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The Red and the Black by Stendhal
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The Red and the Black (1830)

by Stendhal

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7,04594799 (3.88)1 / 261
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French Naturalism and me will likely never get along very well. This book was a struggle for me, and in the end I gave up and skipped large portions of it.

On the face of it, I can without qualms say that Le rouge et le noir has the makings of a very good 19thC psychological novel, in which a well-rounded character with believable issues and tendencies is confronted with various challenges, and their mental world and their social environment is explored skilfully and with great insight in the human condition. The main character is Julien Sorel, a working class lad from small-town, provincial France, who’s got a talent for book-smarts, and who is anxious to climb the social ladder to upper-middle class or lower-upper class levels. The obstacles are well-developed, too. One is that the people on those upper rungs will never accept him as one of their own: he’s at most a pet displaying impressive tricks, but never an equal (this is part of their upbringing, of course). Another obstacle is psychological in nature: Julien’s congenital, knee-jerk disdain for higher-class people and the way they behave towards anyone not from their class. Yet another obstacle is that Julien himself develops a haughty disdain for people from his original class: he’s trying to fit in, but this renders him an outcast almost everywhere. The result is an impossible conundrum, and Julien struggles mightily to navigate it.

So far, so professional. What made me want to give up is a combination of vexations I had, all of which are excusable individually, but the cumulative effect proved to be too much.

For one thing: most characters, including the main one, are straight-up selfish arseholes, quick to despise anyone qualifying as The Other, which leaves me with precious little patience to tolerate their antics. Many are incompetent, too, unable to stick to a course of action and veering back and forth between two sides of a decision as a new mood overcomes them. This also annoyed me. Watching a moody adolescent failing at his half-hearted attempts at get-riches-and-a-title-quick schemes isn’t a fun experience, either -- whether they be impossible designs, half-baked plans, spur-of-the-moment decisions, or a systematic faking of religious fervor that higher-up clergy are bound to see through. I also had an especially hard time engaging with 19thC concerns, both petty squabbles of the small-town kind (the cost of a servant's uniform, or whether or not someone is allowed to stand in a crowd to see a king’s procession), and the ridiculously quaint class sensitivities (constraints on proper behaviour; everyone’s callousness towards members of another class). I just can't find it in me to care.

Then there is the unpleasantness that is Julien’s amorous escapades. Julien seduces two higher-class women -- one is his first employer’s wife, Mme de Rênal, who he decides is pretty even though she’s already thirty. Julien desires her because she represents an ideal to him, and because his self-image would look pretty good with a higher-class mistress. When the adultery becomes known, his reputation (and hers!) is ruined, and Julien has to run from the vengeful husband. A well-placed connection sets him up as the secretary of Marquis de la Mole -- whose teenaged daughter Julien promptly seduces. Again, his motivation is more class envy and a feeling that a man of his pretentions ought to be looked up to by a woman such as Mlle de la Môle. Throughout it all, Julien is consumed by contradictory emotions, passions and wild flights of fancy, which serve as a complex psychological shield for his sometimes-calculating moves in securing money, lovers and status he thinks should be his due. Other people’s sacrifices for his sake barely register in Julien’s self-estimation.

Finally, there’s the novelist’s approach to their work: It is clear they have chosen their subject carefully, wishing to show certain societal currents and what kind of effects they have. But I felt as though Stendhal were trying to dissect their characters with such levels of emotional detachment and objectivity that it all felt forced and needlessly explicit. The image I have of Stendhal is that of a droning teacher who fails to realise their pupils have gotten the point but overexplains every step, and nothing is going to deter him. And so subplots and new characters are introduced merely to press a button in Julien’s psychology, or to bring out a conflict Stendhal wishes to turn to next. All the conflicting dilly-dallying between Julien and his female objects of desire is this writ large: their endless drama serves merely to have the occasional realization occur to Julien, or to make points about the rigidity of the class system. As a result, the demonstration of Julien’s psychology and his struggles with himself and with society is done with a graceless lack of subtlety, a tedious plodding through the whole process, step-by-step, that ends up feeling so forced it loses all semblance of realism. In a word: I found this book too noticeably constructed.

