Home > 19th Century, Classics, French Literature, Novel, Stendhal > The Red and the Black, Book II: wicked games

The Red and the Black, Book II: wicked games

November 24, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. The translation I used for the quotes is by C.K. Scott Moncrieff.

Do you like The Sorrows of Young Werther? Wuthering Heights? Romantic literature? I don’t. Every time I read a book from that movement I yawn, no matter how good it is supposed to be. So finishing The Red and the Black was sheer literary torture.

 Julien Sorel is now in Paris, working as a private secretary for the Marquis de la Mole, who has two children, Norbert and Mathilde. Both children are about the same age as Julien. The de la Mole are described as ancient nobility. Mme de la Mole values birth above all, no personal quality can surpass that of a high birth.

Julien has this particular position devoted to governesses, tutors and secretaries. They are above servants because they work with the house’s children and their education can make of them valuable companions for their masters but they remain servants. This ambiguous position is put forward by Stendhal in the Marquis’ attitude toward Julien. When Julien wears the black suit of the secretary, his relationship with the Marquis is that of a servant. When he wears the blue suit the Marquis gave him, he is his equal and they converse freely as the Marquis would with one of his peers. The clothe may not make the man but sure makes the gentleman.

Somewhere else in the mansion, Mathilde de la Mole is bored. She worships her ancestor Boniface de la Mole, who was Marguerite de Navarre’s lover and was beheaded on the Place de Grève on April 30th 1574. She thinks men during the reign of Henry the Third were braver than her contemporaries. Why does she admire this period of the Ancient Regime? The time of religion wars, massacres in the name of God and secession of the nobility from the king? In my vision, the reign of Louis the 14th was more flamboyant. Does she identifies to these troubled times as her time is troubled too and also requires to pick a side?

Her boredom reminds me of Musset describing le mal du siècle at the same period (1). Musset writes that love affairs were the only passionate things that remained. 19-year-old Mathilde is led to the same conclusion and starts fancying Julien because she wants to be in love and because he is different from the gentlemen she usually meets. Moreover, the potential scandal associated to having an affair with a plebeian increases the thrill of the relationship.  

Une idée l’illumina tout à coup : J’ai le bonheur d’aimer, se dit-elle un jour, avec un transport de joie incroyable. J’aime, j’aime, c’est clair! A mon âge, une fille jeune, belle, spirituelle, où peut-elle trouver des sensations, si ce n’est dans l’amour? J’ai beau faire, je n’aurai jamais d’amour pour Croisenois, Caylus, et tutti quanti. Ils sont parfaits, trop parfaits peut-être ; enfin, ils m’ennuient.

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: ‘I have the good fortune to be in love,’ she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of joy. ‘I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti. They are perfect, too perfect perhaps; in short, they bore me.’

 This street, Rue de l’Humilité (Humility Street) is certainly not where the Hôtel de la Mole was located. Neither Julien or Mathilde could have lived on such a street, for this concept is totally foreign to their minds. The beginning of their relationship is theatrical. They drop each other letters, they meet at night in dangerous conditions. Their affair is poisoned by second thoughts from the start and Julien knows it:

Mlle de la Mole me regarde d’une façon singulière. Mais, même quand ses beaux yeux bleus fixés sur moi sont ouverts avec le plus d’abandon, j’y lis toujours un fond d’examen, de sang-froid et de méchanceté. Est-ce possible que ce soit là de l’amour? Quelle différence avec les regards de Mme de Rênal!

‘Mademoiselle de La Mole keeps looking at me in a strange fashion. But, even when her beautiful blue eyes seem to gaze at me with least restraint, I can always read in them a cold, malevolent scrutiny. Is it possible that this is love? How different from the look in Madame de Renal’s eyes.’

Their relationship starts as a wicked game, like in a play by Marivaux. It makes the whoooole second book. That’s where I gave up the first time and I struggled to finish it, not to be tempted to try it again later. I found the story implausible. I won’t give more details to avoid spoilers but what a tedious reading! This book contains everything I dislike in romantic romance: fabricated pain, whims, big words, despair, violent actions supposed to show off deep feelings. To me, Mathilde and Julien are only two haughty and obnoxious people deserving the fate they made up for themselves. I felt no compassion for either of them and I thought Mme de Rênal beyond silly.

I suspect the romance between Julien and Mathilde inspired Proust for Swann’s Way on the aspect of a love created by mind delusion more than a genuine love feeling. Julien could say the same thing about Mathilde as Swann about Odette:

Dire que j’ai gâché des années de ma vie, que j’ai voulu mourir, que j’ai eu mon plus grand amour, pour une femme qui ne me plaisait pas, qui n’était pas mon genre!

