Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal (real name Marie-Henri Beyle) is a fascinating criticism of society during Restoration-era France presented through the lens of an ambitious anti-hero.
Also, because I actually managed to write down a short summary while reading the book (surprisingly not a common occurrence for me), I might as well share it in case anyone finds it useful (you’re welcome, random high schooler):
- We are introduced to the (fictional) town of Verrières and the inhabitants which make up the cast of characters. There is the mayor, M. de Rênal, and the old (wealthy) peasant carpenter Mr. Sorel. M. de Rênal hears that Mr. Sorel’s youngest son Julien is excellent at Latin and hires him as tutor to his children. Julien appears like a weak and harmless young man but soon impresses the town with his knowledge of Latin (he has the whole New Testament memorized).
- For context, the book is set in the Bourbon restoration (a period in French history when Napoleon has been defeated and the Bourbons are once again monarchs). Julien idolizes Napoleon and tries to model his life around his idol. There’s even a scene where he freaks out because M. de Rênal is replacing all the matresses in the house and he fears that they will discover he has a potrait of Napoleon stashed under his bed.
- Julien begins an affair with the beautiful Madame de Rênal, who is the wife of his employer and is ten years older. I’m quite sure he got the idea to do this to follow Napoleon’s pursuance of Josephine, who was older than him. Of course, Madame de Rênal ends up actually falling in love with him. Elisa, a housemaid who was previously rejected by Julien, tells M. Valenod (one of M. de Rênal’s social-climbing political rivals who has repeatedly tried to court Mdme. de Rênal) and he composes an anonymous letter to M. de Rênal informing him of the affair. M. de Rênal is suspicious but doesn’t voice it out for fear of appearances. However Julien eventually leaves the household for the seminary.
- At the seminary, Julien is ostracized for his apparent difference and non-comformity but as always he excels and catches the attention of one of the leaders, Father Pirard who sees his potential and takes Julien under his wing. Caught up in the politics of the seminary, Father Pirard resigns and goes to work for the Marquis de la Mole. He knows Julien will be miserable without him and manages to get Julien a job as the Marquis’s secretary in Paris. Julien visits Mdme. de Rênal and spends a whole night and day with her before he leaves for Paris and Part I ends with him being chased as M. de Rênal finds out he has been hiding in his house for a whole day.
- We are introduced to the Marquis de la Mole’s household. His son Norbert is a typical young aristocrat and often makes rude jokes and his daughter Mathilde is (as I see it) a typical spoiled teenager who is bored of everything. The Marquis has a lot of “hangers-on” and people are constantly visiting their home but Julien observes that they are exceedingly proper and avoid talking of anything interesting (including politics).
- Julien is different from the other young social climbers that surround the Marquis – he is more daring and voices his opinions. However he doesn’t quite fit in with the nobles of the household and their social circle.
- During one of Julien’s visits to a café at the Rue St. Honoré, he meets a rude man who stares at him in a hostile manner. He ends up challenging the man to a duel and the man throws him his calling cards. Julien goes to the address and is surprised to see that the man of the house is in fact the Chevalier de Beauvoisis, not the rude man from the café (the rude man was actually the coachman). de Beauvoisis takes a liking to Julien, who has dressed very well for the ocassion. Julien insists on continuing with the duel, and gets shot in the arm. de Beauvoisis and Julien become friends, and Julien thinks their group of dandys are far more exciting than M. de la Mole’s group of friends as they aren’t afraid to speak their true opinions. de Beauvoisis tells everyone that Julien is the illegitimate son of a nobleman as he doesn’t want society to know he dueled with a carpenter’s son. The M. de la Mole supports this, which serve to further increase Julien’s prestige in Paris society.
- Mathilde de la Mole is a unique character – she dresses in black to commemorate her ancestor Boniface de la Mole’s beheading some 300 years earlier, and her own family are afraid of her sharp tongue. She is the belle of the ball, but she finds the three noblemen who pursue her boring and instead is attracted to Julien. She tries to catch Julien’s attention but he is wary that she and Norbert are playing a trick on him and treats her coldly. This attracts Mathilde even more, and Julien finally figures out that she genuinely is interested in him and they start having secret meetings and become lovers. However, Mathilde has insane mood swings and goes from cutting half of her hair to give Julien and to ignoring him another day.
- M. de la Mole tasks Julien with an important mission. Thanks to his photographic memory, Julien is able to memorize whole books perfectly and M. de la Mole takes him to a secret meeting with other noblemen and royalists (including an unnamed Duke and a turncoat Napoleonic General). It seems that they are planning an assassination and an invasion by a foreign military, as part of their grand scheme to preserve the status quo of monarchy. Now it makes sense why Julien is so crucial to the plan – he needs to recite a summary of the meeting he attended to a noble quite far away (Julien guesses his destination to be Rome, but M. de la Mole won’t tell him yet) and anything written down will spell disaster for the plan hence the need for Julien.
- Julien travels and stays around the German border to complete his mission. On one of his first stops to meet the Duke of ——, he runs into Geronimo (the singer) who is on his way to perform in Mainz. Julien is suspected as being a spy but having dressed the part of a dandy (and lacking incriminating papers thanks to his photographic memory) they search his rooms but are unable to find evidence.
- The next few chapters (Part II, 24-27) are perhaps my favorite in the entire book. Julien, having a week to spend in Strasburg to await the next stop in his mission runs into Prince Korasov (a Russian aristocrat who he’s acquainted with from Paris high society). He confesses the cause of his misery to Prince Korasov, that he is mourning a short-lived affair with a proud lady (while leaving out the details and identities). Prince Korasov, being the bro that he is, decides to help Julien and gives him a step-by-step guidance on how to proceed: call on her daily, do not show her you are affected by it and make her jealous by paying attention to one of her friends (Julien decides this should be Mdme de Fervaques, the beautiful widow of a marshal). He gives Julien a leather case filled with 53 “fool-proof” love letters to be copied out (for the friend of his ex-lover), with specific instructions on the method of delivery.