Taken separately, I would probably be able to overlook these points, but taken together they made working my way through this book an unpleasant chore. They were also magnified by the book’s length: my physical copy has over 820 pages with tiny print.

Like Julien, I struggled (though perhaps not mightily), but was unequal to the task, and more or less abandoned this book. I ended up reading to the 52% point (as per my e-reader) before I was ready to give up. I spoiled myself thoroughly on a synopsis and an article or two about the book’s influence and Nachleben, trying to decide whether continuing the drudge was worth it. In the end, I decided not to. I read a chapter here and there, but ended up skipping most of the rest of the book. The final 10% (again, as my e-reader has it) I did read, and so, having reluctantly read some two thirds, I can happily say that I am properly done with this book.

Here’s hoping next year’s Big French Classic will be a more agreeable read. ( )
  Petroglyph | Nov 15, 2018 |
[Be aware, should you care, that the following review contains spoilers! – Ed.]

[From Books and You, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940, p. 69:]

To my mind, The Red and the Black is for its first two thirds one of the best novels ever written; I think it fails then, and for a very singular reason. Stendhal founded it on fact, but the character he invented, Julien Sorel, ran away with him, as the characters of our invention often do, and when Stendhal forced him to behave in such a way as to fit the actual circumstances which had been the inspiration of his story, you are disconcerted, for you cannot believe that the unscrupulous, ambitious and resolute man whom he has drawn would act with such a foolish disregard of consequences.

[From Ten Novels and Their Authors, Heinemann, 1954, pp. 68-98:]

One of the odd things about Stendhal is that though he was always on the watch lest anyone made a fool of him, he was constantly making a fool of himself.

[...]

Stendhal was an eccentric. His character was even more incongruous than that of most men, and one is amazed that so many contradictory traits should co-exist in one and the same person. They do not form a harmony that is in any way plausible. He had great virtues and great defects. He was sensitive, emotional, diffident, talented, a hard worker when there was work to be done, cool and brave in danger, a good friend and of a remarkable originality. His prejudices were absurd, his aims unworthy. He was distrustful (and so an easy dupe), intolerant, uncharitable, none too conscientious, fatuously vain and vainglorious, sensual without delicacy, and licentious without passion. But if we know that he had these defects, it is because he has told us so himself. Stendhal was not a professional author, he was hardly even a man of letters, but he wrote incessantly, and he wrote almost entirely about himself. For years he kept a journal, of which great sections have come down to us, and it is plain that he wrote with no view to publication; but in his early fifties he wrote an autobiography in five hundred pages, which carried him to the age of seventeen, and this, though left unrevised at his death, he meant to be read. In it he sometimes makes himself out more important than he really was, and claims to have done things he did not do, but on the whole it is truthful. He does not spare himself, and I imagine that few can read these books, and they are not easy to read, since they are in parts dull and often repetitive, without asking themselves whether, if they were unwise enough to expose themselves with so much frankness, they would make a much better showing.

[...]

Many an author has consoled himself for the neglect of his contemporaries by a confidence that posterity will recognize his merits. It seldom does. Posterity is busy and careless and, when it concerns itself with the literary productions of the past, makes its choice among those that were successful in their own day. It is only by a remote chance that a dead author is rescued from the obscurity in which he languished during his lifetime. In the case of Stendhal, a professor, otherwise unknown, in his lectures at the École Normale enthusiastically praised his books, and there happened to be among his students some clever young men who later made a name for themselves. They read them, and finding in them something that suited the climate of opinion at the time prevalent among the young, became fanatical admirers. The ablest of these young men was Hippolyte Taine, and many years later, by which time he has become a well-known and influential man of letters, he wrote a long essay in which he called attention especially to Stendhal’s psychological insight.

[...]

I know of no novelist of the first rank, other than Stendhal, who has so directly found his inspiration in what he has read. I do not remark on this in disparagement, but merely as a curious fact. Stendhal was not greatly inventive; but, how it came about none can tell, nature had endowed this vulgar buffoon with a wonderful gift of accurate observation, and with a piercing insight into the intricacies, vagaries and bizarreries of the human heart. He had a very poor opinion of his fellow-creatures, but was intensely interested in them.

[...]

