Lecture on Stendhalís The Red and the Black
[The following document is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, by Ian Johnston, in LBST 410 at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University). This text in the public domain, released June 1999]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
A. Introductory Note
In this lecture I would like to address two main questions: first, I want to look once again at the term Romantic, especially as it applies to works of prose fiction, and then, in the light of that discussion I would like to consider the extent to which we can call this novel, the Red and Black, a Romantic work and, if so, how that might illuminate some things in the novel, particularly the life and career of the central character, Julien Sorel, and what vision of the Romantic life is finally given to us.
B. Romantic as a Literary Term: Structure and Style
When we apply the term Romantic to a work of art, typically we might mean one of three distinct but related features of it: the vision of life embodied in the work, the style of the writing or painting, and finally the structure of the narrative or pictorial details. I wish to focus initially on the last two: the style and the structure (which are obviously very closely related terms), and then turn my attention to how these might be said to embody a Romantic vision of experience.
This is a complex topic, and my intention here is only to raise two or three important questions which occur in all fictions but particularly with ones from the Romantic period and afterwards.
Now, we have already discussed briefly that one important feature of the Romantic aesthetic was to experiment with new forms, new structures, especially those which challenged the readerís traditional expectations. This necessarily involves putting the reader into something of a new relationship with the work of art. And many Romantic works do this quite deliberately with a clear purpose in view: the artist wants to provide for the reader an important interpretative challenge, to involve the reader or viewer in the often complex business of sorting out just what the work of art has to say and to do this in a way that requires the reader or viewer to abandon or rethink traditional ways of dealing with such works of art.
An important element of Romanticism, in other words, is to create a work of art as a dynamic process in which the reader or viewer or listener is actively involved in new and unexpected ways, rather than to present the reader or viewer or listener with something which has such a clear sense of given meaning that the reader or viewer is, in a sense, more the recipient of an achieved vision than a working partner in a discovery of meaning.
Here an analogy may help. Classical Art, it has been observed, is like a privileged picture onto an ordered scene--it is a vision for the viewer or reader of something in which the values are inherent and we are invited to inspect the scene from an objective distance and recognize the artistís vision, the controlling hand of the creator of the work. Because the work will be presented to us in a form and structure with which we are probably familiar (a traditional convention), we are not invited to redefine our relationship to the work: instead we are from our privileged position to appreciate the ďmirror of natureĒ that it represents.
Romantic art, on the other hand, is often an invitation to join the picture, to enter into its ambiguities and thus to participate in the creation of an ordered meaning, which, without such an active participation on the part of the viewer or the reader is simply not there. Or, alternatively put, a Romantic style and structure will often exert considerable pressure on the viewer or reader to recognize and accept the need for a discovered meaning, available only in the imagination of the reader or viewer who is willing to enter the world of the work of art more closely and dynamically. The work of art, in itself, is not going to provide a clear meaning without the personal imaginative interaction of the individual viewer.
C. Romanticism in Styles of Art
For instance, when Lisa McLeod showed us various eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings, I think most of recognized an important feature of those works, usually called Classical, in which we were given a look at a stable and ordered scene. What was going on might be quite dramatic, as in the Oath of the Horatii, but it occurs in a solid world of firm buildings, an arranged landscape controlled by the laws of perspective, and a proper regard to the social values of various positionings and proportions. To appreciate the picture is to recognize the values inherent in the given order of the work. To the extent that we can recognize and share those traditional symbols of meaning, we can understand the picture without too much difficulty.
With some of Turnerís later work, however, as with some of the Romantic paintings which Lisa discussed, this firm sense of order in the world of the picture is not so clear. Often, as we saw in Turner, the emphasis is on the dynamic movement upon which whatever looks solid (like a ship) might rest. In such paintings the foreground is often unreliable: we are not sure of our footing, of our position as viewer. Often in these paintings the background is indistinct or else a formal arrangement of colour in usually very dramatic shapes (vortexes, intersecting straight lines, loops, swirls, and so on) without any attempt to depict a naturalistic perspective and with little firmness of outline. In some of the paintings, the dynamic shapes and colours so dominate the picture that we have no clear sense of anything naturalistically ordered for us to view, and we can even argue about what we imagine is depicted there.
This Romantic style in painting, therefore, often challenges the viewer in unexpected ways, without appealing to traditional structures or forms or images. We are not so sure where we stand in relation to what is depicted because we are not so sure any more that we share with the artist or with other viewers a common sense of what the picture represents or how we are supposed to interpret the dynamic uncertainty.
What I am trying to stress here is that in such paintings, we can talk of the style and the structure being Romantic in the sense that they do not rely upon any traditional convention or shared experience which is going to assist the viewer. The interpretation is thus going to be a much more radically personal challenge to each viewer. Of course, one may decline the invitation and declare the painting, as many did and still do, incomprehensible or mad; but if we accept that invitation, then we are going to be thrown back on our own imaginations in a way that is remarkably different from how we react to Classical Art.
D. Romanticism in Styles of Music
To some extent we can see the same thing happening as we move from Mozart to Beethoven. Many of you have attested to the sense you get in Mozart of a controlling order, a firm sense of traditional structure beyond which the music does not stray (and some prefer that, and others donít). As one critic has observed: ďIn Mozart we get the pleasure of continuously fulfilled expectation.Ē The enormous genius of Mozart lies in how he can play within this structure--not surprising us with anything beyond the world he has set and yet constantly delighting and surprising us with the amazing inventiveness of his music within the given sense of order and structure.
