Julien Sorel grows up in Verrieres – a small fictional town in early 19th-century France. He is a lower-class young adult with a gifted intellect and a love for literature. Through a series of misunderstandings and anxieties, the mayor of the town, M. de Renal, hires Julien to tutor his children. As Julien begins to gain the respect of the mayor and the love of the children, he becomes infatuated with Madame de Renal and sets out to romance her. His first romance is the first of many risky and bold steps Julien takes on his way up the social ladder.
In Julien, Stendhal creates a simultaneously self-comparable and frustrating character. He begins his affair with Madame de Renal due to a lust he holds, but he at first seems to despise her for these actions. He continues in his internalized quest to win her over all while viewing it as a method in which he can gain power over the mayor and in which he can, hopefully, climb his way up the social ladder. This begins to crash in upon him as he realizes he is falling in love with her while, at the same time, the mayor is discovering hints about their affair. In this lies the genius of Part I – the anxiety-ridden visits to each other at night, and the hiding of their love in the day, all feel highly modern for a novel written nearly 200 years ago. The internal conversations Julien has with himself expertly mimic how this type of argumentative monologue would actually occur.
Their affair, of course, cannot last. And so Julien, albeit not discovered in full by the mayor, is sent away to move his way up in the church. His tryst has led to another step up in the world, but his seeming craving for lust is not yet at an end. Before this comes a part of the novel that, while I can imagine served some sort of importance to the story at the time (and likely still does), felt wholly unnecessary, lengthy, and dull. Julien attends dinners and religious affairs where he sits in on conversations with intellectual (more accurately, incredibly rich) members of society. These parts feel akin to Proust’s dinner scenes without the necessity, the beauty, and the awe that those ones inspired. Luckily, these did not last all too long, but they did set the mood for what I believed was a still good but much inferior Part II.
He is working for the Marquis de la Mole and starts catching the eye of the marquis’ daughter, Mathilde. Julien convinces himself that Mathilde is unattractive and, although not his exact words, unworthy of him. He still longs for Madame de Renal and so removes himself from this next possible affair. These beliefs do not last and with time he realizes (or forces himself to believe in) her beauty, becomes once again infatuated, and for his own selfish purposes begins another secret affair. Being from a lower class, this affair must go unseen, and Mathilde herself struggles with the idea of sleeping with someone so much poorer than herself. The affair is interesting, especially seeing Julien look back on his time with the Renal’s during it, but after such an excellent first half, this part fails to live up to what came before.
The affair is clunkier and feels at times like a repetition of already explored moral qualms. Mathilde is not as interesting – instead of questioning herself for the idea of adultery, of religious and moral expectations, or of the idea of an unethical love, Mathilde finds herself thinking mostly of class and the shame it would bring upon her and her father if anyone were to find out. Of course, there is more to it than that, but it essentially boils down to a plot necessity which leads the Marquise to disapprove of their marriage, essentially leading Julien to make an attempt on Madame de Renal’s life for ruining this new opportunity.
The final moments of the novel, where Julien sits in his cell awaiting what is likely going to be the death penalty for attempting to kill Madame de Renal in church, return to the greatness of the first half. Julien now contemplates death in a world where he has failed to maintain his belief in God. He is uncertain what will happen after death, whether he will decompose and nothing else or if this God he cannot fathom will soon be met. His father, former friend, and both Mathilde and the recovered Madame de Renal, all visit him separately giving a conclusion to these relationships – each also providing some sort of conclusion to a certain aspect of Julien himself. The novel finishes with his death and, to my distaste for the absurdity of it, the death of Madame de Renal from a supposed heartbreak. It seems that throughout this second half, the author was not able to capture that same vein of interest and realism as he did in the first, but nonetheless, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black was a very good novel worth reading for those into 19th-century or French literature.
See my Goodreads review here: Goodreads
See other book reviews or what I plan to read next here: Book Reviews