To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style!” (translation C.K. Scott Moncrieff)

The second book is also full of political intrigues that totally escaped me. I have the kindle version and a help from a foreword would have been welcomed on that part. Or maybe Stendhal was standing in the middle of the way: a lot of details about Julien attending mysterious meetings and passing secret notes but not relevant enough for the reader to make something out of it. In addition to my lack of knowledge of the political context, it may also be a flaw of the novel.

If I try to set aside my distaste for this love story and my not-understanding the political issues, I liked Stendhal’s innovative style. He varies the narrative points of views, switching between Mathilde and Julien. He intervenes in the story, calling out to the reader. There are many spoken or unspoken dialogues. The reader sees situations through the characters’ partial and limited point of views. He avoids heavy literary and cultural references and uses simple but efficient words. There are very few descriptions of settings, homes, clothes. The whole book is centred on dialogues and workings of inner minds. About writing a novel, Stendhal states:  

Un roman est un miroir qui se promène sur une grande route. Tantôt il reflète à vos yeux l’azur des cieu, tantôt la fange des bourbiers de la route. Et l’homme qui porte le miroir dans sa hotte sera par vous accusé d’être immoral! Son miroir montre la fange et vous accusez le miroir! Accusez bient plutôt le grand chemin où est le bourbier, et plus encore l’inspecteur des routes qui laisse l’eau croupir et le bourbier se former.

A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shows the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.

Whatever. The problem for me was not the mirror or the man carrying it but indeed the road he chose to show us. I did not like it and I blame the road as a creation of the writer. 

  (1) The Confession of a Child of the Century was published in 1836.


  1. November 25, 2010 at 2:25 am

    I didn’t love The Red and the Black, but from the sounds of it, I liked it more than you did. I don’t care for the Romantics, but I do like Wuthering Heights.


    • November 25, 2010 at 9:34 am

      I let a few days pass before writing this post, for time to think and let my annoyance calm down a little. I didn’t want it to blind my thinking but it did anyway.
      Trying to set aside my boredom and my dislike for theatrical characters, I have to say that, like Julien, Mathilde is really a child of the French Revolution and Empire. She was raised to worship birth as the ultimate quality for a man but ends up loving and sacrificing everything for a plebeian because she thought he was worth it. That sacrifice is too much for me to believe it possible but the basis of her feeling shows the ideas of the Enlightment and the French Revolution (and especially “All men are created equal”) are rooted in the French society, even in her world. Somehow it also explains why the Restauration, being backward and not able to think of a modern Monarchy, was a failure.

      I liked the first part of The Red and the Black but really I don’t buy stories where they wither and die out of love. No one is unforgettable and thinking the opposite is delusion. Spreading the idea that kindred spirits exist makes people gullible preys for Don Juans and Casanovas.
      I’ve read Wuthering Heights as a teenager in French and re-read it in English last year, thinking I was maybe too young to appreciate it. To no avail. In my opinion, Cathy is a pest and Heathcliff as proud and obstinate as Julien Sorel. Their only redeeming quality is their love for each other. From the Brontë sisters, my favourite so far is The Tenant of Whitefell Hall. I liked Jane Eyre too, but there were unrealistic events that bothered me. I still have to read Agnes Grey.


  2. November 26, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    Have you seen the film version of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? It’s rather good. As for Jane Eyre, I have a different response to it every time I read it (about every five years). Since we know the novel doesn’t change, then it must be me. I like to reread it to try and understand my ever-changing responses.


    • November 26, 2010 at 11:55 pm

      No I haven’t seen the film version.

      Not having a romantic bone in your body and reading Jane Eyre every five years? And liking The Art of Losing ? Hum… (Don’t get mad, I’m only teasing you) The first time I read Jane Eyre, I was a teenager, I liked -loved- it without reservations. I listened to the audio book 6 or 7 months ago and I found the ‘concept’ of Grace Pool a bit unrealistic. But I like her style, how she instills revolutionary ideas on violence, education and feminism. Plus you really want to know how it will end.


  3. December 1, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    I loved every single one of the books you mentioned but I hated Le rouge et le noir. The only classic apart from Anna Karenina that I did not like but admittedly Anna Karenina is a bit more appealing (haven’t finished yet). I still got La chartreuse de Parme here but I guess I will not read it soon.


  4. December 1, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Hi. Thanks for dropping by.
    I liked the first book of Le Rouge et le Noir. I was thinking ‘see, you were too young’ and I got to the second book and things went badly between this book and me.
    What do you like in Wuthering Heights ? I need to understand why I seem to be the only one who don’t like it. I’m missing the point there. Maybe I’m the imbecile of the Chinese adage that says “When the wise person points at the moon, the imbecile looks at the finger” So if someone can help me turn my head to the moon, I’ll be grateful.

