The Red and The Black (1830) – Forever Tumbling Upwards

The politics of sympathy and social advancement is always a tricky question.

Many stories feature characters with humble origins overcoming set-backs and challenges in order to rise to positions of prominence traditionally unthinkable for people from their social class.  Consider, for example, d’Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers novels; who would have thought that that nearly penniless member of the provincial nobility who crept into Paris on a sandy-coloured horse would wind up, thirty years later, as Marshal of France?  Stories in which sympathetic characters rise to the top of their societies serve to redeem those societies.  Indeed, the message to be taken away from the Three Musketeers is what while Louis XIII may have been a weak and easily-manipulated King who was cuckolded by the Prime Minister of his nation’s greatest military rival, he did at least preside over a society in which the cream could rise to the top.  Cardinal Richelieu is a sinister and ruthless presence but he can recognise talent when he sees it and this capacity for well-deserved social advancement means that Louis XIII’s France, much like its King, deserves a reputation for being ‘Just’.  If only a little bit.  The flip side of this depiction of heroic cream rising to the top is to be found in the genre known as the Picaresque novel.  Characterised by such works as the autobiography of Bienvenuto Cellini and William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the Picaresque novel frequently features a roguish and frequently unsympathetic character achieving wealth and status through under-handed means.  The implication being that if Barry Lyndon achieved wealth and position by being a scoundrel, it is probably safe to assume that the same is true of anyone in that society who possesses either wealth or status.

The difference between works such as The d’Artagnan Romances and The Luck of Barry Lyndon demonstrate that by adopting a different stance towards their protagonists, authors can adopt entirely different attitudes towards the societies they are describing.  A sympathetic character who rises to the top redeems his society by his accomplishment while an unsympathetic character damns his.

Stendhal’s Le Rouge et Le Noir walks a fine line between these two approaches to social advancement.  Stendhal tries hard to make his protagonist Julien Sorel appear sympathetic but despite being intelligent, ambitious, capable, romantic and democratic in sentiment, Sorrel’s rise to the top of French society constitutes one of the most vicious and wide-ranging social satires imaginable.  Stendhal’s book leaves the period of the post-Napoleonic Bourbon Restoration looking hysterical, preposterous and profoundly unjust.

Cover of the French edition I read

We first encounter Julien Sorel at rest. Having cunningly negotiated a very well-paid position for his son as tutor to the children of the local mayor, the successful carpenter sets out to inform his son of the news but, instead of working the saw as he had been instructed, Sorel is reading :

“Celui-ci se dirigea vers le hangar en y entrant, il chercha vainement Julien à la place qu’il aurait dû occuper, à côté de la scie. Il l’aperçut à cinq ou six pieds plus haut, à cheval sur l’une des pièces de la toiture. Au lieu de surveiller attentivement l’action de tout le mécanisme, Julien lisait. Rien n’était plus antipathique au vieux Sorel; il eût peut-être pardonné à Julien sa taille mince peu propre aux travaux de force, et si différente de celle de ses aînés; mais cette manie de lecture lui était odieuse, il ne savait pas lire lui-même.” — Volume I, Chapter IV

Thus Stendhal sets about inspiring the sympathies of his readers.  From this passage we learn not only that Sorel is thin and an intellectual, we also learn that — by virtue of being a handsome intellectual — Julien is disliked by his somewhat rough upper-working class family:  Julien reads, Stendhal’s audience reads too.  This is how the first bonds of sympathy are forged.

Though Julien is a capable and intelligent young man with liberal and democratic sympathies (he idolises the recently deposed Napoleon — an artillery officer of humble origins who made himself into an Emperor), he owes his advancement less to his skill and education than he does to the failings of the people around him.  Indeed, even the negotiations for Julien’s first job are shaped by Monsieur de Renal’s terror that his local rival Monsieur Valenod will hire the young man before him and thereby achieve a social victory over the mayor :

“Puisque Sorel n’est pas ravi et comblé par ma proposition, comme naturellement il devrait l’être, il est clair, se dit-il, qu’on lui a fait des offres d’un autre côté et de qui peuvent-elles venir, si ce n’est du Valenod.” — Volume I, Chapter IV

The rivalry between de Renal and Valenod not only allows Julien to get away with not doing his job properly, it also earns him repeated pay raises at times when he should really have lost his job.

