The years after the French Revolution and the end of the First French Empire under Napoleon. The Bourbon restoration, which again gave power in the hands of the French aristocracy and which returned the monarchy in France. These years are marked by excessive amount of little Napoleons – young poor boys, who dream of socially rising above their plebeian origin. Julian is an example of such a boy. Born in the poor family of a carpenter in the fictional village of Verrieres, Julian struggles to reach the world of the rich and the powerful.
Le Rouge et Le Noir by Stendhal is a chronicle of France and the French society in the end of the 19th century. The upper class is characterized by deceit, hypocrisy, and materialism. People are judged by their social origin and not by their abilities, talents, or wits. The members of the Roman Church are frauds, who strive for power, money, and social position. Julien is unlucky to be born in this hypocritical and dishonorable reality. He has grown with admiration for Napoleon and dreams of following his example. Julien is a dreamer by heart. He wants to see an elevated society of virtuous feelings, strong characters, and subtle sensations, where one must not pretend in order to raise. However, Julien understands that his only path to the upper class life is a combination of hard work, talent, deceit, and hypocrisy. Early in his life the young man realizes that he cannot succeed in the army as during the Napoleon time. Hence, he chooses the path of the Church even though he is not particularly religious. That is the idea of the clash between the red and the black, red symbolizing the blood in battles and black – the monastic robe. Julien’s heart dreams of brave and noble deeds on the battlefield, but his determination to be elevated in society forces him to choose the Church.
Le Rouge et le Noir is an anti-bourgeois novel, where the artist cannot develop under the constraints of society. In this world, talent is a crime and the only path to money and power is hypocrisy. Sincerity is undesirable; people have to pretend and lie in order to gain people’s approval. Julien understands this and tries to follow this path. He deceits people around him slowly rising until he makes a Marquis’s daughter, Mathilde de la Mole, fall in love with him. Their romantic relationship is perverse. Julien both desires and despises Mathilde. Stendhal here presents an interesting view of love – affection between two people is always mediated by a third party. You desire someone only if he/she is wanted by someone else or openly courts another one. This relationship is predestined to a tragic end because of Julien’s origin and past. His former lover and only true love Mme de Renal under the influence of a corrupted monk informes Mathilde’s father of the nature of their past relationship. This puts an end to what Julien perceived to be the path to his dreams. Or did it?
When still young and naive boy in his home village Julien falls in love for the first and only time with the mother of the pupils he teaches. Their love is passionate, sensual, and also forbidden. Forced by his husband to leave, Julien takes the path of advancement in society. Even though he convinces himself he is in love with Mathilde, he never forgets his real love. Upon realizing that Mme de Renal destroyed all of his hopes for a better future, he shoots at her. In the church. A shot not against the woman but against the institution, which was supposed to help people and not to corrupt, lie, and steal. In prison Julien is the happiest he has ever been. He is a dreamer and an artist. He tried to live according to the perverse rules of the French society but he couldn’t and for the first time in his life he realizes he doesn’t want to. The sensitive and noble young boy doesn’t belong to the corrupted and hypocritical clique of rich and powerful people. In front of death Julien is brave, happy, and calm.
Le Rouge et le Noir is a novel of many levels. It discusses the perversity of the French upper class, the nature of love, the clash between the artist and the rest of the world. It openly criticizes a world based on social prejudice, materialism, and hypocrisy. It proves that a romantic and sensible soul as Julien is not to live and survive among such people. Ahead of its time, Le Rouge et le Noir is a book as applicable today as it was in the turbulent years of the French 19th century.