Now, of course, in Beethoven the sense of order is also very strong. To that extent, Beethoven is still very much in the Classical world of Mozart. And yet itís clear that there is an important Romantic element as well, for with Beethoven we are never quite certain of whatís going to happen next: the dynamics of the orchestra is undercutting our sense of a secure form (just as Turnerís use of colour and shape undercuts our sense of a secure form of order in the world depicted in many of his paintings). The constant shifting from loud to soft, to pianissimo, to crescendo, from strings to reeds to horns to percussion, the frequent use of the fermata, which brings the whole piece temporarily to a stop, without any firm sense of whatís going to happen next, and so on, all these introduce into that reassuring Classical order a note of dynamic uncertainty and, once again, there is no easily shared way we can interpret such work. In much of the Fifth Symphony, perhaps until the final movement, we are always in some uncertainty as where we are going next--rhythmically, melodically, in terms of volume, instrumentally, and so on.
Thus, how we arrive at a unified sense of Beethovenís Fifth Symphony is a very different process of understanding from dealing with, say, Handelís Messiah, where at any particular moment, the mood that has been established for that part of the work is not going to shift abruptly in challenging and unexpected ways. This sense of continuing and shared order, of course, is one of the main sources of the lasting appeal of the Classical and Baroque works; just as the invigorating sense of dynamic surprise, tension, anxiety, and ambiguity is one of the main sources of the lasting appeal of Romantic Music. Those of you who are going on to study Wagner in the Enquiry Seminar will, no doubt, be exploring much more of those Romantic qualities in a composer who often makes Beethoven sound positively predictable.
E. Romantic Style in Prose Narrative: the Use of an Unreliable Narrator
Now, the same processes I have describing in music and art occur in fiction, as we move from the traditional ways of telling stories to more Romantic notions of structure and style. And once again, the effects of the changes are often to put considerable pressure on the reader to recognize that this story has no unambiguous meaning, no given sense of shared order--there is often no one in the story to assist us in our task of interpreting the significance of what is going on. To achieve that we may have to enter the work in new ways.
One important technique in Romantic prose which achieves this effect of throwing onto the reader a more active role in the interpretative process is the use of a special sort of narrator. And from here on, with the Romantic and post-Romantic style, we need to start paying careful attention to the narrator and to evaluate just how the presence of that figure is related to our responses to the fiction. So Iíd like to offer a few reflections on that problem.
If we begin by saying that any story gives the reader an imagined reality, an invitation to enter a made up word where people with whom the reader can make imaginative connections act in various ways, then we can usefully discuss an important question: What is our entry into the story and how reliable is that? How is the narrator related to the story? And how is that narrator affecting my response?
In Homer, for example, we had an omniscient, reliable narrator. He didnít take sides, guided us expertly through various scenes, generally without editorializing too much. We are getting, we feel, a reliable take on the story. We do not have to question the narrator, because we have no occasion to doubt his veracity or his judgment. What he says about a particular scene or person seems to match closely with our own reactions.
And in Dante we are inclined always to accept the narratorís reactions as genuine and authoritative: how he reacts to a particular sight is, we feel, the appropriate way to react to that sight. He has us by the hand, and we soon learn to trust his observations and his reactions to those observations. There is not, in other words, any important disparity between his reactions and our reactions to the same images.
The same is largely true in Gulliverís Travels, where Swift goes to some length to establish the reliability of Gulliverís observations and his sensibilities, to make us familiar with his credentials as a keen, reliable observer, not prone to exaggeration or panic or overimaginative interpretations. And so, in Gulliverís Travels we tend to accept Gulliver as a reliable informant and commentator on what he presents for us to consider. Of course, he undergoes some dramatic changes; in fact, the change in the narrator is clearly the main event of the book. But the structure of the narrative does not throw any extra responsibility on us to enter the world he is describing, because we can take his word for it (except, according to some critics, until near the end, and itís interesting that such reservations are a comparatively modern phenomenon, something which did not arise for Swiftís contemporaries).
Now, in Romantic fictions, by contrast, the narrators are often unreliable, and we cannot accept their interpretation of what is going on unreservedly. We get the facts of the story, but we recognize that the events which the narrator is telling us are beyond the narratorís understanding or that the explanations the narrator offers for what he or she is seeing are not sufficient to explain the events to our satisfaction. In other words, to make sense of the story, we have to recognize that we are on our own; the narrator will provide the details, but his or her ignorance about their significance puts all the more pressure on us to recognize the complexity of what is going on and to accept the challenge of understanding it. That challenge includes, most importantly, evaluating the narrator.
In many Romantic and post-Romantic novels, this difficulty is compounded by having three or four different narrators, so that we are getting the story from three or four different perspectives simultaneously or else the story is reaching us through the filters of different narrators. For instance, in Wuthering Heights, we are often getting the information that someone told Nelly Dean, that she has passed on to Lockwood, and that he is now passing to us. And it is clear that neither Nelly Dean nor Lockwood really understands the significance of the details they are talking about. Since none of the narrators has a fully adequate explanation for any of the events they relate, the reader has the added task of evaluating the sources of the information as well as the information itself.
Any of you who have studied Heart of Darkness will be very familiar with this technique of having a story told by a narrator about another narrator who is always calling attention to his inability to understand the story he is relating.
