Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, Stendhal > The Red and the Black, Book I

The Red and the Black, Book I

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. November 18, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    This is a bit of a coincidence because I’d tried this book and had difficulties. I did finally finish it. I think, like Sentimental Education, it’s best read when one is younger and perhaps a bit more idealistic. I found Julian annoying too.

    I know what you mean about him going into the church–he’s not exactly suitable raw material, and that’s where some of the problem lies. It was also common for second sons of British nobility to go into the church. It was, after all, a respectable (?) career with no contamination of money, and the prospects of advancement (power) were good. I’m thinking of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park here.

    Have you seen the French television version of The Red and the Black? I thought it was rather good.


    • November 18, 2010 at 4:29 pm

      I’ve read Sentimental Education when I was a teenager and I liked it. But really Julien’s cruel cold thinking is so far away from who I am that it spoils my reading. Though I’m a non-violent person, sometimes I wish I could slap him in the face.

      I’m not sure it’s best read when one is younger. I appreciate this book more now than when I was a teenager because I’m more aware of its literary qualities. Stendhal’s prose is inventive in the way we discover the events through the characters eyes, the way he changes the point of view from Julien to Mme de Rênal or to Mathilde, the way he focuses on psychology more than settings. There are no descriptions of furniture, gowns, hair, carriages. It’s really modern, a breakthrough in novel writing. Plus I understand better the historical context.

      As far as the church career is concerned, for me it’s different in Great Britain because clergymen can get married and have a family. The sacrifice of one’s personal life is less important. I suppose a regular staunch believer could do the job, as long as one is not a Casanova, a gambling addict or a pervert.

      I haven’t seen the television version but I’d like to see a version with Benoit Magimel starring as Julien Sorel.


  2. November 18, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    I read it a few years ago and since I wasn’t crazy about it, concluded perhaps I’d have enjoyed it if I’d read it when I was younger. Perhaps I wouldn’t have loved it when I was younger either–but sometimes when I’m cynical about a story, a tale of love, or a character, that’s my natural conclusion.

    Hadn’t considered the marriage/church differences.


    • November 18, 2010 at 8:24 pm

      You’re not a fan of ethereal love stories, are you? I bet Mathilde and Julien bored you like they are currently boring me.


  3. December 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    This is a novel I’ve wanted to read for years. I don’t know why I haven’t. Sadly I know the ending, which is a pain. Even so, it still sounds fascinating.

    And a Scott Moncrieff translation! Is it bowdlerised at all?


    • December 21, 2010 at 7:43 pm

      You’ve read the post on Book I. So far so good. Things got complicated for me in Book II. You can’t imagine how happy I am not to have studied this at school. It would have been a real pain.

      I’ve talked about The Red and the Black around me : either people got really bored and have an awful memory of it or they loved it and have read it several times. No mild feelings. (except for Guy, who said he liked it). I can’t tell you how you would respond to this book.

      It’s really innovative on the literary aspect, though. Stendhal found a new way of narrating stories, it’s worth reading it for this.

      I haven’t noticed anything about this translation. It sounded good and faithfull. Maybe Scott Moncrieff liked Stendhal better than Proust ? Or perhaps Stendhal is easier to translate?


      • December 22, 2010 at 3:14 pm

        I’d missed there was a part II actually. I’ll read it this afternoon.

        Interesting on the love/hate dichotomy. It implies it’s doing something interesting. I usually think it’s a good sign if a book’s a bit divisive, much better that than everyone thinks it’s fairly ok.


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