When I first read The Red and the Black by the pseudonymous Stendhal, I immediately wanted to form a Julien Sorel fan club. Send me a few bucks, and you can join and receive a hand made button like the one shown above – I wear it proudly – for your lapel.
Julien is the child of a brutish and crafty peasant who runs a local saw mill, discussed in my recent post on peasants. He idolizes Napoleon, and fumes at his inability to find a ladder out of the provincial pit of sloth and stupidity into which he has been born. He is smart though, and is made tutor to the local bourgeois family of note, a family with a very beautiful mistress. He promptly decides that seducing her is his only chance to advance himself.
Julien is cold, calculating, touchy, arrogant, insensitive and incredibly blockheaded. He is also very good looking, but his deep sense of insecurity and inferiority, born of his low social station, prevent him from fully understanding or exploiting the effect he has on others, especially women. He frequently appears to them as simply strange, unpredictable, even bizarre. He is a strange sort of romantic hero.
Strange also in that his romantic nature is fixed on social climbing, even as he aches for love. He can’t get love from Madame de Rênal, his employer, even though she is utterly infatuated by him, because he only uses people, as his father used him to make money. He is passionate, and torn apart internally by his conflicts; he is the romantic hero of the superman – Napoleon – and the cursed burnout – Rimbaud or James Dean.
Eventually, he makes his way to Paris, where he works as a secretary to the Marquis de la Mole. The Marquis’ young daughter, Mathilde, is a real piece of work herself. Haughty, beautiful, intelligent, and suffering from the crushing boredom of post-1830 society in which nothing of interest can be said because it might be controversial, she is the natural aristocratic complement to Julien. She is intrigued by this upstart plebeian – at least he is interesting. After considerable erotic knife-play, they become lovers.
Eric Auerbach, in his magisterial work of scholarship, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, devotes a chapter to the novel, naming it In the Hotel de la Mole after the title of chapter 34. He dissects Stendhal’s brilliant depiction of the stifling and suffocating enforced conventionality, of manners, of dress, of thought, amongst the noble and bourgeois elite. I practically gasp for air when I read the scenes of Julien suffering through an evening of chit chat in the de la Mole’s drawing room, the object of amused condescension of the more at-home guests.
Julien comes to a bad end, Mathilde is pregnant with his child, and she keeps his head as a keepsake. There is so much in this novel, so many fantastic scenes, such crazy passion and psychological insight, such merciless realism, that I read it again and again with the passing years.
In 1996, Michiko Kakutani of the NYTimes published this clever parody and rap hommage to the novel:
THE RED AND THE BLACK (with apologies to L. L. Cool J and other rap artists):
Now I’ve got a tale I wanna tell.
It’s how I romanced these chicks and
got sent to hell.
My tag’s Sorel
And I’m one bad dude,
Master manipulator, young
Grew up in the sticks, where there ain’t no glory.
Had to make my name, no matter
Got me a job as a kinda tutor.
Met the kids’ ma and became her suitor.
Mrs. R., she fell for me hard,
I made her my toy,
I’m one bad boy.
Got me a job in the far-off city.
Met a rich girl who was pretty pretty.
She was a doormat, I had a format.
We were gonna get hitched
I was gonna be rich.
Till old Mrs. R. played her
role as snitch.
She sold me out as a nasty cad.
So I tried to fade her, but I
They found me guilty and
now I’m dead.
Stupid Mathilde went and
buried my head.
Old Mrs. R. heard the news
Now she’s off-line too,
as you can tell.
Like I said before, I’m a
master manipulator, the