Before long, Julien is not only the lover of Madame de Renal, he is also appointed as a part of the guard of honour the village turns out to greet a visiting potentate.  The more honours and money are heaped upon Sorel, the more the envy and hatred of his social rivals and betters turns to acceptance.  The reason for this bizarre behaviour is beautifully expressed by Madame de Renal in a moment of impassioned lucidity :

“C’est qu’il y avait des jours où elle avait l’illusion de l’aimer comme son enfant. Sans cesse n’avait-elle pas à répondre à ses questions naïves sur mille choses simples qu’un enfant bien né n’ignore pas à quinze ans? Un instant après, elle l’admirait comme son maître. Son génie allait jusqu’à l’effrayer; elle croyait apercevoir plus nettement chaque jour, le grand homme futur dans ce jeune abbé. Elle le voyait pape, elle le voyait premier ministre comme Richelieu.” — Volume I, Chapter XVII

Madame de Renal’s opinions of her lover shift constantly.  One minute, she is filled by maternal feelings as the young man displays such innocence that his naivete beggars belief.  The next, she is convinced that Julien is not only her rightful master but a great man who could one day be Pope or a Prime Minster comparable to Richelieu.  This cognitive dissonance represents the clash between two different world-views :

The first is one that is grounded in objective reality, while Sorel displays a truly remarkable capacity for rote learning, he is somewhat socially naïve and unable to make very much of himself without people such as his father, his lover or his tutor clearing the way for him.  He is also utterly misguided as to his own capacities as nearly all of his inner thoughts see him comparing himself to Napoleon.

The second world-view is born of the nature of French society at the time.  Set between 1826 and 1831, The Red and The Black takes place at a time when France had undergone a dizzying array of social reversals all within a single generation.  People living under the restored Bourbon monarchy in 1830 would have been old enough to remember the violent overthrow of the King, the execution of the aristocracy, the brutal purging of the new political classes, the movement from Republic to Empire, the rise of France to a position of dominance upon the European stage and a crushing defeat at the hands of an array of foreign powers.  Stendhal depicts the nobility of the period as both terrified of political change and desperate for the rise of a Napoleonic figure who might sweep away their political adversaries and return France to a position of strength.  Despite his Republican sympathies and his complete lack of political nous, Sorel is swiftly identified as a potential great man.  He is seen as a potential great man not because of any innate skills he possesses, but because everyone else seems intent upon seeing him as a potential Napoleon or Richelieu.  His greatness is the product of fear and jealousy:

The mechanics of Sorel’s advancement are clear.  Time and again, he is hoisted up the social ladder not because of any innate skills he might posses, but because he is seen to be valued.  Sorel moves in social circles characterised by vindictive rivalries and a ruthless quest for power and prestige.  Repeatedly, Sorel will be seen by one party as a valued asset of another party.  Because party A sees him being valued by party B (even if he, in fact, isn’t) they will seek to counter party B’s plans by seeking to take control of the thing being valued.  Sensing that party A has eyes on Sorel, party B will then convince themselves that Sorel has value and so will elevate him in order to both assure his loyalty and counter the plans of party A.



Cover of the Penguin edition


Thus, Julien Sorel is forever tumbling upwards through French society.  He climbs the ladder not through skill or daring but as a result of the hysterical fears and irrational vindictiveness of the people around him.  Nowhere is this more clear than when Sorel leaves his home town in order to attend the local seminary where, try as he might, he cannot neither make friends nor acquire any prestige.  If Sorel works hard, he is seen as an upstart.  If he pulls his punches, he is seen as complacent and arrogant.  Try as he might, Julien simply cannot learn the ropes of the seminary and, with nobody to clear the way for him, he seems destined to languish as a country priest.

“Souvent il riait de grand coeur de ce qu’on disait dans ce petit groupe; mais il se sentait incapable de rien inventer de semblable. C’était comme une langue étrangère qu’il eût comprise et admirée, mais qu’il n’eût pu parler.”  — Volume II, Chapter IV

It is only when Sorel’s friend sends some game as a gift to the seminary that attitudes to Julien begin to thaw.  As Stendhal puts it, Sorel’s greatest fault became that he had not spoken of his family’s wealth and so had placed his fellow students in the untenable position of appearing to lack respect for money :

“C’était le temps de la chasse. Fouqué eut l’idée d’envoyer au séminaire un cerf et un sanglier de la part des parents de Julien. Les animaux morts furent déposés dans le passage, entre la cuisine et le réfectoire. Ce fut là que tous les séminaristes les virent en allant dîner. Ce fut un grand objet de curiosité. Le sanglier, tout mort qu’il était, faisait peur aux plus jeunes, ils touchaient ses défenses. On ne parla d autre chose pendant huit jours.  Ce don qui classait la famille de Julien dans la partie de la société qu’il faut respecter, porta un coup mortel à l’envie. Il fut une supériorité consacrée par la fortune. Chazel et les plus distingués des séminaristes lui firent des avances, et se seraient presque plaints à lui de ce qu’il ne les avait pas avertis de la fortune de ses parents, et les avait ainsi exposés à manquer de respect à l’argent.” — Volume I, Chapter XXIX

