This overlong and over-violet romantic novel overanalyses the thoughts and feelings of protagonist Julian Sorel and he agonises and soliloquises over how to find his fortune. Starting as the pretty book-loving son of a carpenter (religious theme?) in a small town he becomes the tutor to the Mayor’s children and seduces his wife. Then he makes his way to
, becomes secretary to a Marquis and seduces his daughter. Paris
What makes this book special is the character of Julien. He is driven by the ambition to be someone special although he has no clear picture of whether that special someone will be a cardinal, a general, a rich merchant or a lover. Agonisingly, although to succeed he has to worm his way into rich households he has a massive chip on his shoulder and hates both the society he is desperate to join and himself. He is a social climbing peasant who wants to start a revolution. There is a lot of suppressed hatred (which is perhaps why seduction is his route to the top). He has to do a lot of dissembling and equivocation. Stendahl makes this, which he calls hypocrisy, a central theme of the novel, although it does seem unjust to describe Julien as a hypocrite; he is simply trying to win a game when the cards are marked against him.
Magic moments include the scene in chapter five when he is about to enter the gates of the Mayor’s house for the first time. As in a fairy tale when the hero is about to embark upon a path that will lead to his eventual damnation (as if these are the gates of hell) he is warned. He discovers a torn newspaper cutting which reports the fate of a man whose name is Louis Jenrel, an anagram of Julien Sorel. He does not realises the importance of the warning and so he is damned.
In chapter 23: “The traveller who has just climbed a steep mountain sits down on the summit, and finds a perfect pleasure in resting. Would he be happy if he were forced to rest always?”
In chapter 34: “One can lean only on what resists” says the Marquis to himself when debating whether to employ the sullen and obstinate Julien.
In chapter 39 “The end justifies the means ….I would hang three men to save the lives of four.”
In chapter 72: “Man has two different beings inside him … What devil thought of that malicious touch?”
Improvements I would make to the translation:
- More comprehensive end notes which I would put as foot notes so you don’t have to keep on flicking backwards and forwards
- Some sense to be made of the money which includes (forever unexplained as to their values relative one to the other) sols, francs, crowns, livres, and louis d’or.
Could be abridged and definitely of its time but the originality of the character of the hero redeems the book.
July 2011; 511 pages