Of the two great novels, La Chartreuse de Parme is the more agreeable to read. I do not think Saint-Beuve was right when he called the characters lifeless puppets. It is true that Fabrice, the hero, and Clelia Conti, the heroine, are shadowy, and for the most part play a somewhat passive role in the story; but Count Mosca and the Duchess Sanseverino are intensely alive. The gay, licentious, unscrupulous Duchess is a masterpiece of characterization. But Le Rouge et le Noir is by far the more striking, the more original, and the more significant performance. It is because of it that Zola called Stendhal the father of the naturalistic school, and that Bourget and André Gide have claimed him (not quite accurately) as the originator of the psychological novel.

Unlike most authors, Stendhal accepted criticism, however damning, with good humour; but what is even more remarkable, when he sent manuscripts of his books to friends whose opinions he wanted, he adopted without hesitation the revisions, often ample, which they recommended. Mérimée states that though he constantly rewrote, he never corrected. I am not sure that this is a fact. In a manuscript of his that I have seen he put a little cross over a number of words that he was not satisfied with, and did this surely with the intention of altering them when he came to revise. He hated the flowery manner of writing made fashionable by Chateaubriand, and which a hundred lesser authors had sedulously aped. Stendhal’s aim was to set down whatever he had to say as plainly and exactly as he could, without frills, rhetorical flourishes or picturesque verbiage. He said (probably not quite truly) that before starting to write he read a page of the Code Napoléon in order to chasten his language. He eschewed description of scenery and the abundant metaphors which were popular in his day. The cold, lucid, self-controlled style he adopted admirably increases the horror of the story he has to tell in Le Rouge et le Noir, and adds to its enthralling interest.

It is to Le Rouge et le Noir that Taine in his famous essay gave most of his attention; but being an historian and a philosopher, he was chiefly interested in Stendhal’s psychological acuteness, his shrewd analysis of motives, and the freshness and originality of his opinions. He pointed out with justice that Stendhal was concerned not with action for its own sake, but only in so far as it was occasioned by the emotions of his personages, the singularities of their character and the vicissitudes of their passions. This made him avoid describing dramatic incidents in a dramatic manner. As an illustration of this, Taine quoted Stendhal’s description of his hero’s execution, and very truly remarked that most authors would have looked upon this as an event on which they could expatiate. This is how Stendhal treated it:

“The bad air of the cell was becoming intolerable to Julien; happily, on the day on which they told him he was to die, a lovely sun enlivened nature, and Julien was in a courageous mood. To walk in the open air was to him a delicious sensation, as to walk on land might be to a sailor who has been long at sea. Well, everything is going well, he told himself, I don’t lack courage. Never had that head been so poetic as when it was about to fall. The sweet moments he had passed in the woods of Vergy crowded upon his memory with the utmost force. Everything took place simply, decently, and on his side without affectation.”

But Taine was apparently not interested in the novel as a work of art. His aim in writing was to awaken interest in a neglected author, and it was a panegyric he wrote rather than a critical study. The reader who is induced by Taine’s essay to acquaint himself with Le Rouge et le Noir may well be a trifle disappointed. For as a work of art it is sadly imperfect.

Stendhal was more interested in himself than in anyone else, and he was always the hero of his novels, Octave in Armance, Fabrice in La Chartreuse de Parme, and Lucien Leuwen in the unfinished novel of that name. Julien Sorel, the hero of Le Rouge et le Noir, is the kind of man Stendhal would have liked to be. He made him attractive to women and successful in winning their love, as he himself would have given everything to be, and too seldom was. He made him achieve his ends with them by just those methods that he had concocted for his own use, and that had consistently failed. He made him as brilliant a talker as he was himself; he was wise enough, however, never to give an example of his brilliance, but only affirmed it, since he knew that when a novelist has told his reader that a character is witty, and then gives examples of his wit, they are apt not to come up to the reader’s expectation. He gave him his own astonishing memory, his own courage, his own timidity, his own ambition, sensitiveness, calculating brain, his own suspiciousness and vanity and quickness to take offence, his own unscrupulousness and his own ingratitude. The pleasantest trait he gives him, again one that he found in himself, is Julien’s faculty of being moved to tears when he meets with disinterestedness and loving-kindness: it suggests that if the circumstances of his life had been different, he would not have been so vile.