However, it is only when Sorel leaves the seminary that his society’s hysterical greed and fear begins to grip him personally.  Appointed to the staff of the Marquis de la Mole, Julien encounters the Marquis’ witty and beautiful daughter Mathilde.  Initially, the pair have little interest in each other: Mathilde is beautiful but scornful and Julien is little more than a domestic.  However, when Sorel accomplishes a minor diplomatic mission for the Marquis, he is awarded with a cross.  A cross that suddenly elevates him in the esteem of Mathilde.  He is no longer a non-person :

“Mlle de La Mole le trouva grandi et pâli. Sa taille, sa tournure n’avaient plus rien du provincial; il n’en était pas ainsi de sa conversation; on y remarquait encore trop de sérieux, trop de positif. Malgré ces qualités raisonnables, grâce à son orgueil, elle n’avait rien de subalterne, on sentait seulement qu’il regardait encore trop de chose s’comme importantes. Mais on voyait qu’il était homme à soutenir son dire.

– Il manque de légèreté, mais non pas d’esprit, dit Mlle de La Mole à son père, en plaisantant avec lui sur la croix qu’il avait donnée à Julien. Mon frère vous l’a demandée pendant dix-huit mois, et c’est un La Mole!” — Volume II, Chapter VIII

Julien, for his part, has no interest at all in Mathilde.  He dislikes her attitude, her hair and her style of dress :

“‘Que cette grande fille me déplaît! pensa-t-il en regardant marcher Mlle de La Mole, que sa mère avait appelée pour la présenter à plusieurs femmes de ses amies. Elle outre toutes les modes; sa robe lui tombe des épaules… elle est encore plus pâle qu’avant son voyage… Quels cheveux sans couleur, à force d’être blonds; on dirait que le jour passe à travers!… Que de hauteur dans cette façon de saluer, dans ce regard! quels gestes de reine!’” — Volume II, Chapter VIII

It is only when Mathilde begins to use Sorel to keep other men at bay and the other men begin to heap scorn upon Sorel that Julien decides to try and seduce Mathilde :

“‘D’un autre côté, quand Mlle de La Mole fixe sur moi ses grands yeux bleus avec une certaine expression singulière, toujours le comte Norbert s’éloigne. Ceci m’est suspect; ne devrait-il pas s’indigner de ce que sa soeur distingue un domestique de leur maison? car j’ai entendu le duc de Chaulnes parler ainsi de moi.’ A ce souvenir, la colère remplaçait tout autre sentiment. ‘Est-ce amour du vieux langage chez ce duc maniaque?’

‘Eh bien, elle est jolie! continuait Julien avec des regards de tigre. Je l’aurai, je m’en irai ensuite, et malheur à qui me troublera dans ma fuite!’

Cette idée devint l’unique affaire de Julien; il ne pouvait plus penser à rien autre. Ses journées passaient comme des heures.” — Volume II, Chapter X

However, the closer Julien gets to Mathilde, the further she pulls away and it is not until he follows the advice of a Russian Prince and starts to pay court to another woman in Mathilde’s social circle that Julien manages to seduce the daughter of the Marquis.  A seduction that earns him a military commission, a fortune and the title of Chevalier.  In the world of Julien Sorel, to desire something is to be denied it and to be denied it is to desire it even more.



The Cover of Deceit, Desire and The Novel


The literary critic Rene Girard singles out The Red and The Black as a work exemplifying his theory of Mimetic Desire, a triangular structure which, Girard argues, unites the greatest works of world literature.  In Deceit, Desire and The Novel (1961), Girard states that :

“In most of Stendhal’s desires, the mediator himself desires the object, or could desire it: it is this very desire, real or presumed, which makes this object infinitely desirable in the eyes of the subject.  The mediation begets a second desire exactly the same as the mediator’s.  This means that one is always confronted with two competing desires.  The mediator can no longer act his role of model without also acting or appearing to act the role of obstacle.  Like the relentless sentry of the Kafka fable, the model shows his disciple the gate of paradise and forbids him to enter with one and the same gesture.” — Pages 7-8

What is irrational about the characters of The Red and The Black is the way in which not only their choice of desires but also their choice of models is relentlessly absurd.  To desire something because someone else desires it is simply to be human and to share a set of cultural values, but to systematically adopt the desires not of one’s idols but of one’s rivals for fear that these rivals will ‘beat you’ to something you do not even want speaks of a society that is profoundly irrational and profoundly sick.  This is the spear-thrust of Stendhal’s critique of French society under the Bourbon restoration, Stendhal presents it as a place and time in which hatred fuels the flames of love while hatred itself is born only of the purest motives and most self-less actions.

