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The Red and the Black

Stendhal

Study Questions

Analysis

Review Quiz

How did Stendhal derive the title The Red and the Black?

Stendhal took a lot of time and care in deciding what the title of his novel would be. He first considered Julien Sorel, since it would appropriately reflect the focus on the rise and fall of his protagonist. But Stendhal was wary of the romantic tradition of naming a novel after the protagonist. He especially disliked Chateaubriand and his use of proper names in titles. As a result, Stendhal chose a more abstract and symbolic title, coupled with the subtitle "a chronicle of 1830." The colors red and black refer to the different colors worn by the army and the clergy in nineteenth-century France. The black robes and suits worn by priests and Julien in the novel are clear references to the Catholic Church. The red color of the military uniforms that Julien wears evoke the French army.

The juxtaposition of these two colors in the title represents the tension between the army and the clergy in the novel. Yet the two institutions are not at odds with each other. Indeed, the Marquis de la Mole tries to form an army led by the Vatican. Instead, the tension involves a career decision that Julien must make. Julien dreams of the military glory of Napoleon and a more adventurous epoch and thus, given the choice, would enlist in the army. But Julien realizes that during the Restoration, the most powerful and influential political leaders belong to the clergy. Julien's hypocritical devotion to the Church and his constant wavering between a life in the clergy and a career in the military are thus implied by the novel's title. The coupling of the two colors can thus be said to restrict Julien's free will in that he only has two choices in life. To rise in French society he can only change in and out of red or black clothing: he can not wear what he wants to. In this context, the two colors also evoke a roulette table. Julien must gamble to make his fortune, but he only has two choices.

Finally, the subtitle, "a chronicle of 1830," is further revealing. Although Stendhal was writing during the 1830 Revolution, the subtitle suggests a historical novel, or chronicle, about something that happened far in the past. This subtitle thus further confines Julien's actions to the events of history. Contemporary readers of Stendhal would have known that the Marquis de la Mole's conspiracy and Julien's desire for military glory during the Restoration were futile because of the impending revolution. Julien's possibilities for success are limited by the evolution of French society implicit in the title.

What role does French history play in the novel? How does it mold Stendhal's narrative technique?

Stendhal consistently emphasizes the importance of French history throughout The Red and the Black. Having lived during the French Revolution, Napoleon's rise to power, the Restoration and the 1830 Revolution, Stendhal was very interested in the way that history shaped the fortunes and destinies of men and women. As a result, two of his main characters, Julien and Mathilde, are obsessed with the past. Julien adores Napoleon and tries to live his life according to his hero's example. Mathilde likes to pretend that she is Queen Margot and that Julien is Boniface de la Mole. This reliance on the past paradoxically foreshadows their present and futures. Both achieve the success and romance of their historical models, but also their ultimate destruction.

By subtitling the novel a "chronicle of 1830," Stendhal also makes the cast of characters historical archetypes of the political and social environment during the final years of the Restauration. M. Valenod is a typical liberal, while the Marquis represents the dying aristocracy. The course of French history thus establishes and shapes not only their ultimate failures and successes, but the narrative structure of the novel as a whole. In this context, Stendhal's reliance on French history further condemns the "boring" nineteenth century: one must look to the past for excitement and adventure.

What is triangular desire, and what role does it play in the novel?

Stendhal thought that he had mastered the psychology of love. He designated triangular desire, or love through an intermediary person, as a necessary ingredient to making someone fall in love. For example, Mathilde thinks that Julien loves Mme. de Fervaques, which makes her grow extremely jealous and love Julien even more than before. Julien is aware of the power of triangular desire, demonstrating Stendhal's attempt to introduce psychology into the novel. Traditional romantic novels used love as a simple plot device without any further analysis. Stendhal rejects this tradition by emphasizing the negative aspects of love, such as manipulation, and expressing the power of emotional control. This denial of the basic purity of love represents a watershed moment in nineteenth-century French literature.

How does Stendhal represent the political tensions that would lead to the revolution of 1830? Does he present this revolution as a foreseeable event or a complete surprise?

Who does Julien love more, Mathilde de la Mole or Mme. de Rênal?

Can Napoleon be considered a character in the novel? Why or why not?

How does life in Paris differ from life in the provinces? What is ridicule and how is it used by aristocrats to pass the time? Does Julien prefer living in Paris or the countryside?

Discuss the themes of corruption and hypocrisy in the novel. Do the two themes go hand in hand? Can someone be a hypocrite and still be a good person, according to Stendhal?

Discuss the importance of boredom in the novel.

Why does Julien refuse clemency just before his execution? Does he really want to die? Is he modeling this decision on a famous historical figure's desire to die?

Does Julien Sorel have free will? If so, how and when does he use it? If not, what aspects of French society constrain him from doing so?

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