As I have said, Stendhal had no gift for making up a story out of his own head, and he took the plot of Le Rouge et le Noir from newspaper reports of a trial that at the time had excited great interest. A young seminarist called Antoine Berthet was tutor in the house of a M. Michoud, then in that of a M. de Cordon; he tried to seduce, or did seduce, the wife of the first and the daughter of the second. He was discharged. He attempted then to resume his studies for the priesthood, but owing to his bad reputation no seminary would receive him. He took it into his head that the Michouds were responsible for this, and in revenge shot Madame Michoud while she was in church, and then himself. The wound was not fatal and he was tried; he sought to save himself at the expense of the unfortunate woman, but was condemned to death.

This ugly, sordid story appealed to Stendhal. He regarded Berthet’s crime as the reaction of a strong, rebellious nature against the social order, and as the expression of the natural man, untrammelled by the conventions of an artificial society. He held his fellow-Frenchmen in scorn because they had lost the energy which they had had in the Middle Ages, and were becoming law-abiding, respectable, prosaic, commonplace and incapable of passion. It might, perhaps, have occurred to him that after the horrors of the Terror, after the catastrophic wars of Napoleon, it was natural that they should welcome peace and quiet. Stendhal prized energy above all other qualities of man, and if he adored Italy, and sooner lived there than in his native land, it was because he persuaded himself that it was the “country of love and hate”. There men loved with frenzy and for love’s sake died. There men and women surrendered to their passions, careless of the disaster that might ensue. There men, in a sudden attack of blind rage, killed, and killing, dared to be themselves. This is pure romanticism, and it is plain that what Stendhal called energy is what most people call violence. And condemn.

“The people alone,” he wrote, “nowadays have some remnants of energy. There is none of it in the upper classes”; so, when he came to write Le Rouge et le Noir, he made Julien a working-class boy; but he furnished him with a better brain, more strength of will, and greater courage than were possessed by his wretched model. The character he drew with consummate skill is of perennial interest; he is devoured with envy and hatred of those born in a more privileged class, and well represents a type that occurs in every generation, and will presumably continue to do so until there is a classless society. Then human nature will doubtless have changed, and the less intelligent, the less competent, the less enterprising will no longer resent it if the more enterprising, the more competent and the more intelligent enjoy advantages that are denied them. Here, when we catch our first glimpse of Julien, is how Stendhal describes him: “He was a small young man of eighteen or nineteen, weakly to look at, with irregular, delicate features and an aquiline nose. His large black eyes, which in moments of tranquillity suggested reflection and fire, were lit up at that instant with an expression of the fiercest hate. His dark chestnut hair, growing very low, gave him a small forehead and in moments of anger a look of wickedness…. His slender, well-set figure suggested lightness rather than vigour.” Not an attractive portrait, but a good one, because it does not predispose the reader in Julien’s favour. The principal character in a novel, as I have said, naturally enlists the reader’s sympathy, and Stendhal, having chosen a villain for his hero, had to take care from the start that his readers should not sympathise with him overmuch. On the other hand, he had to interest them in him. He could not afford to make him too repulsive, so he modified his first description by dwelling repeatedly on his fine eyes, his graceful figure and his delicate hands. On occasion, he describes him as positively beautiful. But he does not forget from time to time to call your attention to the malaise he arouses in persons who came in contact with him, and to the suspicion with which he is regarded by all save those who have most cause to be on their guard against him.

