Revisiting the Classics: Le Rouge et le Noir and French History

Aug 29, 2014 | 

David Kaiser

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Revisiting the Classics: Le Rouge et le Noir and French History

Aug 29, 2014 | 

David Kaiser



Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, or The Red and the Black, was published and set in 1830—as it turned out, a fortuitous event for the author, as we shall see.  The first half of the book is set in a medium-size town in eastern France, the second half in Paris.  The hero is Julien Sorel, the son of a carpenter who owns a sawmill, who by dint of his extraordinary intellect is given entrance first into the home of M. de Rénal, the mayor of the town, and then in the second half of the book into the mansion of the Marquis de la Mole, one of the leading noblemen of Paris.  In each case, he proves a very disruptive element indeed—a symbol of the passion and ambition still burning among the lower classes of Restoration France, and a portent of things to come.

Restoration France began in 1814 after Napoleon’s defeat.  (The Restoration was interrupted for 100 days after Napoleon’s return from Elba the next year, but quickly resumed after Waterloo.)   Le Rouge et le Noir is a portrait of the nobility, the restored ruling class, many of whom were guillotined in the early 1790s during the revolutionary terror, and many more who had to flee the country and spent the years of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire abroad.   They were restored to power both in the government—an almost absolute monarchy, although it included a legislature elected by a very limited suffrage—and in the Church, which became a pillar and ally of the new state.  The new government also restored their fortunes with a large appropriation, although it did not try to give back the land the revolutionary government had seized and sold to peasants and bourgeois.  The only parallel to the restoration in the history of the United States, it seems to me, is the former Confederate states in the years after Reconstruction.  In both cases, a defeated ruling class had re-established itself, and both were ruled in large part by fear of the lower classes, who might once again rise up at any moment.  Stendhal portrays a society ruled by money and social intrigue.  Every character’s annual income, based upon either his wealth or the position he holds from the government or church, is given down to the last franc, just as in Jane Austen and Balzac.  There are no industrialists or financiers in the Parisian upper crust. 

Julien Sorel comes from one step above the peasantry, and he is too young—about 20 when the book begins—to remember Napoleon.  Because he is relatively weak and an intellectual, his father and brothers despise him and beat him.  But he is brilliant, and he has been inspired by two relics of France’s recent past: an old retired military surgeon who took part in Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy, and Napoleon’s own memoirs.  He is fired by the knowledge that had he been twenty or thirty years older, he might have risen to be a Marshal in Napoleon’s army.  He has been instructed by a very old local priest, a man born in 1850, and so brilliant is his intellect that he has learned the entire Bible, in Latin, by heart, and can quote any chapter if given the first line.  Although Stendhal, who obviously has nothing but contempt for the new leadership class, is generally hostile to the Church, the local priest is one of two men of real integrity who have a profound influence on Julien’s life.  Thanks in part to him, M. de Rénal, the mayor of Julien’s home town of Verrières, takes Julien into his home to tutor his three sons in Latin.  They are captivated by him, and so is there mother.  Julien, like his creator, is more a man of the freethinking 18th century than of the 19th, and he has no sincere religious beliefs.  The Church for him is a means to advance and a source of intellectual stimulation, nothing more.

Mdme. de Rénal is beautiful and religiously devout.  She and her husband married for fortune and position, and she has never, apparently, been in love.  She is seduced by Julien’s frankness, his independence of mind, and his daring.  When he makes a pass at her she cannot resist, and soon finds herself torn between love and Catholic guilt. Their affair seems relatively easy to conduct under the circumstances, because the Rénals have separate bedrooms, quite widely separated.  They are nearly discovered in flagrante more than once, however, lending a great deal of drama to the book. Thanks to Élise, a maid in the household who had hoped to marry Julien herself, the affair becomes known in the town, and M. de  Rénal receives an anonymous letter about it from a political rival.  Julien’s presence in the household cannot continue, and he is eventually packed off to the seminary at the larger town of Besançon to finish his apprenticeship for the priesthood.  Here Julien meets a second ecclesiastical mentor, the Abbé Picard, another man of integrity indifferent to worldly advancement.  Picard has a business relationship with the Marquis de la Mole, a leading landowner in the region who lives in Paris, and he eventually places Julien in the Marquis’s household as a secretary.  Thus begins the second half of the book, which takes place mostly in Paris.

The conversation in the Hotel de la Mole, the family town house, is as vapid as that of Verrières, for the simple reason that serious questions of politics and history are out of bounds.  (One easily imagines that the situation among the aristocracy of the late nineteenth century South might have been similar.)  They have a daughter, Mathilde, who is being courted by some of the leading young men of Paris.  And she, too, is seduced by Julien, beginning with a conversation she overhears in which he complains to his patron, the Abbé Picard, that dining with the Marquis and his friends is so boring that he regards it as the most onerous of his duties.  “That one wasn’t born on his knees,” Mathilde says to herself, and she and Julien begin a fascinating, surreptitious courtship which ends with him literally climbing a ladder to reach her bedroom window.  Once they are alone, they are both so stunned by what they are doing that for some time than can hardly talk, much less act, but eventually nature takes its course.

The book is among other things a study of romance, and Julien gradually learns, in various ways, that the easiest way to seduce a woman is to pay her no attention.  In both of his great affairs his attraction is mainly his pride and independent spirit, which his lovers cannot resist.  He represents an irrepressible spirit and an authenticity which are compelling because they have been so unfashionable—and which were about to break out in real life, as well.  Stendhal could not have known this, but in 1830, the year that his book appeared, the Restoration monarchy was overthrown and replaced by the somewhat more liberal monarchy of Louis Philippe, which began by restoring the Tricolor flag of the Revolution.  And although music plays no part in le Rouge et le Noir, I cannot help noting that it was also in 1830 that Frederic Chopin, who appears to have been exactly the age of Julien Sorel, arrived in Paris from Poland and began his career as a pianist and composer.  Chopin’s music was as revolutionary in the 1830s as rock ‘n roll was in the 1950s, and it expresses the same undiluted passion as Julien’s love affairs.

I shall not go into the details of the dénouement of the book.  It ends badly for Julien, because Restoration society cannot absorb such a disruptive influence, and the Church plays a big role in his downfall.  Stendhal, born Marie-Henri Beyle in 1783, knew where he stood in the great political struggles of his lifetime, and he had no doubt when he was writing Le Rouge et le Noir that history had been moving in the wrong direction for the last 15 years.  He clearly believed that the values of the eighteenth century—its rationalism and egalitarianism—would eventually triumph, and he was right.  Perhaps I am drawn to the book because I too think that history has been moving in the wrong direction for some time.  The United States has not yet established a new consensus equal in strength to that of Restoration France or the post-1945 US, but within another decade it probably will have.  Once again, it will be up to the younger generation to provide a breath of fresh air.

N.B.  This was the first post on a new blog, classicfrenchliterature.blogspot.com, designed to foster a discussion of nineteenth-century French classics.  Interested readers are invited to take a look and read the initial post.