And in modern times this structural process of challenging the reader by complex narrator relationships has often been exploited. Some famous examples are the Alexandrian Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, Faulknerís novel Absolom, Absolom, and best known of all perhaps, the Kurosawa movie Rashomon. In these fictions the same tale is given to the reader repeatedly, but each time by a different narrator. And each narrative emerges as a very different version of the same events. What, such a technique seems to be saying, is the truth of it? The reader is left to his or her own devices.
(I should add that exploiting the narrator this way is not the only method of challenging the reader. Playing around with the chronology is another--Wuthering Heights being a good example here. And in recent times the attempt to place more and more responsibility on the reader for interpreting the fiction has led to books in which the reader has to arrange the pages in a particular order. How you read the work depends upon the shape you give it. Speaking generally, we can see such structural innovations as manifestations of the constant Romantic and post-Romantic urge to break free of traditional standards and structures, always to provide a new relationship between the book and the reader. Ultimately, of course, such an urge leads to absurdity, when the truest Romantic work is one without any given structure: the purest and most authentic music is silence, the truest poem is the blank page, and so on. In such works, the artist has finally emancipated the work fully from all inherited structures, and the weight of interpretation is fully on the imagination of the individual reader or listener).
This problem of evaluating the narrator is not particularly a problem in Jane Eyre. In that sense, although the vision of life in the novel is quite Romantic, the style of the narrative is for the most part quite traditional. Early in the novel Jane establishes that she is giving us the facts, and there is no sense that she is not an honest and perceptive teller of her own story. For virtually all the novel we are not encouraged to question her judgment about what went on or about the different characters. So, in that sense, thereís nothing particularly Romantic about the structure of Jane Eyre (the sources of the Romanticism in the novel come more from the character of the heroine and the concentration on and treatment of natural imagery, among other things).
F. Stendhalís Red and Black
But when we get to The Red and the Black, we are faced with a much more teasing and complex issue. Who is telling us this story? And how reliable is he? How are we supposed to take his many editorial asides on society and particular characters? And how does that shape our response to the story?
We note very early on in the story that the narrator likes to make judgments about the story he is telling. In the opening pages, as we move from the outskirts of town into Verrieres, the narrator, not satisfied with letting us make up our own minds about the town, provides this comment:
As a matter of fact, these folk wield the most wearisome despotism: and this is why, for anyone who has lived in the great republic called Paris, life in the provinces is insupportable. The tyranny of public opinion--and what an opinion--is as stupid in the small towns of France as it is in the United States of America. (4)
Here we discover that we are in the presence of a very particular personality, who sounds somewhat a snob from Paris, who has made up his mind quickly and easily about life in the provinces and in America. The real edge of supercilious urbanity in the tone alerts us to the fact that this man is a social sophisticate, a Parisian, conscious of his great superiority over the creatures he is now to describe, in spite of the fact that he is, as he informs us on the next page, a liberal. The tone in which this story is told suggests a certain cynical urbanity, an ironic playfulness, the tone of someone who is going to tell us a story for his own amusement without any suggestion that it means very much to anyone.
(I should stress at this point that we have no license to identify the voice of the narrator with that of the author, and thus infer things about the authorís character from the character of the narrator, or vice versa. It may be the case that they two are very close indeed, perhaps identical, but it might equally be true that the author has created a particular narrator quite different from himself in order to achieve certain effects within the fiction. So whether Stendhal was like the person Iím describing as I interpret the narrator is irrelevant)
That suggests at the outset that this narrator is not necessarily going to be particularly sympathetic to the characters in his story or very helpful to or candid with us, the readers, many of whom fit his description of middle-class, small-town life. I get the sense of someone who sees himself as a member of society but one who has already made up his mind about it and, conscious of his own social superiority, is quite condescending to others, especially to his hero. Here, for example, is a comment he makes on Julien (on 37):
Let us not think too poorly of Julienís future; he was inventing with perfect correctness, the language of a sly and prudent hypocrisy. At his age, thatís not bad. In the matter of tone and gestures, he lived among yokels, and so had never studied the great models. Later, circumstances permitted him to approach closer to fine gentlemen; no sooner had he done so than he was as skilful with gestures as with words. (37)
Now, itís a good rule in fiction to follow Lawrenceís advice: ďTrust the tale, not the teller.Ē That is, make our judgments based upon what the character says and does rather than on any comments which the narrator may insert telling us how we should interpret the character. Well, if thatís the case, then why does Stendhal keep insinuating the narratorís presence and opinions into the novel?
I suggest that one main reason is to encourage us to recognize that the narrator doesnít really understand Julien adequately or, if he does, heís not about to open up his heart to the readers about what Julien means to him. At times it seems that he cannot make up his mind about him. He often easily sums up his behaviour from one moment to another, but such attempts, we recognize, are too facile, too contradictory, too at odds with the complexity of Julienís behaviour to count as valid interpretations.
Our hero simply lacked the audacity to be sincere (74). . . . All the first actions of our hero, who considered himself such a politician, were, like his choice of a confessor, acts of folly. Misled by the presumption natural to an imaginative man, he mistook he inward intentions for outward acts and considered himself a consummate hypocrite. His folly reached the height of blaming himself for his supposed success in this art of the weak (141). . . . Like all mediocre creatures who become involved by accident in the maneuvers of a great general, Julien understood nothing of the strategic assault launched by the young Russian against the heart of his severe Englishwoman (331). . . . In my opinion, this was one of the finest traits of his character; a man capable of imposing such restraint on his own impulses may go far. . . . (342)
What is consistent about such comments, in spite of the frequently inconsistent judgments, sometimes approving, sometimes ridiculing, is the tone: superior, detached, urbane, and in some sense uncaring--as if he is recording the life cycle of a zoological specimen. At moments of intense drama, like the final success of a seduction or the death of Julien, the narrator will not even supply us with the facts. He doesnít care to.