Madame de Rênal, the mother of the children Julien is engaged to teach, is an admirably drawn character of a kind most difficult to depict. She is a good woman. Most novelists at one time have tried to create one, but have only succeeded in producing a goose. I suppose the reason is that there is only one way of being good, whereas there are dozens of being bad. This obviously gives the novelist greater scope. Madame de Rênal is charming, virtuous, sincere; and the narrative of her growing love for Julien, with its fears and hesitations, and the flaming passion which it becomes, is told in a masterly fashion. She is one of the most touching creatures of fiction. Julien, feeling that it is a duty he owes himself, decides that if one evening he does not hold her hand he will take his own life; just as Stendhal, wearing his best trousers, vowed that if, on reaching a certain point, he did not declare his love to Countess Daru, he would blow his brains out. Julien eventually seduces Madam de Rênal, not because he is in love with her, but partly to revenge himself on the class she belongs to, and partly to satisfy his own pride; but he does fall in love with her and, for a while, his baser instincts are dormant. For the first time in his life he is happy, and you begin to feel sympathy for him. But the imprudence of Madame de Rênal gives rise to gossip, and it is arranged that Julien should enter a seminary to study for the priesthood. I don’t see how the parts that deal with Julien’s life with the Rênal and at the seminary could be better; there is no need to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief, the truth of what Stendhal tells you is manifest; it is when the scene is changed to Paris that I, for my part, find myself incredulous. When Julien has finished his course at the seminary, the principal secures him a post as secretary to the Marquis de la Môle, and he finds himself admitted to the most aristocratic circle in the capital. The picture Stendhal draws of it does not carry conviction. He had never moved in good society; he was familiar chiefly with the bourgeoisie, which the Revolution and the Empire had brought into prominence; and he did not know how well-bred people behave. He had never encountered pride of birth. Stendhal was at heart a realist, but no one, however hard he tries, can fail to be influenced by the psychic atmosphere of his time. Romanticism was rampant. Stendhal, notwithstanding his appreciation of the good sense and urbane culture of the eighteenth century, was deeply affected by it. As I have indicated, he was fascinated by the ruthless men of the Italian Renaissance who were troubled neither by scruple nor remorse, and hesitated at no crime to satisfy their ambition, gratify their lust, or avenge their honour. He prized their energy, their disregard of consequences, their scorn of convention and their freedom of soul. It is because of this romantic predilection that the last half of Le Rouge et le Noir is unsatisfactory. You are asked to accept improbabilities that you cannot swallow, and to interest yourself in episodes that are pointless.

M. de la Môle had a daughter. Her name was Mathilde. She was beautiful, but haughty and wilful; she was intensely conscious of her high descent, and proud of those ancestors of hers who, risking their lives for a great prize, had been executed, one under Charles IX and another under Louis XIII. By a natural coincidence, she attached the same high value to ‘energy’ as Stendhal did, and she despised the commonplace young nobles who sought her hand.

[...]

What happens after the seduction is again admirably described. Those two self-centred, irritable, moody creatures scarcely know if they love with passion, or hate with frenzy. Each tries to dominate the other; each seeks to anger, wound and humiliate the other. At length Julien, by means of a banal trick, brings the proud girl to her feet. Presently she finds herself pregnant, and tells her father that she intends to marry her lover. M. de la Môle is obliged to consent. But now, when Julien, by dissimulation, diplomacy and self-restraint, is in sight of achieving all his ambition craved, he commits a foolish error. From then on the book goes to pieces.

We are told that Julien is clever and immensely cunning; and yet, to recommend himself to his future father-in-law, he asks him to write to Madame de Rênal for a certificate of character. He knew that she sincerely repented the sin of adultery that she had committed, and might bitterly blame him, as women all over the world are accustomed to do, for her own weakness; he knew, also, that she loved him passionately, and it should have occurred to him that she might not welcome the prospect of his marrying another woman. On the direction of her confessor, she wrote a letter to the Marquis in which she told him that it was Julien’s practice to insinuate himself into a family in order to destroy its peace, and that his great and sole object was by a show of disinterestedness to contrive to secure control of the master of the house, and over his fortune. She had no reason whatever to make either of these charges. She said he was a hypocrite and a vile intriguer: Stendhal does not seem to have noticed that though we readers, to whom every movement of Julien’s mind has been exposed, know that indeed he was, Madam de Rênal did not; she knew only that he had performed his duties as tutor to her children in an exemplary manner, and had won their affection; and that he loved her so much that on the last occasion on which she had seen him he had risked his career, and even his life, to pass a few hours with her. She was a conscientious woman, and it is hard to believe that, whatever pressure her confessor brought to bear, she would have consented to write things which she had no reason to think were true. Anyhow, when M. de la Môle receives the letter, he is horrified and refuses absolutely to let the marriage proceed. Why did not Julien say that the letter was a tissue of lies and merely the hysterical outburst of a madly jealous woman? He might have admitted that he had been Madame de Rênal’s lover; but she was thirty and he was nineteen: was it not more probable that it was she who had seduced him? It was not a fact, as we know, but it was uncommonly plausible. M. de la Môle was a man of the world. The man of the world has an inclination to think the worst of his fellow-creatures, a mild cynicism which leads him to believe that where there is smoke there is fire; and, at the same time, an easy tolerance of human frailty. It would surely have seemed to M. de la Môle amusing, rather than shocking, that his secretary should have had an affair with the wife of a provincial gentleman of no social consequence.

