Under the pen name Stendahl, Marie Henri Beyle published The Red and the Black in 1830, just as the July revolution was overthrowing one monarch to replace him with another. In literature it was a romantic time, and this is a romantic novel, although it does not start out that way. It begins with Julien Sorel, a striver with ability and ambition, who pursues his own interests in a society which has re-ossified into conservatism after the excesses of the Revolution and the imperial ambitions of Napoleon. Hypocrisy is his necessary technique.
“Imagine,” he said to himself, shaking his head, “Napoleon’s portrait found hidden in the room of a man who professes nothing but hatred for the usurper!… And — the height of recklessness — …lines written in my own hand which can leave no doubt about the warmth of my admiration.”
Sorel is sincere in his ambitions, and Stendahl’s mocking of the social pretensions of the day make for effective comedy. A successful businessman who considers the evidence that his wife is unfaithful knows what is important when he makes his judgement.
“I am used to Louise,” he said to himself; “she knows all about my business affairs. If I were free to marry tomorrow, I couldn’t replace her.” Then he flattered himself with the idea that his wife was innocent; this way of seeing things spared him from showing firmness of character and suited him much better.
This was all very well, but events and the tone of the book changed. The trajectory of my reading pleasure looks like this: all down hill after a strong beginning.
At first, Sorel’s love affairs, like his studies in the seminary, are under the control of his desire to get ahead in a world that has little use for him. This restraint doesn’t last. Sometimes he loves her, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes she loves him, sometimes she doesn’t. We are in such a whirl of romantic intoxication that very little makes sense. What does make sense is the gift for comedy Stendahl maintains until just before the end. For example, Sorel’s diligently copies out a series of love letters from a book provided by a worldly acquaintance, addressing them not to his lady love but to a rival, thus provoking a useful jealousy. The tactic works, but then everything dissolves in violence, as Sorel turns away from everything: love, ambition, life itself. The ending is pure melodrama. It would be funny too, if if were not so unbelievable.