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The Red and the Black

Stendhal

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Summary

Born Henri Beyle in 1783 in France, Stendhal was perhaps the most influential novelist of the nineteenth century, inspiring such writers as Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. Stendhal lived in a world wrought by political and cultural change. He was six years old when the Revolution of 1789 began, young enough to approve of the new republic but also old enough to remember absolutism under Louis XVI.

Tired of Paris, Stendhal yearned for a more adventurous life. He got his chance after Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'etat in 1799. Eager for military glory, Stendhal became an ardent supporter of Napoleon and enlisted in the French army in 1800. For the next fourteen years he fought in practically all of Napoleon's campaigns, achieving glory in Italy and Austria, but also suffering bitter defeat at the hands of Russia and Great Britain. Napoleon's fall was also Stendhal's. He was forced to flee to Italy as the Bourbon monarchy was reestablished in the place of the (Napoleonic) Empire.

This period, known as the Restoration, marked a time of intense political debate. The fading aristocracy or conservatives tried to reintroduce absolutism and consolidate political power in the Catholic Church and the Army. But a rising middle class with commercial and industrial interests had become a dominant social force throughout France. This bourgeoisie, nostalgic for the glory days of the Revolution and Napoleon, sought a return to a constitutional monarchy and more laissez-faire economic policy.

As a member of this educated bourgeois elite and exiled supporter of Napoleon, Stendhal supported the July 1830 Revolution, which established a constitutional monarchy and a return to the values of 1789. As soon as the first Parisians had taken up arms, Stendhal began writing The Red and the Black. Subtitled "A Chronicle of 1830," Stendhal used the novel to paint a portrait of French society during the final days of the Restoration. Tracing the adventures of Julien Sorel, who, like Stendhal himself, is a well- educated bourgeois liberal and admirer of Napoleon, The Red and the Black exposes the climactic political tension leading to the 1830 Revolution. From the provincial nobility to the Catholic Church, to the elite Parisian aristocracy, Stendhal depicts a society about to undergo a profound change--a change that the dying aristocracy will not live to see.

Stendhal decided to take the model of historical fiction one step further by writing about a contemporary event, the 1830 Revolution. Unlike other examples of historical fiction, such as Dumas' The Three Musketeers, Stendhal sought to expose modern-day political tensions and corruption rather than events of the past. There is thus a certain amount of urgency in Stendhal's writing, denying his readers the novelty of a tale about chivalry and the old regime. Instead, they are forced to examine the flaws and consequences of their own society. In this light, The Red and the Black was just as integral a part of the 1830 Revolution as the actual fighting itself.

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