But in any case Julien held all the cards. M. de la Môle had got him a commission in a crack regiment, and given him an estate which produced a sufficient income. Mathilde refused to have an abortion and, madly in love, had expressed her determination to live with Julien, married or not. Julien had only to state the plain facts of the situation, and the Marquis would have been obliged to give in. We have been shown, from the beginning of the novel, that the strength of Julien consisted precisely in his self-control. His passions, envy, hatred, pride, never dominated him; and his lust, the strongest passion of all, was, as with Stendhal himself, not so much a matter of urgent desire as of vanity. At the crisis of the book, Julien does the fatal thing in a novel: he acts out of character. Just when he most needs his self-control he behaves like a fool. On reading Madame de Rênal’s letter, he takes pistols, drives down to Verrières, and shoots her, not killing, but wounding her.

This unintelligible behaviour of Julien’s has greatly puzzled the critics, and they have sought explanations for it. One is that it was the fashion of the day to end a novel with a melodramatic incident, preferably with a tragic death; but if such was the fashion, that would surely have been sufficient reason for Stendhal, with his determination to run counter to accepted usage, to eschew it. Others have suggested that an explanation may be found in his fantastic cult of the crime of violence as the supreme manifestation of energy. I find this no more likely. It is true, of course, that Stendhal looked upon Berthet’s monstrous action as a beau crime, but can he have failed to see that he had made Julien a very different creature from the miserable blackmailer? Verrières was two hundred and fifty miles from Paris, and even with a change of horses at every stage, even if Julien drove day and night, the journey would take nearly two days, long enough for his rage to lessen and give way to the counsels of common sense. Then, the character that Stendhal has so penetratingly drawn would have turned back and, having faced M. de la Môle with the brutal fact of Mathilde’s pregnancy, forced him to consent to the marriage.

What then made Stendhal make the strange mistake which everyone agrees is a flaw in his great novel? It is evident that he could not allow Julien to succeed and, achieving his ambition, with Mathilde and M. de la Môle behind him, win place, power and fortune. That would have been a different book, and Balzac wrote it later in the various novels that tell of the rise of Rastignac. Julien had to die. It may be that Balzac, with his wonderful fecundity, might have found a means to end Le Rouge et le Noir in a way that the reader would accept not only as plausible, but as inevitable. I don’t think Stendhal could have ended it in any other way than he did. I believe that the facts which had been given him exercised an hypnotic power over him from which he was unable to break loose; he had followed the story of Antoine Berthet very closely and he felt himself under a compulsion to pursue it, against all credibility, to its wretched end. But God, fate, chance, whichever you like to call the mystery that governs men’s lives, is a poor story-teller; and it is the business, and the right, of the novelist to correct the improbabilities of brute fact. It was not in Stendhal’s capacity to do this. It is a great pity. But, as I have urged, no novel is perfect, owing partly to the natural inadequacy of the medium, and partly to the deficiencies of the human being who writes it. Notwithstanding its grave defects, Le Rouge et le Noir is a very great book, and to read it is a unique experience.
  WSMaugham | Jul 14, 2018 |
Don't judge either the book or my review of it until you read the book yourself. It was my last year of college, and I was taking an online course when this book was assigned. That was 10 years ago... All I can remember of the book, or my impression of it, is I was suffering from a SEVERE case of "Senior-itis" and the book was typically "dry and wordy" as many Brit-Lit novels are. One of these days I will pick it up and read it again by choice, and give it its just review. Until then, Happy Reading :) ( )
  jkmichelle | Jul 12, 2017 |
The Red and the Black

I am not going to summarise the story of Julien Sorel because I expect all of you to have read it.

I think the author’s aim in this novel is to draw an in-depth character sketch and psychoanalysis of an ambitious young man of low birth, and at the same time elaborate with a light touch the historical background and social ferment at the time of the Bourbon restoration.

