The Red and The Black by Stendhal is novel that is situated right in the middle of a turbulent and uneasy political atmosphere. The events of the 19th century and especially those of 1830, leaves France in political instability; as people are divided into two sides: Royalists and Republicans. This dichotomy, however, is not shown to us by a brief recounting of political events, but rather in the qualities of the characters. The polarization of Valenod and M. de Rênal and their competition and rivalry which causes Julien to be bought as a fixture, for instance, does not seem to be strictly or primarily political at first glance (although it absolutely is).

Julien Sorel’s position in this society is also exemplified by this action; he is commodified, he is smart but poor, does not have any class, but, nevertheless, in a haze of Napoleonic frenzy wants to build something out of himself. Until the end of the novel Julien’s one and only goal is to rise up in society and he is willing to do, and pretend to be, anything to make that dream into a reality. He has fragile spirits, accompanied by his fiery yet vulnerable self-esteem. Furthermore, he has a never-ending distaste for those who are higher in society than he is, be it royalist or clergymen. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we see that the wish of his heart does not lie in the church (“the Black”) but in the army (“the Red”). He, nevertheless, is unable to imagine any other position that would carry him higher and therefore stays in this place where he is tormented.

Here is the picture that has been created up until this point in the novel: we know that Julien is an ambitious, passionate, smart young man. We also know that being a carpenter’s son gives nobody any basis of support to realize his ambitions passion and intellect. Perhaps it is these strong feelings of inferiority creates the foundation of every single one of  Julien’s actions. He is often characterized as an hypocritical character, and there is no doubt that there is enough evidence to support that claim. For instance, he brings up the book of Du Pape in order to score some social points from his peers, just as he had memorized it to score some points with Abbé Chélan. The book is plagued with instances such as this that seems to signal a cold, cunning, calculating and manipulative mind.

I cannot claim that Julien is not those things. I would argue, however, that every bad adjective that we can affix to Julien comes not from Julien himself: he is a product of his circumstances. Yes, he is calculating and opportunistic; but never apathetic or unfeeling. He is judgmental but his anger is not the epitome of malevolence; but rather an outburst of helplessness, disappointment at life’s unfair circumstances and above all, a cry for help. As a man of great intellect who has idealized Napoleon there is no other way for him. It takes a long time and his ultimate demise, for him to learn that there could have been other means to reach one’s goal. We see a Julien filled with feeling and fire, a man who has such a fixation on the “higher future about which to dream” that he cannot see the forest for the trees. His dedication is present, as well as his inability to cope with his own hypocrisy, for doing something he knows, in his heart, he does not love.

I believe Stendhal’s genius lies in the way his execution shows us that everything that is personal is also political. We are constantly defined by the larger structures beyond our knowledge and control and we, in turn, define them.

Written for my Typologies of the Novel II: 20th Century class in 08. 11. 2017

 

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