The Red and the Black stands at the crossroads of eighteenth and nineteenth-century French literature. Like most romantic novelists, Stendhal treated such themes as individualism, passion, the pursuit of happiness, and intrigue. But he was also profoundly influenced by the works of Voltaire, especially Candide. He thus scorned religious sentimentality, openly criticized the Catholic Church, and mocked flamboyant prose. As a result, Julien Sorel is both a romantic hero and an awkward simpleton. Although Stendhal organizes his narrative around Julien's love affairs, he uses his protagonist's experiences to satirize the Restoration government. In this context, both Candide's and Julien's travels expose not only their personalities, but also the flaws of absolutist monarchies. This combination of romanticism and political satire inspired the next generation of writers, including Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola.
Stendhal is a constant presence in The Red and the Black. He does not hide behind his characters, but judges and mocks them, gently or with extreme disdain. For example, Julien thinks of himself as a master at seducing women, but actually has no idea what he is doing. He only convinces Mme. de Rênal to let him spend the night with her after he bursts into tears. Stendhal also pokes fun at Mathilde de la Mole, who is a passionate romantic but also mentally unstable. Stendhal's protagonists often closely resembled him, and Julien Sorel is no exception. Julien shares Stendhal's admiration for Napoleon as well as his love for the army. Indeed, the cadence and tone of Stendhal's prose closely mirrors that of the Napoleonic code.
The Red and the Black was also one of the first novels to emphasize psychological observation, especially with regard to love. Stendhal considered himself to be a scientist of love, of which he distinguished four types: passion-love, vanity love, physical-love, and stylish-love. Unlike the traditional romantic hero, Julien does not whimsically fall in love with Mme. de Rênal and Mathilde, but instead follows a set of formulas stipulated by Stendhal. Rather than love blindly, he feels vanity-love: Mme. de Rênal's high social status flatters his ego. In return, Julien manipulates Mathilde into loving him with a wide array of mind games. Stendhal's persistent use of triangular desire, or love through an intermediary character, also introduces the fundamental step of jealousy into each relationship. This emphasis on the objective representation of irrational emotions marked a turning point in French literature.
Another major theme of the novel is the cyclical role of history. Stendhal firmly believed that history repeated itself: Julien thinks he is the next Napoleon, while the Marquis de la Mole fears that Julien could be the leader of a new Terror. The author's emphasis on history also criticizes the Restoration's attempt to turn back the clock to the way things were before the French Revolution in 1789. Mathilde and Julien's intense boredom with Parisian society and the "dull nineteenth century" are symptoms of this effort to ignore the military and political excitement of the Revolution and Napoleon's subsequent reign. Their escapism into history is thus a rejection of the stagnated French political system.
Stendhal was consciously writing a historical novel set in the present. The subtitle, "a chronicle of 1830," made his contemporary readers aware of not only the historical context of the novel but of their own lives as well. Julien's choice between the black of the Church and the red of the army was a decision that many of Stendhal's readers had to make themselves. Even though Stendhal does not directly refer to the 1830 Revolution, he highlights the political tensions and corruption that had reached a recent boiling point. But this emphasis on history also serves as a warning to readers: Julien's failure to succeed in French society and his betrayal by M. Valenod present a foreboding distrust of the victorious liberal bourgeoisie. Would the death of the aristocracy mark the death of French society? Stendhal's comparison of the gamble of revolution to the red and black of a roulette wheel, presents a harrowing glimpse of the volatility of French politics--a vision that still fascinates readers today.