There is also, and most importantly, a strong and recurring note of ironic playfulness in the tone of the narrator--not only is he playing somewhat in his evaluations of Julien, but he is also playing with the reader, teasing us with odd judgments, sardonic asides, invitations to consider Julien as a hero or failure or both. He gives us at times an odd rhythm to the narrative, spending a long time leading up to a key moment and then skipping over the moment with a brief note that it happened, and then spending a lot of time on the aftermath. Many of things we expect to read about do not happen. Thus, however, we evaluate the narrator of the Red and Black, we are going to have to take into account and watch for the constantly shifting tone, which is difficult to evaluate finally because there is so often such a strongly ironic, playful note to it.
The effect of this, I wish to suggest, is odd. For me, it establishes the fact that I cannot rely upon the narrator much to provide me with a sure-footed way through the story, and I donít trust his response to the story he is telling. For me what is happening to Julien is something much sadder, much more complex, and much less amusing than he seems to find it. And the discrepancy between how I am reacting to the story and how the narrator is reacting, I find, increases the pressure on me to come to grips with the full complexity of the issues.
Stendhal clearly did this quite deliberately, to take away any firm certainty we might derive from a reliable trustworthy likable guide like Dante or Gulliver. By creating a certain discrepancy between the narratorís response to events and our own, Stendhal is creating uncertainty in the mind of the reader as to how any particular event ought to be interpreted and, at the same time, throwing the responsibility for such interpretation squarely onto the reader.
Ultimately, then, for me, one of the main messages of this novel, to the extent that it has any message at all, is the inability of the narrator to pass any sort of reasonable judgment on his story. Inasmuch as he is clearly a successful member of that society, an affluent well educated Parisian, who finds nothing but a certain anecdotal amusement in the tale, I come to see where the source of the real problems in that society may lie--the detached urbanity of the civilized person who doesnít care enough, a person for whom the sufferings he relates are unconnected to him, except as an opportunity for many casual evaluative judgments delivered from a detached and superior position, not the vantage, as in Homer, of a sympathetic objectivity, but rather of a sheltered uncaring amusement. If we see that one of the great issues this novel raises is the problem of living an authentic life in modern society (as I shall argue later), then I would propose that the narrator himself is part of the problem.
Now, Iím not expecting you necessarily to agree with me about the narrator in Red and Black, but one thing is clear: we all as readers have to take him into account. We have to deal with his judgments and his evaluations. And, unlike the other fictions we have read in which we have been guided by a narrator, here there are likely to be disagreements about whether this narrator is reliable or not, whether we should like him or not, whether his sympathies lie with Julien or not, and so on. In other words, here there is a radical uncertainty about where we stand in relation to the work presented to us, just as in a Turner painting or in sections of Beethovenís Fifth.
G. The Case of Julien Sorel
Thatís all I want to say for the moment about the Romantic structure of Red and Black (although there is one more important feature Iíd like to get to in a while). Iíd now like to turn to the second point of this lecture: the vision of Romanticism in Red and Black. How are we to evaluate that? I donít think anyone will have any difficulty in recognizing certain qualities in Julien which we can identify as Romantic traits. However, we may run into some arguments as to what this novel is saying, if anything, about the value of those characteristics.
You may remember that, in the Introduction to Romanticism lecture, which I delivered a few weeks ago, I said that, in general, there were two common forms of the story of the Romantic character as hero. In one, the main character succeeds, even if only temporarily, in transforming the world into something that does match his or her vision of it, so that the Romantic imperative to achieve the self-created identity is satisfied. Jane Eyre is clearly a story of this sort: the novel offers us a sense that Janeís attitude to life, particularly her spontaneous irrational sense of her own worth and her resistance to anything which threatens to define who she is in a manner which does not match her conception of herself, that this attitude leads to a richer, more meaningful existence, particularly in comparison with those around her who take their sense of life from the society or the traditions.
The second form of the Romantic story I mentioned is the less happy version, the one in which the Romantic spirit, full of a sense of the possibilities life may offer for heroic self≠definition, is defeated, in which the imaginative powers are insufficient to overcome the gross stupidity, conformity, hostility, and intractability of the social world outside the self or, alternatively, one in which the Romantic qualities are insufficiently strong to maintain themselves in such a world.
Julien as a Failed Romantic
I would like initially to propose that The Red and the Black offers us such a story. Its hero, Julien Sorel, is clearly energized by what we can easily identify as a Romantic urge: he wishes to escape his past, to redefine himself in a more heroic mold, to live up to his own standards of heroic conduct, without reference to the world around him. And what fires him in this quest is his passionate imagination of what he would like to be. It is clear also that, in a very obvious sense, he fails. His life and death end up making no difference to anyone, least of all to the society around him. In any assessment of Julienís story, of course, we have to take into account the ending, to sort out whether that offers some important sense of a discovered value or whether it is just one last ironic comment on the futility of Julienís dreams, the last feeble illusion. But for the moment Iíd like to consider everything else but the ending, since we are going to be discussing that in seminars.
Much of our response to the Red and Black is going to depend on our evaluation of Julienís Romantic character, and I suspect thereís going to be considerably more argument about that character than about Jane Eyreís character. However, for whatís itís worth, I want to offer my reflections on Stendhalís picture of his hero.
