Scarlet and Black (or The Red and the Black, as it’s more often translated) is one of those books that I was motivated to read in part because it’s a “classic” and so I wanted to familiarize myself with it and give it a chance, rather than because I had a genuine interest in it. Maybe because of that I had considerable difficulty getting into it.
Ultimately I warmed to it to a limited extent, and while it continued to drag for me in places it was not an ordeal to read. But I wouldn’t say it was an enjoyable read that flowed well and held my interest throughout. I got something out of it, but not to the point that I’d be inclined to seek out and read more by Stendhal.
The story is set in France, in the 1820s. Earlier in my life I read a great deal about Napoleon, so I’m fairly familiar with his era, but I know very little about the immediate post-Napoleonic era. (Napoleon was forced into exile in 1814, and after a brief comeback was forced into permanent exile in 1815.) But the edition I have of this book augments the little I do know with an introductory section on the historical context of the novel.
Immediately after Napoleon, and in that brief period between his exiles as well, basically the royalists attempted to eliminate the Revolution and Napoleon from legitimate French history. The Bourbons were restored to power, and were officially regarded as having been the true rulers of France all along, with their just not having been able to properly exercise their authority for twenty-five years or so. But they and their supporters still considered them to have the divine right to be absolute monarchs and all that.
Within a few years enough people opposed the anachronism of that strongly enough that it could no longer stand. There was a change of kings, with the new regime bound by certain negotiated compromises. So a constitutional monarchy replaced the absolute monarchy.
But the 1820s was a time of considerable political turmoil. Some royalists—including elements of the very powerful Catholic Church—supported the current regime, while some wanted to return to an absolute monarchy. Opposing the royalists were those who believed in the legitimacy of Napoleon’s reign and wanted the country to be governed by someone related to or associated with him (he had died in 1821), and democrats and others who wanted to eliminate monarchs and dictators and such entirely and in effect follow through on the Revolution.
But for the time being the royalists were on top. After Napoleon’s fall, the class of folks who had run the show before—the nobles, the large landowners, the church folks, etc.—were back in charge, albeit in a kind of desperate, you-better-enjoy-it-while-it-lasts, history-is-about-to-pass-you-by way.
Scarlet and Black is the story of Julien Sorel, identified as “eighteen or nineteen” at the start of the story, a peasant youth, the son of a carpenter. He is something of a sensitive, intellectual lad, unhappy, misunderstood, a dreamer of high but vague ambitions. He is routinely abused by his father and his older brothers.
He’s something of a cynic already. Though he apparently thinks of himself as idealistic and as having loftier ideas and a loftier moral sensibility than those around him, he recognizes that he’ll have to suppress those ideals to achieve his goals, and he’s more than willing to do so. He routinely describes it as “hypocrisy”; coming out on top requires hypocrisy, so he’s determined to learn to wear the right masks and to develop his Machiavellian talents to manipulate people to get what he’s after.
He sees two main paths to power, money, and prestige—the military or the Church. (The title comes from the red in the French army uniforms and the black that priests wear.) He concludes that the military would have been a fine choice to seek one’s fortune under Napoleon, but that in the present royalist era the military is back to being very class-based, where you won’t get far if you weren’t born into one of the “right” families. So he sets his sights on a career in the Church.
He lands a job as a live-in tutor for the mayor (a Babbitt-like buffoon obsessed with his social status). Not that he’s educated in any significant sense. His minimal learning has come mostly from a few books obtained from a local priest who has taken him under his wing. But I guess being able to read and write at all puts him ahead of most if not all of the other potential candidates for tutor in small town France of the 1820s.
It’s not clear if he has significant intellectual potential but just has been very limited by his upbringing, or is nothing special in that area independent of his circumstances. I lean toward the latter. He does have an extraordinary memory for what he reads, being able to later recite pages of it word-for-word. But that comes across almost as more of a parlor trick than as an indication of high intellect. I don’t think he’s an idiot; I suspect he’s of about average intelligence.
So he’s not a scholar, really, but he gets an educational job. For that matter he’s not really a religious believer, but has chosen a path to the priesthood instead for its expected rewards, and will cast aside the whole priest idea if he sees a better way of achieving the status he seeks. He’s something of a fan of Napoleon, but he’s content to keep that to himself since admitting it would only hurt him in the circles in which he hopes to travel. There’s really not much substance or principle to him, and I would say no more than mediocre talent or intellect, but then again his ambitious efforts aren’t based on such things, but primarily on his open-eyed “hypocrisy.”
He soon bumbles his way into an affair with the mayor’s wife. When word of it gets out, he gets a position in a seminary in another town. He obtains a mentor there who soon arranges for him to get a job as a sort of personal secretary to a nobleman.