    Guy, if you read this, I’d like your opinion too


  5. December 1, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    I am a bit of a Goth at heart. Something gloomy appeals to me. I love the character Heathcliff but I must admit that Wuthering Heights is much more for me than just the book, it is the movies, the Kate Bush song and many other things. Love stories that are doomed did appeal to me as well. It’s quite an unhealthy attitude, I know this now. But at 16 I loved this book and still think back nostalgically. I bought it recently in English. The first time I read it was in French, so maybe I will absolutely not like it anymore? Come to think of it, I read all those books in my teens… I still like the setting, the nglish countryside, moors…
    There is an upcoming new Jane Eyre due in 2011 (funny, I just mentioned this in my post today as they chose the German actor Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester). What about Jane Rhys’ Wide Sargasso – a sort of prequel to Jane Eyre? Anyone who likes it too or Jean Rhys in general.


  6. December 1, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    I haven’t seen any film version of Wuthering Heights, I tend to see film versions of books I actually liked. Maybe it would help.

    I have the film version of Jane Eyre with Charlotte Gainsbourg at home but haven’t seen it yet. Do you know if it’s good? Physically, she seems a good choice for the Jane character. It may be silly but it’s important to me when I watch a film version of a book. Isabelle Huppert starring Madame Bovary bothered me, Emma didn’t look like her at all in my head.

    I’ve never heard of Jane Rhys. I saw on wikipedia that the novel you mention is roughly the story of Grace Poole. I’ve never tried novels like this. I know there are sequels to Pride and Prejudice too but I’m a bit sceptical about them.


  7. December 2, 2010 at 6:19 am

    I understand your reservations regarding pre-/sequels. But do not compare Jean Rhys to someone else writing sequels, please. She is a fantastic, accomplished writer, a bit forgotten by now but she is up there with Katherine Mansfield and the like. Widesargasso Sea is said to be a prequel but you could read it without knowing this. It is not tacky or schmaltzy. No, believe me, she is great. What is more important, is the theme of the colonies. Jane Rhys herself came from the colonies (Dominica), moved then to London, that is the story she gives Grace Poole.


    • December 2, 2010 at 1:11 pm

      OK, I trust you, the world is full of unjustly forgotten authors. I’ll browse through her books in my next book shopping expedition. I hope they can be found in a French bookstore.


  8. December 22, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    I’ve written up two or three Jean Rhys’ novels at mine, none of them Wide Sargasso Sea which has never tempted me. She’s very talented and I’m something of a fan.

    Otherwise, oh dear. How terribly offputting. I’ll still read this but I have to admit, the romanticism is a tad offputting. It remains on the TBR pile, but it moves well down the stack for a bit.


    • December 22, 2010 at 5:26 pm

      I’ll look for your Jean Rhys’ reviews, when I have the time. And I need to read the one on David Peace, who seems well known to everyone but me. (He’s published by Rivages, that’s a good recommendation for me)

      According to the reactions around me, Caroline’s response to The Red and The Black and mine, men seem to like it more than women.
      The odds are good for you, then.


  9. December 23, 2010 at 2:11 am

    I’ve read nearly every Jean Rhys (there’s one I’ve missed, I think). Loved ’em all–even Wide Sargasso Sea which was my least fav. of the lot.


    • December 23, 2010 at 9:23 am

      I got Wide Sargasso Sea after Caroline’s recommendation. I’ll keep in mind it might not be the best one if I don’t like it.


  10. December 30, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Hi Caroline, greetings of the season:)
    Oh poor misunderstood Sorel – I felt sorry for him! I really liked this book (see http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/the-red-and-the-black-by-stendhal/) but I couldn’t abide Wide Sargasso Sea.
    Strange, isn’t it, how books of probably equal literary merit appeal to some and not others…


    • December 30, 2010 at 3:07 pm

      Thanks for visiting.
      I’ve read your review. I understand that one can like this book but really I didn’t. It is a good book, though. It was not a quiet reading : lots of sighs, yawns and ‘this is too much’ exclamations.
      Decidedly, Wide Sargasso Sea has almost every one against it. Now it’s intriguing.
      “Strange, isn’t it, how books of probably equal literary merit appeal to some and not others…” Yes. That’s why it’s so nice when you have found book-friends who have the same tastes as yours.


  11. January 5, 2011 at 3:50 am

    Hello again, I just came across this at So Many Books (http://somanybooksblog.com/2011/01/04/is-there-such-a-person-as-the-ideal-reader/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter) and immediately thought that it would amuse you too:
    Stendhal’s ideal reader: “I write for barely a hundred readers, for
    unhappy, amiable, charming beings, never moral or hypocritical, whom I
    would like to please; I know barely one or two.”


    • January 5, 2011 at 7:37 pm

      Hello Lisa,

      Funny. How should we understand this ? Either Stendhal is modest and doesn’t consider his books worth reading by more than a hundred readers, or he is conceited and considers only a hundred readers are brilliant enough to understand his books.
      And, that makes of me half of a reader as I disliked The Red and the Black and liked The Charterhouse of Parma


      • January 6, 2011 at 2:06 am

        I took just as as Stendhal being witty about how hard it is to please everyone.


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