While Stendhal has been quite successful in presenting the looming social upheavals and churning of the classes with the masses, and is quite convincing in his depiction of the suspicion, the scheming and plotting, the toadying and flattery that was par for the course at that time, I think he failed miserably in his attempt depict the character of the protagonist. Leaving aside the last 20% of the book, which I’ll touch upon later, for the bulk of the story, Stendhal fails to present a convincing character.

Julien is a feckless, unscrupulous, manipulative, egotistical, hypocritical, and quite un-loveable little bastard. There is not a single sincere thought in his head, which is generally filled with illusions, or delusions more likely, of wealth, fame, women, and achievement of an aristocratic position in life. His is an overweening ambition to be part of that same aristocratic society that he despises. And he uses the same wiles and guiles which he despises in those he believes are higher up in the social ladder.

His thoughts, his actions, and his behaviour are neither coherent nor consistent. He is on a perpetual roller coaster, emotional as well as physical. The only consistency he displays through most of the story is his completely deplorable attitude to all aspects of life, including love. We’re given uncensored access to his thoughts about both his love interests, and they’re not edifying. Listen to the terminology he uses: laying siege to the barricades, assaulting the ramparts of resistance, winning battles but not the war. This is extreme military jargon with relation to both Madame de Renal as well as Mathilde de la Mole. Makes one wonder if this is really how 17 and 18 year old young men approach the other sex, as just one more scalp on the belt?

The women are drawn more sympathetically, and one feels sorry for both of them. Madame Renal has a conscience and she fights the passion that Julien awakens in her. Julien seduces her because he believes that he owes it to himself to do so, on the analogy that any well born young man would do the same thing. In the case of Mathilde, he believes her pride is intolerable and needs to be brought down a peg or two. In both cases, he lays out his strategy of part play acting and part bullying, thereby eventually reducing them to blubbering idiots. This part just does not make sense to me—that he tries to kill the woman he loves because she prevents his marriage to the woman he does not love! Did Stendhal stumble here?

Julien is described as an intelligent young man. What is intelligence? An eidetic memory is by itself not a sign of intelligence, though it does help a lot. I would say that intelligence is the application of one’s rational mind to the waywardness of one’s emotions, one’s fancies and one’s daydreaming fantasies. For all the reading that he does, he doesn’t acquire wisdom. So how much believable is his thrill at seeing all the books in the library at de la Mole’s residence? Is this Stendhal’s flawed writing that ascribes intelligence to Julien which however doesn’t manifest itself in any of the 500 odd pages of the book? His excessive pride, anger, emotionalism, sensationalism, his impulsive behaviour, his betrayal of his benefactors through their most vulnerable relationships, one a wife, the other a daughter, his exploitation of the women whom he meets, does not show intelligence. It shows a preening and unstable man not in control of his passions. He is an unsustainable character.

Coming to the historical background, France has experienced the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s rise and fall, and the eventual restoration of the Bourbon dynasty. Due to these upheavals in a span of 50 years, the atmosphere of the time is full of suspicion, as the monarchists, the liberals and the clergy strive to achieve dominance over the others. No one trusts anyone. Though the atmosphere is brought out well in the book, it is not relevant to the movement forward of the story. For example, the secret meeting of de la Mole and others to which Julien is led blindfolded to attend and note down the proceedings etc etc , it goes nowhere other than adding to the pages one has to read.

This novel is called a bildungsroman, which means that it shows the protagonist’s growth, development and eventual maturing into a well- rounded individual. A kind of coming of age story. Now, does Julien’s personality evolve in the course of the story? I don’t think so. At least not till the last 20% of the book, when he is faced with the prospect of death. From that moment on, he is quite another man. He conducts himself with dignity and composure. He thinks of the two women he has ruined, more than of himself. He thinks of his future child, that Mathilde is carrying. At this penultimate stage of his short life, he introspects. He acknowledges some of the evil that he is responsible for. He redeems himself somewhat in the eyes of the reader, though there is still a nagging question at the back of one’s mind whether, if he had been given a reprieve, he would be a different Julien, or relapse into the old ways.