Julien, I have observed, is, in many ways, obviously a Romantic character. He is a dreamer, filled with a visionary of sense of the life he would like to lead, a life which has little to no relation to the situation in which he finds himself. He thus sets out to construct a life for himself, one that will answer more satisfyingly to his imaginative visions of himself. In this he is not unlike Jane Eyre. And he seems unlike many others in the society around him, who appear to be, in a very unimaginative way, satisfied to pursue the dreary and terminally boring lives defined almost to suffocation by the society around them (whether in Verrieres or in Paris).
However, unlike Jane, I would claim, Julien lacks something fundamental. Iím not sure what to call it, but for want of a better term Iíll use intelligence, by which I mean a certain intellectual, political, and emotional perceptiveness, the ability to see, to feel, and to think oneís way through complex situations with a certain clarity. He has considerable skills of one sort and another, he has confidence and courage, a strong imagination, and a great deal of luck. All of these make him, in a sense, special in a society where there is virtually no imagination or courage. But the main objection I have to him is that he is very rarely an authentic person, acting on his deepest feelings spontaneously and effectively. And the main reason for that is that he is in some fundamental way an unintelligent Romantic. And because of that lack of intelligence his every action is extremely ambiguous--linked with contradictory motives, all sorts of hesitant self-reflections, and constant doubt.
Thus, when I read this novel, I donít particularly admire Julien, but I constantly feel sorry for him. He is born into a society which we are invited to see as confining, bourgeois, self-serving, and petty, a society which has no room or place for a person of spirit, of sensitivity. The small town culture of Verrieres is a devastating indictment of middle-class conventional morality, ruled by the tyranny of the majority and public opinion which sees making money and achieving petty victories in the endless wars of social status as the highest priorities. The question the novel raises from the outset is this: In such a world, how can one live an authentic life?
So we have no difficulty in recognizing Julienís potential merits and sympathizing with his desire to escape and to create a better, more meaningful life for himself. The very fact that he has such desires and is prepared to act on them makes him, as I say, in some sense preferable to almost everyone around him. And to that extent, I suppose, we can admire something in him: his feelings about life are sufficiently strong to recognize that entering conventional life in Verrieres is to choose no real life at all (ďEverything he saw there chilled his imagination,Ē p. 19). He must escape, and yet the society he is in offers little alternatives. The penalties for not conforming are high.
And yet also right from the start we get a sense that Julienís priorities are in some way badly skewed. While his imaginative desire to live a greater life than any offered by Verrieres is understandable, it seems that Julien is unwilling to form his own sense of what he must do: instead he is going to take over an inherited dream: the achievements of Napoleon. Before he even starts out on his quest for a new achieved identity, we already know that, unlike Jane Eyre, heís not prepared to work that out for himself--heís in the grip of a vision produced by other peopleís books.
Then, too, thereís the paradox of his attitude to society. For Julien is fiercely ambitious socially. He has already made up his mind that, despicable as he finds his society, his goals are to rise up in that very society. And in many respects his final failure to achieve what Jane Eyre achieves is, I would maintain, linked directly to the fact that he sets himself inauthentic goals in the first place. The life that he sets about constructing for himself is based upon an unintelligent appreciation of how, in seeking self-validation through social success, he is going inexorably to become captive to a false vision--the ambition of being famous and rich, rather than being his own person.
Thatís what I mean when I stress that I find Julien in some basic way unintelligent. Full of Romantic yearnings to be his own person, he succumbs to the false ideals of nostalgic visions of Napoleon and getting on in high society--all as a means of compensating for his overwhelming sense of social inferiority. Thatís the main reason that I can feel great pity for him, because his background is so problematic, and yet in some basic way despise him, because he has no really intelligent grasp of what is at stake in constructing a valuable life.
Yet this feature of Julienís Romanticism makes this novel in many ways much more complex an examination of the Romantic spirit in modern society. Jane Eyre is, by contrast, a relatively uncomplicated soul, from an early age full of a natural courage, power, and confidence that she can take out into the world. She never doubts the values of the person she feels herself to be, and we never doubt that that self-creation is something she has achieved on her own. But Julienís sense of what he wants to become is not authentically self-generated--itís something he buys into, and it compromises his attempt to achieve a fully Romantic life.
Another way of saying the same thing is to claim that Julien has many skills but no real talents. For instance, he is very skilled with language and owes a good deal of his early social success to his ability in Latin. But his command of Latin is a trick of his memory; it doesnít arise from love of the language or a real feeling for what the Latin Vulgate Bible contains (from his awareness of any real value in the activity or ability itself). Unlike Jane Eyreís art, for example, Julienís skills are those of a mechanic who has no feeling at all for what people so admire in him. And the same is true with his ability to act and to deceive people. For all the minor victories he gains here and there, he takes no deeply personal joy in what he can do so well: his natural gifts are just something he discovers he can use to get what he wants. And his little triumphs enable him to confirm his hatred for everyone he sees all around him, rather than being joyful acknowledgments of his own person.
What this amounts to, I think, is that Julien, unlike Jane, has no strongly creative sense of self, of what he wants to be. He knows what he doesnít want to be, and whatever will help him avoid that is all right for the moment. If being a priest will get him ahead, then why not be a priest--it doesnít matter that he lacks any inner conviction of faith; being a tutor to young boys is all right, even if at first he detests the boys. Working oneís way up a society which one despises is all right if it gets one further away from what he doesnít want.
