classics I abandoned because Julien Sorel got on my nerves.  

The novel starts in Verrières, a small city in Franche-Comté. Julien Sorel is a peasant’s son, despised by his father because he’s more interested in reading than working in the family sawmill. The two first instructors of Julien’s early age were his cousin the Surgeon-Major, who was in Napoleon’s Great Army and Reverend Father Chelan, a priest. The first one taught him to worship Napoleon and the second one to worship God. Julien concludes from these two teachers that only two valuable careers are possible for an ambitious but poor young man: the army (The Red) or the church (The Black). We are in 1827, during the Bourbon Restoration. Napoleon being dead and republican ideas prohibited, Julien decides to start a career in the Church.

Thanks to Reverend Chelan, Julien learnt Latin and was able to recite the Bible in Latin. He thus sounds really literate to Monsieur de Rênal, the mayor of Verrières, who decides to hire Julien as a tutor for his children. Julien has an affair with Mme de Rênal and joins the seminary in Besançon to become a priest. 

Stendhal’s ambition is to show his time. “A novel is a mirror carried along a high road.” He portrays the Provincial life, with its narrow-minded, illiterate society. The local bourgeois are only interested in money. He also pictures France during the Restoration of the Bourbons. Pro-Napoleon people are defeated and monarchists come to power. Personal interests use historical events to take other people’s properties or positions. It reminds me of what I’ve read about behaviours during the Occupation and after 1945. Stendhal sometimes gives away his opinion:

La marche ordinaire du XIXème siècle est que, quand un être puissant et noble rencontre un homme de cœur, il le tue, l’exile, l’emprisonne ou l’humilie tellement, que l’autre a la sottise d’en mourir de douleur. The ordinary procedure of the nineteenth century is that when a powerful and noble personage encounters a man of feeling, he kills, exiles, imprisons or so humiliates him that the other, like a fool, dies of grief.

Stendhal excels in showing the true motors of his characters. Every one makes decision according to what matters to them or to their dominant traits of personality. Pride, ambition and money guide M. de Rênal and rule his decision making. He hires Julien as a tutor more to show off in Verrières than to really educate his children. Even when he suspects the love affair between his wife and Julien, the only thing he wants is to avoid scandal.

Jamais la vanité aux prises avec tout ce que le petit amour de l’argent peut avoir de plus âpre et de plus mesquin n’ont mis un homme dans un plus piètre état que celui où se trouvait M. de Rênal.  Never can vanity, at grips with all the nastiest and shabbiest elements of a petty love of money, have plunged a man in a more wretched state than that in which M. de Renal found himself.

Mme de Rênal is a typical woman of this century. Like Emma Bovary, Louise de Chaulieu, Renée de Maucombe or Jeanne Le Perthuis, she was educated in a convent. Here is what Stendhal thinks about her education:

Mme de Rênal s’était trouvé assez de sens pour oublier bientôt, comme absurde, tout ce qu’elle avait appris au couvent ; mais elle ne mit rien à la place et finit pas ne rien savoir. Madame de Renal had sufficient sense to forget at once, as absurdities, everything she had learned in the convent; but she put nothing else in its place, and ended by knowing nothing.

She is pure and innocent, despite her age and her children. She is driven by love. Stendhal could have written about her “Elle s’abandonna” (She gave herself away) like Flaubert will when Emma surrenders to Rodolphe.

Stendhal is impressive in his way to desiccate how love grows. The romance between Julien and Mme de Rênal reminds me of Rousseau and Mme de Warens, except that Julien never calls her ‘mom’ (What Freud would do with Rousseau calling his older mistress ‘mom’ is another story). In both cases, the love story blooms in the country in a bucolic setting. In the foreword of Journey into the Past by Zweig, the translator compares Ludwig’s lover to Mme de Rênal. Reading Stendhal now, I think the comparison accurate.  

Julien is the product of the beginning of the 19th C. He is the child of the Revolution and First Empire. He thinks birth is not what gives a man his value. He is driven by a devouring ambition and an unshakeable pride. When he hears about the job opportunity at M. de Rênal’s, his first move is to ask if he will be considered as a servant. Then he is conceited enough to think:

Il faut renoncer à cela, se dit-il, plutôt que de se laisser réduire à manger avec les domestiques. Mon père voudra m’y forcer ; plutôt mourir. ‘I must give up all that,’ he said to himself, ‘rather than let myself be brought down to feeding with the servants. My father will try to force me; I would sooner die.

Sometimes, Julien is really heartless and rotten by hypocrisy and ambition. Stendhal thoroughly describes the workings of his calculating mind. From the very start, I didn’t like him because of such thoughts as this one about Mme de Rênal:

Cette femme ne peut plus me mépriser : dans ce cas, se dit-il, je dois être sensible à sa beauté ; je me dois à moi-même d’être son amant. ‘This woman cannot despise me any longer: in that case,’ he said to himself, ‘I ought to be stirred by her beauty; I owe it to myself to be her lover.’

He considers falling in love as a project. How can someone purposely “fall” in love? Julien sure has qualities. He is hard working and intelligent. As a peasant’s son, his manners are clumsy and inappropriate. He is very ignorant about how to behave in good society. But he is handsome and knows how to be amiable. The Reverend takes him under his wings, Mme de Rênal educates him a little. He is a quick learner and, aware of his lack of propriety, he rapidly improves.

His pride, associated to a strong admiration for Napoleonian heroism, can make him take reckless actions.

He is a complex character, alternatively driven by the coldest thoughts and by hottest passion. He has a terrible ability for concealment and hypocrisy. He joins the seminary only by ambition:

Sous Napoléon, j’eusse été sergent ; parmi ces futurs curés, je serai grand vicaire. ‘Under Napoleon, I should have been a sergeant; among these future cures, I shall be a Vicar-General.’

What is shocking to me is that religion should be a calling and not a career path.

People can’t be indifferent to him. They either like him or hate him. He creates his own enemies by his haughty nature, both at Verrières and in the seminary. Like the characters in the book, he doesn’t leave me indifferent either, I’m much repelled by his coldness, his pride and his hypocrisy.

Book II will show the sequel of his adventures.

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