Upper class folks are pretty consistently presented negatively in the book. Some of it almost goes far enough to be satire, but I think for the most part Stendhal is presenting the French nobility and churchmen and such the way he genuinely sees them.
It is indeed a world of phoniness and hypocrisy. Stiflingly so. You want to open a window as you read about it.
They are all obsessed with money and power, and maybe even more so with the social status that depends on ritualistic formality and superficial etiquette. Sorel is simultaneously disgusted by it all and willing to play along however he needs to in order to reap the rewards of being accepted and valued by these people.
The nobleman, it turns out, is plotting with others who have contempt for the current regime’s willingness to abide by a constitution limiting royal powers. They are even willing to betray their country to foreign powers if that’s what it takes to get a new king on the throne who will rule as an absolute monarch and safeguard the interests of the nobility.
No doubt this is Stendhal taking a shot at some of his royalist contemporaries, painting them as potential traitors.
Sorel ends up in a secret—rather comic and/or grotesque—romance with the nobleman’s daughter. Each is only interested when the other is not. If a protestation of undying love and devotion is met with reciprocal interest and vulnerability, then it is hastily withdrawn. If it is met instead with indifference, then it is sustained. It’s a sit-com situation. (Literally. I remember an episode of the situation comedy Just Shoot Me that was about just this kind of emotionally immature relationship dynamic. It was accurate enough to be both funny and rather painful to watch.)
The mayor’s wife, who was always a bit of a kook and now has become a religious kook specifically, finds out about Sorel’s romance with the high society daughter and writes a letter to the nobleman denouncing Sorel and potentially ruining all his ambitious plans. Sorel returns home to confront her, and shoots her. She survives, and both she and the nobleman’s daughter decide that they’re madly in love with him after all, as a court sentences him to death for attempted murder.
I don’t like Sorel. On a gut level, I don’t like him.
That’s strangely rare for me. I often can intellectually see things to disapprove of about a protagonist in a story, but on an emotional level I almost always find myself identifying with and rooting for the protagonist.
Not Sorel. I wouldn’t say I hated him, but I pretty consistently experienced him as distasteful, and I didn’t root for him to achieve his ends.
I think one respect in which the book is well written is that Sorel really does have the kind of naiveté and lack of life skills that I would think is normal for a teenager who grew up in such a sheltered way. That can be a challenge for an author, to withhold from their creation so much of their own knowledge and sophistication. Think about how routinely in books and movies not only youths of Sorel’s age but young children have insights, make conversational references, manifest an internalization of social norms, and have impressive attention spans that are well beyond their years.
Even though Sorel is trying to be some clever maneuverer and choose his every move in a cold, calculated, pragmatic way, he can do so with only limited success because there are so many gaps in his knowledge and his experience of dealing with people. At times there’s a realistic awkwardness to his behavior, and a realistic tendency to misread people.
In some ways one might expect me to have identified with him much more than I did, because that reminded me of how I experienced life in my late teenage years, when I struck out on my own after a weird and sheltered childhood and had to function as an adult overnight. There was a lot of bluff, ignorance, mimicry, and just kind of making stuff up as I went along to fill in the gaps in my development.
Yet I never really warmed to him. Even seeing myself in him in that respect, my sympathy for him was quite limited.
And it’s not because objectively he’s worse than all the other protagonists in all the other novels I’ve read. He’s really no more than mildly odious.
Stendhal is a social critic, and he succeeds in making the upper classes distasteful. He could have made Sorel the exception, the plucky underdog who rebels against the “hypocrisy” and everything that is objectionable about the society these folks have created, but he didn’t. He makes the society seem even worse by depicting it as the kind of place that co-opts the very sort of person who has every reason to oppose it and turns him into an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em, pathetic sellout. Sorel acquires the stench of those from whom he’s so desperately seeking acceptance.
One thing that stood out to me as a weakness in Stendhal’s writing—and this may just be me and no one else would read it this way—is that he seems to violate the “show, don’t tell” rule of creative writing.
That is, he often describes characters as having extreme emotions—flying into a rage, being the most shocked they’ve ever been in their life, falling madly in love, suffering from an almost unimaginable depression, or what have you—but it doesn’t ring true because their behavior as described throughout the book, and even their thought patterns insofar as they are described, gives no indication of their being capable of much in the way of passion or emotional depth and intensity.
There’s an emptiness to these characters and the world they inhabit. Stendhal says they sometimes have powerful emotions, but he’s spent the whole book showing them to be such emotional zeroes that I can’t buy it.
All I know is I’m rather glad to be stepping away from them.