So itís no wonder that Julien becomes the perfect hypocrite--he doesnít care enough about anyone or anything in a sufficiently passionate way to make that the energizing force of his life. So he can hide what he feels inside while he gets on with the business of manipulating his way up the social ladder. His courage in forcing social situations to his apparent advantage, combined with his deceptively innocent exterior appearance, enables him to enjoy all sorts of minor victories which cumulatively lead to the seduction of Mme Renal and later to the advancement of his position in the Hotel de la Mole.
H. Hypocrisy and Interiority
This matter of hypocrisy is obviously important. For in much of the novel we are trying to follow a conversation between two people in which there are really several different selves involved. Julien presents a surface to the world; but that is not his real self. In fact, he spends much of his time trying to control, rearrange, and adapt his external appearance to fit the circumstances he is in. Underneath that surface there is the inner Julien, which is part heroic aspiration but also part the hesitant doubter, constantly wondering about the relationship of his inner state to his external appearance, questioning, doubting, resolving, and so on. The dynamic life of Julien is largely on the inside, but even that inner life is not a stable certain basis for a personality. Rather it is engaged in constant unresolved dialogue with itself.
Who, then, is the real Julien Sorel? Is it the surface man, whom so many people find interestingly different? Is it the Romantic visionary, dreaming of a self-realized Napoleonic grandeur? Is it the hesitant, adolescent doubter, always questioning, always on guard against a world it suspects is out to deceive, embarrass, and demote him? And if all three come into play, what is the relationship between them? Where is the authentic Julien in all this dynamic ambiguity?
His problem (and ours as readers) is compounded by the fact that the person he is talking to is often doing the same: concentrating on the most appropriate relationship between an inner self and an outer appearance. In the social world, the two surfaces are making contact, but neither inner person is altogether sure what that surface contact means.
We might be tempted to call Julien a Machiavellian because of his constant preoccupation with such hypocrisy: preparing a face to meet the faces that he meets. And thereís a good deal in that. However, unlike a conventional Machiavellian, thereís no strong self-confidence under Julienís surface, no sense of successful self-assertiveness. In a sense, his hypocrisy is as much a defense against having to reveal who he really is to the people he despises as it is anything else. Certainly it doesnít serve a ruthless power-seeking ego (as it does in, say, Edmund in King Lear).
In all of this there is a constant sense of how pathetic Julien really is. His vision of himself as a conquering hero in the Napoleonic mode translates itself into complex but endlessly hesitant, self-reflecting and unsatisfying love affairs which he describes to himself in military language, a style which simply reminds us just how unheroic these achievements are by comparison. And no matter what success he enjoys, he is constantly plagued by self-reflection, self-doubts. Have I done the right thing in my campaign for advancement? Shall I hold her hand? Maybe I should not have done that. If I show my feelings, will I lose the campaign? And so on. This is a very far cry from the confident romantic assertiveness that we saw in Jane Eyre--psychologically much more interesting, of course, but also far less of an affirmation of the emotional rightness of that attitude.
I. The Compromises of an Uncertain Hero
Given his compromised dreams for himself and the dubious methods Julien employs, it is not surprising that he ends up hopelessly compromising himself--becoming a servant of that very society which he so detests. This becomes clear at the end of Chapter 7 (p. 225), when Julien finds out that he has done a great injury to someone. He has used his position of influence at the Hotel de la Mole to change a particular appointment (simply to amuse himself), and he has discovered that, thanks to him, now a destitute family will be without income. At first he is stunned by his injustice, but he quickly rationalizes that moment away:
Itís nothing important, he told himself, there are plenty of other injustices which I will have to commit if Iím to be successful; and whatís more, Iíll have to conceal them under lofty, sentimental words. Poor M. Gros! He deserved the cross; I have it, and I must play along with the government that gave it to me.
This is a minor incident, but it invites us to speculate about what has happened to the young man who imagined himself so different, so above the petty compromises of the society, so much a radical spirit that he kept a portrait of Napoleon under his bed. We discover here that Julienís social ambition is hopelessly compromising his strong sense of Romantic value. And he has little trouble dealing with it, because he never had much of an intelligent sense of the difference between being authentically oneself and being successful in a very compromising society.
Later on, of course, he even ends up playing a key role in the reactionary treason which is going on, seeking to promote a counter revolution which will put back into full power the aristocracy and the priests--that is, to undermine the revolutionary work of his hero, Napoleon. Julien understands clearly enough what is at stake here, but he raises no protest and carries out his role. This is not just a Romantic disregard for political questions (although that might be a part of it); it is also a betrayal of everything Julien himself claimed not so long ago to believe in. Thus, we recognize that his identity, his desire to be his own person, has been taken over--whatever truly imaginative sense he had of lifeís possibilities has not been able to cope with his feelings of social inadequacy, his social ambition, and the delights of being a hypocrite.