- Julien mechanically follows Prince Korasov’s instructions and letters and is amazed at how boring and nonsensical the letters are (the letters were composed by Prince Korasov’s friend Kalisky while trying to court a sheltered English lady). Mdme de Fervaques, who did not previously understand the De la Moles’ obsession with their secretary, has misinterpreted the letters as his commitment to the church and is thinking to recommend Julien as an important vicar (her uncle is a very famous bishop).
- Several weeks of following through with Korasov’s methods ends up working, and Mathilde confesses she misses Julien. Julien is ecstatic but doesn’t want to admit it for fear that she will change her mind. However it is clear that they are likely to get back together.
- Mathilde reveals to Julien that she is pregnant, and she decides to tell M. de la Mole of her situation and wish to marry Julien. He is very angry at Julien, who offers to die (either by his command or by suicide). M. de la Mole wavers between wanting to make Julien a rich man and wanting to kill him. M. de la Mole sends Julien away and purchases a commission in the hussars for him, as well as a new name and background (as his daughter cannot be seen marrying a commoner). Julien is ecstatic and imagines himself rising to general before the age of 30.
- One day Julien receives an urgent letter from Mathilde and he rushes back to Paris. M. de la Mole has forbidden her to marry Julien under any circumstances. Having made inquiries to Julien’s background, M. de la Mole receives a letter from (surprise, surprise) Mdme de Rênal advising him not to trust Julien as he has a habit of attaching himself to the most powerful woman in a wealthy household as part of his strategy to climb to the top. Julien is shocked at seeing the letter and sees that it is indeed in Mdme de Rênal’s hand and stained with tears. He is livid and rushes to Besancon where he finds Mdme de Rênal‘s pew at church and shoots at her twice. He is immediately taken to prison.
- Julien is ready to die in prison and (much to the exasperation of the local law enforcement) makes no effort to contest his guilt. Unknown to him, he is treated well in jail as Mdme de Rênal has bribed the gaoler to treat Julien better. Apparently, Mdme de Rênal highly regrets writing the letter to M. de la Mole (and only wrote it because she was forced to by her confessor/priest). Mathilde visits Julien and shows him her devotion but Julien cannot seem to appreciate it and is bored of her. Julien is very happy when he is told of Mdme de Rênal’s recovery and comes to regret shooting her.
- Mathilde bribes the local law enforcement so that Julien’s upcoming trial will result in his being not guilty. She is assured that he can get more than half of the jury to do his command, as M. Valenod (the mayor of Vellieres) owes his career to him. We readers of course know M. Valenod hates Julien and on the day of the trial Julien is pronounced guilty. Mathilde begs Julien to appeal but Julien is resigned to dying.
- Mdme de Rênal insists on going to Besancon to visit Julien and manages to see him in jail. They have a tearful reunion and she makes him promise to apply for an appeal. Julien makes her promise to take care of his child and not to take her own life.
- Julien is executed, and channeling her ancestor, Mathilde takes his head and buries it herself in an elaborately-made shrine. Mdme de Rênal is struck with grief and dies three days later.
- How much I liked it: I must say this is one of the funniest and smartest books I’ve ever read and for that reason alone it’s probably in my top five 19th century novels of all time.
- Influence on other writers: It’s also important to note that this novel is often dubbed “the first psychological novel” and I totally see it – I can see how Dostoyevsky was probably heavily influenced by Stendhal. Actually, this is a fact because in my copy of Crime and Punishment there is a timeline of Dostoyevsky’s lifetime with important political events and influential works of fiction corresponding with his life and works where Stendhal’s two novels are cited.
- Though Dostoyevsky was definitely influenced by Stendhal and many similarities can be observed, I believe The Red and the Black serves a different purpose from Dostoyevsky’s novels. While Dostoyevsky uses the psychological novel as a medium to reveal things about human nature, Stendhal uses it to criticize society and the masses. This is not to say that Dostoyevsky exclusively talks of human nature and Stendhal exclusively satirizes society. In fact, the two writers do both of those very, very well but I personally believe Dostoyevsky excels in one and Stendhal in the other.
- Overall, what I find amazing is that in 530 pages Stendhal has managed to accomplish the following:
- A very interesting main character: Julien is a prodigy, unique, emotionally unstable and a bit crazy but I still found myself caring about him and his fate. Julien is one of those main characters you might not like at first
- A great plot: The plot was very unpredictable, which I liked. I honestly didn’t know where the book was going and it kept me guessing and reading on until the very last page.
- A hilarious novel: I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much while reading a novel written in the 1800s. Two scenes in particular stand out: (1) when Julien was freaking out because he was afraid M. Rênal would find his portrait of Napoleon hidden under his bed and (2) the entire four of five chapters where Julien was following Prince Korasov’s love advice and copying out the 53 love letters. I can’t explain why this is so amazingly hilarious.. you’ve got to read it to understand why it’s so funny.
- An effective social commentary: Really, I don’t think any group of people in restoration-era France escaped his criticism and commentaries. Liberals, ultras, the old, the young, commoner and aristocrat – no one escaped Stendhal’s criticisms.
I did not expect to love this book so much. It’s very enjoyable, thought-provoking and most of all it’s hilarious. After finishing the novel I saw parts of the on-screen adaptation of it – a BBC miniseries starring Ewan McGregor and Rachel Weisz which is great and quite faithful to the novel. Of course, you should still read the novels because it’s just not the same. With some books it’s fine to go straight ahead and watch the adaptation but because this is a psychological novel I highly recommend reading the book first.