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The Red and the Black is a lively, satirical picture of French Restoration society after Waterloo, riddled with corruption, greed and ennui. The complex, sympathetic portrayal of Julien, the cold exploiter whose Machiavellian campaign is undercut by his own emotions, makes him Stendhal's most brilliant and human creation, and one of the greatest characters in European literature.
A Small Town
Put thousands together
But the cage less gay.
The little town of Verrières might be one of the prettiest in all Franche-Comté. Its white houses with their sharp-pointed roofs of red tile stretch down a hillside, every faint ripple in the long slope marked by thick clusters of chestnut trees. A few hundred feet below the ruins of the ancient fortress, built by the Spanish, runs the River Doubs.
To the north, Verrières is sheltered by a great mountain, part of the Jura range. The first frosts of October cover these jagged peaks with snow. A stream that rushes down from the mountains, crossing through Verrières and then pouring itself into the Doubs, powers a good many sawmills—an immensely simple industry that provides a modest living for most of the inhabitants, more peasant than bourgeois. But the sawmills are not what brought prosperity to the little town. It was the production of printed calico cloth, known as “Mulhouse,” which ever since the fall of Napoleon has created widespread comfort and led to the refinishing of virtually every house in Verrières. Just inside the town, there is a stunning roar from a machine of frightful appearance. Twenty ponderous hammers, falling over and over with a crash that makes the ground tremble, are lifted by a wheel that the stream keeps in motion. Every one of these hammers, each and every day, turns out I don’t know how many thousands of nails. And it’s pretty, smooth-cheeked young girls who offer pieces of iron to these enormous hammers, which quickly transform them into nails. Thisoperation, visibly harsh and violent, is one of the things that most astonishes a first-time traveler, poking his way into the mountains separating France and Switzerland. And if the traveler, entering Verrières, asks who owns this noble nail-making factory, deafening everyone who walks along the main street, he’ll be told, in the drawling accent of the region, “Ah—it belongs to His Honor the Mayor.”
If the traveler spends just a moment or two on Verrières’s grand thoroughfare, which ascends along the bank of the Doubs right up to the top of the hill, the odds are a hundred to one he’ll see a tall man with an air both businesslike and important.
As soon as he appears, every hat is respectfully raised. His hair is grizzled, he’s dressed in gray. He wears the insignia of several knightly orders; his forehead is lofty, his nose aquiline, and taking him all in all there’s a certain orderliness about him. At first sight, one even feels that he blends the dignity of mayoral status with the sort of charm still often to be found in a man of forty-five or fifty. But it does not take long for a Parisian traveler to be struck, most unfavorably, by clear signs of self-satisfaction and conceit, topped off by who knows what limitations, what lack of originality. Finally, one is aware that his talents are confined to making sure he is paid exactly what he is owed, while paying what he himself owes only at the last possible moment.
This then is Monsieur de Rênal, mayor of Verrières. Crossing the street with solemn steps, he goes into City Hall and disappears from the traveler’s sight. But if the traveler keeps on walking, no more than another hundred paces up the hill he will see a distinguished-looking house and, if he looks through an adjoining wrought-iron gate, a very fine garden. Beyond that, he will see a horizon shaped by Burgundian hills, which seems to have been put there expressly for the purpose of pleasing the eye. This view will help the traveler forget the foul smell of petty financial transactions, which had begun to asphyxiate him.
He is informed that this house belongs to Monsieur de Rênal. The mayor of Verrières owes this fine, just-completed dwelling, built of cut stone, to the profits earned by his noble nail factory. His family, it is explained, is Spanish, ancient, and (as the story is told) settled in the region long before Louis XIV conquered it.
Ever since 1815, his status as an industrialist has embarrassed him. It was 1815 that made him mayor of Verrières. The terrace walls around the different parts of this magnificent garden, holding in place each of the different levels descending almost to the Doubs, are yet another reward for Monsieur de Rênal’s iron-trade business acumen.
Nowhere in France can you hope to find the picturesque gardens surrounding Germany’s manufacturing towns—Leipzig, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, etc. In Franche-Comté, the more walls you put up, the more your property bristles with rocks heaped one on top of another, the more claim you have on your neighbors’ respect. Monsieur de Rênal’s gardens, packed with walls, are even more admired because he bought—for just about their weight in gold—the bits and pieces of land on which they lie. For example, the sawmill located so strangely right on the bank of the Doubs, which caught your eye as you entered Verrières, and on which you noticed the name sorel, written in gigantic letters on a board protruding over the roof, until six years ago had stood exactly where, at this very moment, they are building the wall for the fourth terrace of Monsieur de Rênal’s garden.
For all his haughty pride, Monsieur de Rênal had been obliged to make a good many overtures to old Sorel, a tough, stubborn peasant; he had to count out a stack of handsome gold coins before the old man agreed to move his business elsewhere. As for the public stream that had powered the sawmill, Monsieur de Rênal relied on the influence he enjoyed in Paris to have it diverted. This official favor had come to him after the elections of 182-.
To get one acre, he had given Sorel four, situated five hundred paces farther down the bank of the Doubs. And even though the new location was far more advantageous for his trade in pine boards, Père Sorel (as they call him, now that he’s a rich man) knew how to play on his neighbor’s pressing impatience, and his land-owning mania, squeezing out a sale price of six thousand francs.
To be sure, the transaction was criticized by wiser heads in the area. Once, about four o’clock on a Sunday, coming home from church, dressed in his mayoral robes, Monsieur de Rênal saw in the distance old Sorel, surrounded by his three sons, watching him and smiling. That smile proved fatally illuminating to the mayor: he realized, from then on, that he could have bought the land for less.