J. Julien and Inauthenticity
There is, in other words, something deeply inauthentic about Julien. However much we may sympathize with his desire to be something better than the people he finds around him--both in Verrieres and in Paris--his desire for fame and status propels into conduct which violates those sources of himself which might put him fully in touch with what he really is. Because he is not secure enough about who he really is or might be, he serves false gods, and before the end we can say of him, as we can say of so many failed Romantics, including most rock Ďní roll singers ďHe got what he wanted, but he lost what he had.Ē
For Julien clearly has within him some germ of a much nobler possibility than the one he chooses to follow. We see this early in the novel in a number of places. There is, first, his ability to interact with nature, to respond to it in a way that really does lift his spirit in a truly Romantic way:
Why not spend the night here? he asked himself; I have a bit of bread, and I am free! His soul exulted in this grand phrase, his hypocrisy prevented his feeling free even with Fouque. Cradling his head in his hands [and looking out over the plain], Julien sat still in his cave, happier than he had ever been in his life, stirred only by his dreams and the delight of feeling free. Idly he watched the last rays of the sunset fade one by one from the heavens. In the midst of an immense darkness his soul wandered, lost in the contemplation of what awaited him some day in Paris. It would be, first of all, a woman, far more beautiful and of a more exalted genius than any he had ever been able to see in the provinces. He adored her; he was beloved in return. If he left her for only a few moments it was to cover himself with glory and thus merit even more of her devotion. (57)
We see in this passage how Julien cancels and turns away from true Romantic freedom, which is given to him by nature. Instead he uses the moment to indulge in dreams of social glory. His interest in the woman is not for any particular woman but for one so beautiful and so devoted that his life will seem a triumph compared to the provincial existence. He doesnít here have the central imaginative intelligence, so prominent in Wordsworth and Jane Eyre, to recognize that the freedom which makes him so happy has nothing to do with social success and everything to do with a much more challenging inner relationship with the world of nature.
Thatís all very well, one may say, but Julien cannot live in that cave forever. What is he supposed to do to realize his romantic ambitions for himself? What sort of opportunities for worthwhile self-creation for a person like Julien does that society afford? And the answer is, not very many, and none at all if the opportunities have also to include social fame, a beautiful society woman, and a life of ancient chivalry. Whatever else the authentic life is going to demand of Julien, itís not going to be compatible with his social ambitions. But these Julien is not going to give up, and because he is unwilling to give them up, he cannot see that there are some alternatives.
For there are people in this novel who try to live life on their own terms, without succumbing to the compromises of a corrupt society. These people are, without exception, either on the fringes or in danger. But they do exist. The Abbe Chelan, whom Julien admires, like his friend Fouque, hold out to him opportunities for a self-realized life. But the opportunities are not sufficiently grand for Julien. Like the freedom he feels in nature, the possibilities of friendship or a life dedicated to being a good priest do not satisfy his social ambitions. And so, just as Julien deceives himself about the feelings he has in nature, so he deceives the Abbe and Fouque. And Mme de Renal offers him love, but that is not enough for him, not at least until itís too late to do anything about it.
He cannot truly love, of course, because heís always too worried about the impression he is making, because he can never quite drop the mask he has adopted in order to advance his social ambitions: the possibilities for a genuinely meaningful emotional assertion of himself are constantly vitiated by his awareness of what other people might think. Rousseau in Discourse on Inequality mentions the oppressiveness of self-reflection, how that can rob us of our authenticity by making us unhappy about who we are. Julien Sorel is a text book case of what Rousseau is talking about.
And that, of course, marks a big difference between him and Jane Eyre. Because she is confident about who she is and the conception she wants realized in the world, she is not afraid of other people, especially of her friends, and she is never paralyzed with self≠reflection in the midst of a hostile society (although she is thinking about herself much of the time). She will determine who her friends are and the terms of the friendship, but she will not play the hypocrite because they do not offer her a sufficiently grand life. Of course, Jane is lucky: she discovers her friends and gets the inheritance at just the right time--to that extent the situation she is in is far less complex than Julienís. Still, in an important sense she is always true to herself in a way that Julien never is.
Julien himself is at times aware of this central deficiency in himself, his inability to live up to what he wants to be. But when he tries to wrestle with that problem, we discover that he doesnít have the intelligence fully to grasp the issue:
Like Hercules, he found himself faced with a choice, not between vice and virtue but between comfortable mediocrity and the heroic dreams of youth. Well, he said to himself, I donít really have a firm character after all--and this was the thought that caused him deepest pain. Iím not made of the stuff that goes into great men, since Iím afraid that eight years spent in money making will rob me of the sublime energy that goes into the doing of extraordinary deeds. (59)
This is an interesting admission--that he lacks sufficient greatness to take Fouqueís offer and remain true to his vision of himself. Jane Eyre never showed such hesitation: teaching at a school for years didnít compromise her sense of herself--that notion never enters into her consciousness. As we discover, Julienís idea of the doing of extraordinary deeds turns out to be fairly paltry and compromising. And that may be part of the real problem I alluded to earlier: lacking the intelligent self-confidence to understand what a great deed might be, Julien lives to perform one without having any idea where to look or what to do. Thus, he is forced to interpret the affairs he has with unsuspecting women as achievements worthy of Napoleonic significance.
For it is still possible in this world to strive for great deeds. The novel contains at least two characters who are living up to Napoleonic standards, who are carrying out the sort of heroic life for themselves that Julien once dreamed about: Count Altamira, who is under sentence of death for taking part in a liberal revolt in Spain, and Philip Vane, finishing off his seventh year in an English prison. Julien likes and admires both of these men; they stimulate him. But heís not about to take the way they live and what they live for as a serious option for him. He doesnít even consider that option--which indicates, as well as anything, just how much his heroic conception of himself is a literary creation rather than a truly experiential desire. Julien is far too timid to put his courage on the line for anything other than winning the next skirmish in an amorous intrigue.
