Le Rouge et le Noir

I am not closely acquainted with French literature… I mean I’ve read The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and some Jules Verne, but I never read this kind of literature. I don’t know if this book is the right introduction…The Red and the Black is a classic novel by Stendhal, or Marie-Henri Beyle. The novel is about Julien Sorel and his personal and social growth from being the son of a carpenter to almost marrying the daughter of the wealthy Marquis de la Mole.

Julien is a very self-loving character. He is willing to be amiable, but only if it benefits him. He is willing to do most things only if they benefit him. Julien is also very proud, perhaps too proud for a carpenter’s son. I disliked him almost immediately. The moment when my dislike reached its highest (at that time, at least) was when Julien is sitting in the garden between Madame de Renal and Madame Derville, contemplating on which woman to seduce…which affair would bring him better results? Julien Sorel does everything for self-benefit! He is that type of detestable character, who possesses those qualities which I do not appreciate in anybody — real or fictional.

However, one thing about him made me think. He succeeded. He succeeded in a lot of endeavors, because of his detestable pride, self-love, and aim for self-benefit. Because of the hypocrisy of which he’s full of, just like the whole novel, just like French society (or any society!) at the time… Because of all that Julien Sorel was not a carpenter’s son anymore. I pondered. Was he ambitious? Very. Do these qualities make one ambitious? Naturally so, because people with a high opinion of themselves want the best for themselves, and thus will be ambitious in most things. Do all ambitionists have a measure of those qualities? Pondering…  A “measure”, perhaps. Certainly. Everybody has pride, self-love, and a desire to benefit oneself and not the opposite. But Julien is almost a caricature of that, with an exaggerated goal of “career advancement”. Am I ambitious? Very much so, I hope. Do I want to be like Julien? No. Am I? I pray not. 

The hypocrisy, and lack of sincerity of high society is strongly exhibited in the novel. Starting with Monsieur de Renal, who intially hired a tutor (Julien) for his children, but only to appear wealthy, and ending with Julien himself, who tried to get something out of everybody, even his only friend, Fouqué. In this aspect the novel is very well constructed. The novel portrays the way French society worked at the time; among other things, many were fearing another Revolution, while Julien quietly worshiped Napoleon.

Lastly, I would like to note a few things about Mathilde. Oh, how she wanted to be a heroine along with her hero! The poor creature (not so poor, on a second thought) fell in love with Julien, because she thought he was different from other hypocrites that surrounded her in saloons, she thought he was a brave hero, like the historical figures of past times to whom she looked up. I mean, only look at what she did to Julien’s body, or rather, head… Existing in her own high-flying imagination, desperately trying to be like Marguerite de Navarre, she reminds me (just a tiny bit) of Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, who tried to live a Gothic novel.

Overall, the novel did not impress me that much. It wasn’t a chore to read, but at times I would stop to reconsider if I am really interested in what is going on in the novel. It is a story of passionate, but silly and reckless love — infatuation. My interest increased towards the end of the story, but the rating still is only:

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