To earn a public reputation in Verrières, the essential thing—while of course building a great many walls—is not to adopt some design carried across the Jura gorges by Italian stonemasons, in their springtime pilgrimages to Paris. Any such innovation would earn the imprudent builder the unshakable taint of rebel; he would be forever after ruined in the eyes of the wise, moderate folk who parcel out reputation in Franche-Comté.
In truth, these wise fellows wield an incredibly wearisome despotism, and it is precisely this wretched word that makes small towns unlivable for those who have been successful in that great republic we call Paris. The tyranny of opinion—and such opinion!—is every bit as idiotic in the small towns of France as it is in the United States of America.
|Chronology of the Life of Henri Marie Beyle||vii|
|Selected Further Reading||xxvi|
|Notes on the Text and Translation||xxvii|
|The Red and The Black||1|
|Appendix A||Stendhal's Epigraphs and Quotations||533|
|Appendix B||French Currency and Distances in the 1820s||534|
1. Does it matter whether or not Stendhal's detailed, vivid, deeply and fully realized 'history' is accurate? It is brilliantly presented, massively marshaled; characters and action ring powerfully true. But is it trustworthy?
2. Julien not only surrenders quite readily to the death penalty: he fairly embraces it. Is this, like so many of his actions throughout the book, yet more reckless romanticism? Or is it in some way different and deeper? Does the earlier part of the book fit with/lead up to this ending? Or, as has sometimes been suggested, is the ending either tacked on or, still worse, melodramatic?
3. Stendhal's France is portrayed–at everylevel– as an immensely materialistic society. In the final analysis, is Père Sorel either more or less materialistic than the Marquis de La Mole? Would this social portrait have been different if Stendhal had been a native American and was writing about the United States?
4. Mathilde de La Mole and Madame de Rênal are almost startlingly unlike, in virtually all respects. Yet both of them are passionately in love with Julien Sorel, a man who is completely unlike either of them or their expectations and dreams for themselves. Does Julien earn their love? Does he deserve it?
5. Julien Sorel hungers for epic success, and very nearly achieves it. We learn that he has had a grindingly difficult experience of lower bourgeois existence as well as the Church. He has had an almost equally chilling experience of both high bourgeois and aristocratic life. Where–if anywhere–could he possibly have found himself at home?
6. Julien Sorel's weaknesses are perhaps easier to see than his strengths, which tend to be simple and basic. Stendhal repeatedly notes that Julien does not have a first-rate mind. (Stendhal himself had exactly the same astonishing memory he gives to Julien.) In The Red and the Black, do simple, basic virtues succumb to or prevail over more complex and rigorously intellectual capabilities? In any case, Stendhal is emphatically not a utopian. But what image of a good, or perhaps merely a better, society finally emerges from his book?
7. The Church plays an enormous role in the entire novel, much of it decidedly negative. But does the large roster of Church officials, ranging from very high to very low, support the frequently heard claim that Stendhal was fiercely and fundamentally anticlerical?
8. Napoleon, too, figures hugely in the novel (though not as an active character), but this is not simply because he has had an enormous and continuing influence on Julien Sorel. Napoleon's entire career, and especially his long reign as ruler of France, is subjected to intense examination, and from many different perspectives. Again, it has often been said that Stendhal was more or less a Napoleon worshiper. Is this true?
9. Stendhal himself had been a soldier–he had endured, and survived, the Grand Army's devastating retreat from Moscow. Many of the novel's characters are or have been military men; military issues are frequently discussed and debated. In The Red and the Black, is there a clearly cohesive, or even a straightforward, view of war and either its advocates or its critics? Or is Stendhal here, too, attempting a broader and multivalenced portrayal than critics sometimes seem to recognize?
10. For roughly half a century, Balzac was virtually the only significant figure in French literature to express appreciation of and deep respect for Stendhal's fiction. This is plainly not an accident. What makes these two novelists similar? Dissimilar? Why did the twentieth century see an enormous rise in Stendhal's literary reputation and influence, exactly as he himself had predicted?
11. Love, in all its many aspects, plainly fascinated Stendhal the novelist, as it clearly fascinated him as a man. Yet it has often been argued that, properly considered, Stendhal (born in 1783) was not in fact a Romantic. How does the evidence proffered in The Red and the Black support or contradict this argument?
12. There can be no doubt that Stendhal finds social relationships and the customs and rules that regulate them to be of the very highest interest. Is this either an essentially French or an essentially nineteenth-century preoccupation? Are there twentieth-century novelists, in France or elsewhere, who share Stendhal's profound interest in manners?
13. The Marquis de La Mole is about as fully and fairly drawn as any character in the history of fiction. We see him magnificent, we see him base. He can be open-minded and generous; he can be closed-minded, autocratic, and even niggardly. We see him love, and we see him hate. What does Stendhal intend us to understand from this remarkable portrait?
14. Stendhal's evocations of place ('descriptions' would surely be too meager and inadequate a word to describe them) are dazzling. He evokes with the same glowing three-dimensionality countryside, towns, cities, and entire countries. In The Red and the Black, place receives very nearly as much authorial attention as does character, even though it is fair to say that Stendhal is as sensitive and attuned to his characters as any fiction writer in history. Why does place receive such large attention? Is it deserved? Is it necessary? Is it perhaps excessive? Or is it exactly right for Stendhal's purposes?
15. Stendhal's style– the way he writes–is almost magically effective. The very rhythms and shapes of his sentences help him to evoke the fullest possible shades of meaning. What stylistic role is played by Stendhal's choice of individual words? What kinds of words does he favor? What kinds does he shun? Is he consistent in such matters? Who–if anyone–does his style seem to resemble, in any significant way(s)?