Julien first becomes tutor to the mayor's children in a small town in the Alps. He has to negotiate the social and political rivalries of the status-obsessed mayor, his grasping commercial rivals, and various other dignitaries — while engaging in a love affair with the mayor's wife, Madame de Renal. Escaping from there, he attends a provincial seminary where most of the students are peasants hankering after a better life and their teachers have their own problems.
Moving to Paris, Julien becomes confidential secretary to a nobleman and has to learn yet another set of social conventions as he integrates himself into the household and its circle of aristocratic hangers-on. He enters into an affair with his patron's daughter, Mathilde, which he expedites by pretending to love another woman. There is a hint at a political intrigue when Julien becomes the courier for a group of conspirators, but that is a plot strand that goes nowhere. Finally an improbable plot device condemns Julien to prison and execution, bringing his two lovers together.
It is the two love affairs which are central to The Red and the Black. These have some drama — there is much climbing of ladders to reach windows — but the real appeal is in the psychology of the lovers and the dramatic ironies in their often vastly different interpretations of events. Madame de Renal and Mathilde are full players in the game of love, not just objects of Julien's attraction, and Stendhal probes their thoughts and feelings accordingly. The minor female characters — Madame de Renal's maidservant and friend, the waitress in a cafe, and even Mathilde's mother — are also presented in a largely positive fashion, and Stendhal's enlightened attitude to women is one aspect of the The Red and the Black which helps make it accessible to modern readers.
Although determined to make a name for himself and obsessed by honour, Julien himself is also an appealing character. And there are some splendid portraits among the minor characters. Its plotting has many awkwardnesses and its structure is far from satisfying formally, but The Red and the Black offers easy reading and good entertainment, with a lively story and memorable characters.
The Red and the Black is littered with references that assume knowledge of the historical context. Mostly these are not essential to the progress of the novel, however, so the approach of this edition, with endnotes discreetly marked in the text by small symbols in the margin, works well. There's also a six page afterword with a brief analysis of the novel. An attractive hardcover, of a size most comfortable for reading, this is also an ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing volume.
Note: The Red and the Black was originally published as Le Rouge et le Noir in 1830.
- Related reviews:
- - more French literature