Julien timidly walks over to the Rênal home. Moved by Julien's weak frame and pale complexion, Mme. de Rênal's "romantic disposition" makes her feel immediate pity for Julien. Their first encounter is tender and innocent, especially since Mme. de Rênal initially thinks that Julien is a young woman. Julien is not used to being treated so well by an aristocrat and the two instantly take a liking to each other. He promises not to harm her children and, realizing that he has an advantage, kisses her hand. Mme. de Rênal is shocked but does not scold Julien. He continues to make a good impression by reciting portions of the Bible in Latin from memory. M. de Rênal's self-esteem is aroused by Julien's intelligence and he parades the whole town through his house to witness how great his children's tutor is.
The Rênals and their children accept Julien as a fixture in their home, but he continues to loathe "high society" in private. Elisa, Mme. de Rênal's maid, falls in love with Julien, and it is through her maid's eyes that Mme. de Rênal begins to have feelings for Julien as well. Raised in a convent, Mme. de Rênal had never known love and thought that all men were like her husband and M. Valenod, only concerned with hatred and money. Convinced that Mme. de Rênal is only out to humiliate him, Julien acts very cold around her. He also rejects Elisa's offer of marriage.
M. Chélan urges Julien to reconsider, recognizing the Julien's lack of true devotion to the Church. He does not call Julien a hypocrite, but Julien is ashamed that someone actually loves him. After a few days, however, Julien perfects "the language of sly and prudent hypocrisy," refusing to reveal his true ambitions to the priest. Jealous of Elisa, Mme. de Rênal begins to fall in love with Julien and is overjoyed when he refuses Elisa. She blushes in his presence, buys him gifts, and starts to pay more attention to her physical appearance.
The Rênals move out to the countryside for the spring, and Julien decides to seduce Mme. de Rênal. He does not love her, but convinces himself that it would be cowardly not to hold her hand as they sit in the garden. Considering it his military "duty," Julien grabs hold of her hand--and Mme. de Rênal does not resist him. The next day Julien ignores the children and further humiliates M. de Rênal by securing a raise. Julien's moment of glory is short-lived. After discovering that M. de Rênal is changing the bed straw, he begs Mme. de Rênal to remove a portrait from under his mattress. Afraid that it is a portrait of the woman he loves, Mme. de Rênal chooses not to look at what turns out to be a portrait of Napoleon. Julien is furious at himself for his near blunder. Had M. de Rênal seen the portrait, Julien's hypocrisy would have been evident. That evening, Julien redoubles his efforts, passionately kissing Mme. de Rênal. Invisible in the darkness of night, Julien is able to achieve this "victory" directly in front of M. de Rênal.
The beginning part of this section emphasizes Mme. de Rênal's purity and innocence. Unlike her husband, she is unconcerned with social rank and class, immediately calling Julien, "Sir." Stendhal's correlation of Mme. de Rênal's beauty with her strong sense of morality is a hallmark of nineteenth-century romantic fiction. Despite this tenderness on the part of Stendhal, his description of Mme. de Rênal's youth in a convent and the ease with which she falls in love with Julien also evokes the irony of many Enlightenment writers, especially Voltaire.
Stendhal also introduces an important theme in this section: triangular desire. Elisa falls in love with Julien, while Mme. de Rênal jealously falls in love because of Elisa. Julien desires Mme. de Rênal, but only because she represents a conquest that he compares to military glory. Together they form a love triangle, one of many that Stendhal employs throughout the novel. For Stendhal, the love triangle meant that one could only fall in love through an intermediary figure. Indeed, Stendhal thought of himself as a scientist of love, attempting to reduce love to different formulas, levels, and stages, much like a mathematician. He often distinguished four types of love: passion- love, physical-love, vanity-love, and stylish-love. This devotion to understanding the psychology of love and its abstract analysis was a major influence for later Realist writers such as Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola.
From the moment he enters the Rênal home, Julien thinks of himself as Napoleon and Mme. de Rênal as a battle to be won--not about love. Each advance represents an incremental increase in the intensity of their relationship but also a feeling of pride for Julien. Kissing Mme. de Rênal's hand is a victory, but more importantly, an attack against the aristocracy: he is humiliating M. de Rênal by seducing his wife. Julien thinks incessantly about adhering to Napoleon's military "style" and fulfilling "the destiny of Napoleon." Stendhal reinforces this symbolic closeness with the image of an eagle circling above Julien's head. The metaphor is twofold: the eagle is both the symbol of Napoleon and military glory, and a bird circling his prey. In effect, Julien's adoration of Napoleon gets him into serious trouble. M. de Rênal almost discovers Julien's portrait of Napoleon, covered with inscriptions of praise written by Julien himself. After Mme. de Rênal returns it to him, Julien immediately burns the portrait, establishing his conviction to succeed in French society at any cost.