One can give him the benefit of the doubt. And quote at his death:

Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it! (Shakespeare in Macbeth)

It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known! (Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities) ( )
  dragon178 | Sep 18, 2016 |
I had some trouble getting into this novel, and did not like it as much as I had expected/hoped.

In the novel, a young man, Julien Sorel, tries to reach a better position in society. He very much admires Napoleon and wishes for a life of greatness. In his search for greatness he gets wrapped up in two love affairs and ends up attempting to murder one of his lovers; he is subsequently condemned to death.

I think my main problem with this novel was that I never really liked Julien or his actions - this made it hard for me to really connect with him. Julien is very much obsessed with improving his position in life and seems to have little regard for others. He decides on a religious career, not because of any religious feeling, but simply because he thinks it's the quickest way to get power and fortune. When he initiates his affair with Mme Renal, he is initially not really in love, but merely interested in getting the attention of a grand lady. When he seduces Mathilde, he also soon finds he has no real feelings for her. Though there are moments in the novel where Julien does show emotion, and he does discover his love for Mme Renal in the end, his main motives are mercenary. I found him an unpleasant and unlikable protagonist.
Aside from this though, I have to admit that it is an interesting story, and a great sketch of the time and lives of people living shortly after the defeat of Napoleon. Aside from the story of Julien Stendhal adds a political and social background which gives an insight into the situation in those days.
In many ways it is not a bad novel. The setting is great and historically very interesting, Stendhal's style of writing is nice, the descriptions are often beautiful and the characters are vivid and well-rounded. Yet, for me, the lack of likable characters and often negative, cynical views made it not a very pleasant read. ( )
  Britt84 | Sep 15, 2016 |
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Qua schrijfstijl zou Stendhal maar wat aanrommelen, maar in Het rood en het zwart, nu opnieuw uitgebracht in de Perpetua-reeks, bereikt hij het gewenste effect door inzet van de juiste middelen....
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stendhalprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bair, LowellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bergés, ConsueloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Beyer, HugoEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Botto, MargheritaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Busoni, RafaelloIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Castex, Pierre-GeorgesEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Charles, JoanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Del Litto, VictorPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Evans, BergenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fadiman, CliftonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gard, RogerEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gard, RogerTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heumakers, ArnoldAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johnson, DianeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lavagetto, MarioTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Madden, JamesNotessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Manger, HermienTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martineau, HenriEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maugham, W. SomersetEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mérimée, ProsperIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pinxteren, Hans vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raffel, BurtonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schurig, ArthurTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shaw, Margaret R. B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shaw, Margaret R. B.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thole, KarelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
[To Part One, Shaw trans.]

Truth -- Truth in all her rugged harshness

La vérité, l'âpre vérité

--Danton

[To Part Two, Shaw trans.]

She is not pretty, she wears no rouge.

Elle n'est pas jolie, elle n'a point de rouge.

--Sainte-Beuve
Dedication
To the happy few
First words
La petite ville de Verrières peut passer pour l'une des plus jolies de la Franche-Comté.
The small town of Verrieres may be regarded as one of the prettiest in the Franche-Comte.
Verrières kan worden beschouwd als een van de mooiste stadjes in de Franche-Comté.
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Information from the Dutch Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
De e-boekversie van Het rood en het zwart bevat vrij veel transscriptiefouten en is niet aangepast aan de spellingswijzigingen van 1996.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140447644, Paperback)

Handsome and ambitious, Julien Sorel is determined to rise above his humble peasant origins and make something of his life-by adopting the code of hypocrisy by which his society operates. Julien ultimately commits a crime-out of passion, principle, or insanity-that will bring about his downfall. 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.

Translated with an introduction by Roger Gard.


@Byrony Been too busy to post. Torrid affair. Kinky. Much like Napoleon’s conquest of Spain, really.

I’ve been discovered, must move to Paris to work with a Marquis. Hope he has a hot wife … or daughter.

Daughter. Schwing! Score!

From Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:23 -0400)

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"Handsome and ambitious, Julien Sorel is determined to rise above his humble peasant origins and make something of his life-by adopting the code of hypocrisy by which his society operates. Julien ultimately commits a crime-out of passion, principle, or insanity-that will bring about his downfall. 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."--P. 4 of cover.… (more)

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