However, even if we look past the infamously unhealthy triangularity of Julien and Mathilde’s relationship then The Red and The Black’s ending would still stand as ample proof of the sickness of Bourbon France.  Indeed, standing upon the verge of greatness, Julien’s career is suddenly cut short by a revelatory letter from his old lover Madame de Renal.  Furious, Julien responds to her frankness by attempting to gun her down in cold blood (an act of violent hatred carried out to an equally hate-filled action which, predictably and perversely enough, reignites the flames of passion between Sorel and Madame de Renal).  As Julien rots in prison, the French establishment slowly realise that they have way too much invested in this young man to allow him to go to the guillotine and so public opinion begins to shift in his favour.  However, with a lack of political nous that brilliantly underlines the structural rather than individual reasons for his social advancement, Sorel decides that he wants to live and so tries to win over the court with a spectacularly mis-judged speech in which he paints himself as a miserable peasant viciously oppressed by the very status quo that made him not only an officer and a rich man but also a minor member of the nobility :

“‘L’horreur du mépris, que je croyais pouvoir braver au moment de la mort, me fait prendre la parole. Messieurs, je n’ai point l’honneur d’appartenir à votre classe vous voyez en moi un paysan qui s’est révolté contré la bassesse de sa fortune.

‘Je ne vous demande aucune grâce continua Julien en affermissant sa voix. Je ne me fais point illusion, la mort m’attend: elle sera juste. J’ai pu attenter aux jours de la femme la plus digne de tous les respects, de tous les hommages. Mme de Rênal avait été pour moi comme une mère. Mon crime est atroce, et il fut prémédité. J’ai donc mérité la mort, messieurs les jurés. Quand je serais moins coupable, je vois des hommes qui, sans s’arrêter à ce que ma jeunesse peut mériter de pitié, voudront punir en moi et décourager à jamais cette classe de jeunes gens qui, nés dans un ordre inférieur, et en quelque sorte opprimés par la pauvreté, ont le bonheur de se procurer une bonne éducation, et l’audace de se mêler à ce que l’orgueil des gens riches appelle la société.

‘Voilà mon crime, messieurs, et il sera puni avec d’autant plus de sévérité, que, dans le fait, je ne suis point jugé par mes pairs. Je ne vois point sur les bancs des jurés quelque paysan enrichi, mais uniquement des bourgeois indignés…” — Volume II, Chapter XLI

In full accordance of the logic of the times, Sorel is sentenced to death because he no longer wished to die.  The rush of revolutionary blood to his head collapses the wave function of social hysteria that surrounds him: Sorel is no longer tomorrow’s great man, he is an upstart peasant and, fearful that his survival might endanger him, a liberal who is actually sympathetic to Julien’s arguments assures that he goes to the guillotine because, in Bourbon France, the only thing that can come from being not only popular and but also right is universal popular hatred and the belief that you are mad.


  1. Good analysis!

    Would you be prepared to draw parallels between Stendhal’s THE RED AND THE BLACK and Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE?

    BEING THERE depicts a moronic nobody who “tumbles upward” through 1970s America — but unlike Sorel, the protagonist Chance has no ambitions at all (except gardening). He’s almost completely empty. So he becomes a kind of living Rorschach Test.

    The hysterical members of the “establishment” see in him what they wish to see: a good-hearted rich man (the rich would not like him if he seemed rich and cold-hearted, because that would remind them too much of themselves); an elder statesman (even to the Soviet Russians, who want Americans to achieve and uphold the precious détente); they see in him the leader they yearn for who can bring America out of the recession and post-Vietnam War gloom.

    In other words: 1970s society desperately wanted to groom a Ronald Reagan for the presidency (and did).

    The protagonist of BEING THERE is ultimately much more successful than Sorel, precisely because he doesn’t even try to advance, or argue, or struggle — society does the job for him. He is never perceived as threatening or dangerously ambitious, and he isn’t.

    Thought experiment: if the protagonists Chance and Julien Sorel switched places, would their careers have been different?

    A moronic gardener would probably not have advanced to “high society” in Bourbon France… but his gardening skills per se would certainly be in high demand among the upper classes.

    What about an ambitious, handsome young go-getter with low social skills and delusions of Napoleonic grandeur, in 1970s USA? Would Julien Sorel become a left-wing firebrand, or a socialite “intellectual”? I have no idea.


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