The novel opens with a panorama of the provincial town of Verrières, located in southern France. The reader is immediately confronted with the racket of a nail-making factory, which belongs to the town mayor, M. de Rênal. Descended from an old aristocratic family, M. de Rênal is ashamed of having to participate in industry, especially since he was made mayor of Verrières after supporting the restoration of the absolutist monarchy in 1815. The mayor tries to maintain an air of superiority about him but has recently been embarrassed by old Sorel, the owner of a local saw mill. Sorel recently manipulated Rênal into over-paying for a piece of land; a humiliation before public opinion that M. de Rênal is forced to endure.
While walking through Verrières with his wife, Mme. de Rênal, the mayor encounters the town priest, M. Chélan, and the director of the poorhouse, M. Valenod. Chélan is a kind- hearted and philanthropic public servant whom the mayor distrusts. While M. de Rênal and M. Valenod profess to be friends, the latter is a bourgeois liberal and thus the mayor's political adversary. Worried that Valenod, who is becoming richer day by day, is scheming to become mayor, M. de Rênal tells his wife that he has decided to hire the son of old Sorel, Julien, to be the tutor of their three children. He hopes that the prestige of having a live-in tutor will surpass Valenod, who has just purchased two Norman horses. Yet, when M. de Rênal meets with old Sorel to negotiate Julien's salary, he is again manipulated by Sorel into paying more than Julien is worth.
Old Sorel is glad to get rid of Julien, who detests physical labor and has been studying Latin with M. Chélan, training to become a priest. Handsome but scorned as a weakling, Julien is consistently beaten up by his older brothers. Urging his son to pack up and leave for the mayor's, old Sorel beats him. But Julien defiantly refuses to go to M. de Rênal's if he will only be a servant. While Julien is contemplating running away, his father secures M. de Rênal's promise that Julien will not be considered a servant, will eat together with the family, will receive money for new clothes, and will receive an even larger income.
Extremely ambitious, Julien agrees to this arrangement with the hopes that it will better his position in society. An admirer of Napoleon, Julien dreams of achieving both military and economic success after rising from the bottom of society, just like his hero. Julien's godfather, a surgeon-major in Napoleon's army, taught Julien all about Napoleon's great conquests of Europe and his wife Josephine. But when his godfather was persecuted for his liberal political beliefs, Julien finds that the best way to achieve success during the Restoration is by relying on hypocrisy. He stops praising Napoleon in public, and pretends to want to become a priest, realizing that unlike Napoleon's time, when the Army was the road to success, the most powerful institution of the Restoration is the Church.
Stendhal establishes the political dimensions of the novel in the opening pages describing Verrières. M. de Rênal is a conservative aristocrat and a supporter of the Bourbon Restoration. Indeed, M. de Rênal has been the town mayor since 1815, the year of Napoleon's final defeat. But French society has changed since the 1789 Revolution. Rivaled by the rising bourgeoisie, the aristocracy has run out of money and lost its land, forcing men like Rênal to become businessmen. His embarrassment at having to work is not lost on men like old Sorel, who take great pleasure in cheating him out of as much money as possible. Old Sorel and Valenod represent the opposite end of the political spectrum: the liberal bourgeoisie. Despite Stendhal's own liberal beliefs, in the novel M. Valenod is harshly criticized for making his money by running a poorhouse and a prison-- openly stealing money from the impoverished of Verrières.
Stendhal's reservations about the moral character of the bourgeoisie are greatly overshadowed by his outright disdain for the aristocracy, especially M. de Rênal. Rênal lacks both intelligence and wit, and is so obsessed about his social status that he is willing to pay Julien more money just so Valenod won't be able to afford him. Rênal's insatiable desire to build walls and plant prune trees throughout Verrières are also elements of Stendhal's hostility (Stendhal was a great lover of nature). The mayor's concern for class and rank paradoxically makes him behave like a bourgeois businessman: he owns a factory and praises only what "yields a return." More importantly, M. de Rênal has no real authority--he is only a mayor by title. As Stendhal notes, "public opinion" is the most powerful force in the countryside, not the municipal governments.