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The Red and the Black

Stendhal

Book II, Chapters 1-9

Book 1, Chapters 24-30

Book 2, Chapters 10-20

Summary

Julien instantly feels like a noble when he arrives in Paris. While buying boots, he is registered as Julien de Sorel. M. Pirard warns him against becoming a Parisian fop. He cautions that Julien's provincial background will be a source of ridicule for many of the Parisian aristocrats he will meet. But Julien pays no attention to Pirard, completely overwhelmed by the beauty and luxury of the Hotel de la Mole. Pirard's advice does prove helpful, since Julien must immediately impress the eclectic group of Parisians at the Marquis de la Mole's salon.

But Julien soon realizes that he does not fit in. He tries to go riding with Comte Norbert, the Marquis'ss son, but falls off his horse. His social blunders make him feel isolated and resented by the servants of the house. Julien begins to distrust the members of the salon, who have been asking favors of the Marquis for years and soon see Julien as an enemy. He also grows bored with these members of Parisian society, but notices that Mathilde, the Marquis's daughter, is often yawning too.

To overcome his boredom, Julien tries to lead an aristocratic lifestyle. He learns to fence, shoot, and ride expensive horses. He soon grows arrogant and, because of an argument in a café, ends up fighting a duel with a famous nobleman, M. de Beauvoisis. Julien is wounded in the arm, but de Beauvoisis is so embarrassed after discovering that Julien is just a carpenter's son that he spreads a rumor that Julien is the illegitimate son of one of the Marquis de la Mole's close friends. This turn of events ironically brings Julien and the Marquis closer together. After the latter has an attack of gout, Julien spends a great deal of time with him and they become friends. Although the Marquis gives Julien advice on how to succeed in Paris, he only treats Julien as an equal when Julien is dressed properly. When Julien wears his habitual black suit instead of the blue one given to him by the Marquis, he remains a simple secretary. However, Julien does rise in the family's esteem. While dancing at a ball, Julien and Mathilde begin to attract each other's attention.

Commentary

In Stendhal's time, Paris was not just the capital of France, but the world. Julien has spent his whole life preparing for his grand entrance on the Parisian stage. However, his provincial background proves to be an even greater impediment than his "low" birth. He is thus not ready for two major aspects of Parisian life: ridicule and boredom. (A major aristocratic pastime involved humiliating other nobles in front of the king. Called ridicule, it could involve anything from a sly comment to a practical joke, and was the ultimate insult at Versailles.) Julien is able to fend off a number of witticisms at the salon but still ends up being ridiculed when he falls off his horse.

Boredom is also a significant theme in the novel. Stendhal claims that, since Napoleon's fall in 1814, France became a passionless society. He felt that the Restoration, with its hypocritical emphasis on piety, had taken all the pleasure out of day-to-day interactions. As a result, most of the Parisian aristocrats are terribly bored, something which takes a provincial man like Julien by surprise. This proves to be an advantage to Julien, since many of the nobles he meets, and especially Mathilde, find him to be very interesting.

Everyone seems to be scheming about how to best impress the Marquis. Julien even meets M. Valenod at the salon, who has been made a baron by the Marquis. Stendhal's use of irony to condemn modern French politics is especially strong in this passage, when Valenod tells Julien that M. de Rênal is no longer the mayor of Verrières and is suspected of being a liberal. The ease with which M. Valenod and M. de Rênal have changed parties reveals the farcical natures of Restoration politics and French society.

But Julien stands out among the "den of thieves intriguers" who make up the Marquis's salon. Despite his ambitious nature, he doesn't try to flatter the Marquis. However, Julien's hard work does impress the Marquis, and he soon begins to treat Julien like a surrogate son. He gives Julien a blue suit to wear when they spend time together. Unlike Julien's previous father-figures, such as M. Chélan and M. Pirard, the Marquis does take account of Julien's social class. Whenever Julien wears his own black suit, the Marquis treats him like an employee. Stendhal is not only criticizing the aristocracy's inherent snobbishness, but the superficial nature of French society during the Restoration: people are defined by the clothes they wear. Just as Julien can be a soldier one minute and a priest the next simply by changing his clothes, the Marquis sees Julien differently based on the color of his suit.

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