So when we come to the question of whether or not we should like Julien because he is, well, somehow different from everyone else, that he has a source of vitality and imagination, however limited and misplaced, that no one else possesses, Iím not so sure that that provides sufficient cause for liking him. Itís true that the society around him is stifling, gradually killing itself with boredom relieved only by gossip and an occasional conspiracy. But Julienís way of conducting his life in such a setting strikes me as equally inadequate.
In fact, that is why I find this novel such a strong indictment against the culture it depicts. To live by a social standard is to condemn oneself to a trivial conformity and become a slave to convention, gossip, mercenary manipulations, and overwhelming boredom. But to seek to deal with that by some secret inner life, cleverly concealed and Romantically inspired, leads to a triviality equally dehumanizing. Julien may be active and successful, but what does that turn him into? He doesnít have the inner material out of which authentic Romantic heroes are made: he lacks the Right Stuff.
Alternatives to these two choices do exist, as I have mentioned, but they are on the fringes. And it may be that that is the best we can hope for in a culture where social ideals have become trivial conventions and Romantic aspiration self-defeating social ambition and inner irresolution. There doesnít appear to be much spontaneity, generosity, love, or honesty except on the fringes, among the Fouques and Chelans and Mme Renals, none of whom carries much social influence or weight.
Certainly if we take Julien as a sympathetic Romantic hero, this novel seems to be suggesting that the social world has no place for such an individual; his only recourse therefore is to, in effect, go underground, protecting himself with deception and hypocrisy. And yet, the novel suggests that in the process of doing this, the hero becomes infected with the very disease he is trying to keep at bay, and thus ends up hopelessly compromised. To protect his imagination, he has forfeited it. One guards oneís nobility in such a way that one loses any claims to being noble, except those that arise from a self-inflicted suicide.
This paints a fairly grim picture of the novel, and yet it is one I find myself responding to. Thatís because I donít see any redeeming merit to Julienís life in the ending. As I say, this is something we may want to argue about, because the ending is very elliptical: there are many things we want to know about Julienís motivation which we are simply not told. I personally read that last episode as the final futile illusion of a young innerly weak Romantic who comes to believe that he has reached a full understanding of life only because he no longer has to deal with it: he strikes me as a rather pathetic victim.
However, the end of the novel has been read in a number of different ways. Some see it giving Julien the stature of a tragic hero, whose unwillingness to compromise with his noble vision of himself costs him his life. That is rather different from how I picture him, but the novel has room for such conflicts of interpretation because in many ways Julienís character is rather elusive, particularly at the end. But a good deal of oneís view of Julien as a noble hero or pathetic victim or something else will depend upon the extent to which one senses in him a certain nobility of character (as, say, a defier of society or as a sensitive lover) throughout, something truer to his real nature that the crass social ambition so prominent in his life.
K. Romantic Irony: The Cancelled Cheque Technique: The Conclusion of the Novel
One feature of the novel which makes it difficult to decide finally on Julienís character is the constant presence of new form of irony (not new to Stendhal, but new in the Romantic period), what has come to be called Romantic Irony.
Irony, you will recall, refers to a figure of speech which has a particular surface meaning which is contradicted by the underlying or implied meaning. Normally irony will suggest that a particular expression is not quite what it appears to be. Romantic irony is a particular form of this technique in which we are offered what is apparently something solid and meaningful, only to have that apparent solidity questioned or removed. The most obvious forms of Romantic Irony occur on the stage, where typically something we have accepted for what it appears to be turns out to be something else (a typical technique occurs in Goetheís Faust, where a beautiful young women will suddenly reveal that she is a witch, or a handsome Greek god will take off his mask to reveal that he is Mephistopheles).
This technique of Romantic Irony, which you might like to think of as something like writing a cheque only to cancel it (that is, creating something of apparently firm value only to later reveal that it is worthless or at least not worth what it originally appeared to be), is a pronounced feature of modern style, as we shall see in the poetry of T. S. Eliot. In this novel, Stendhal uses the device again and again, just to keep the reader uncertain about what has really been achieved from one moment to the next.
A simple example would be a sentence like the following: I have discovered that the meaning of the best life for humanity is a good five cent cigar. Here you notice that the first part of the sentence creates the sense that we are leading up to a grand statement, pregnant with significance. An expectation is created that we are going to have delivered to us something we should attend to. Yet the final part of the sentence, in effect, cancels that expectation, or at least so qualifies it that we are not certain just what we have received in this statement. Is the author serious? Is he being flippant? sarcastic? pointlessly ironic? or what? We donít know.
Stendhalís novel is full of ironic moments--small and large--like this. As soon as we begin to sense something important developing in Julien, the emergence of something firm upon which we can build a favourable estimate of his character, doubts are cast upon that. For example, whenever Julien has an apparent triumph, especially with a woman, we quickly learn that he is very uncertain about what has really happened, full of doubts and hesitations--so that far from being a triumph the value of the event is deflated and left uncertain. And one of the main functions of the narrator is to provide a vehicle for such ironic deflation.
L. The Death of Julien: The Absence of Closure
The most obvious place where this Romantic irony is at work in this novel is in the final paragraphs, where any rising admiration we may have for Julienís ďheroismĒ in going to his death, is cryptically undercut in a curt, brutal way with the news of Julienís death, the actions of Mlle de la Mole with his head, and the death of Mme de Renal. What was beginning to look like an affirmation of sorts is so deflated by the news of its absurdist consequences that we are in double doubt as to how to interpret the ending.
If Stendhal had wanted to establish a clearly tragic ending, he no doubt could have done so by providing more details of Julienís inner state in those final pages and giving us a picture of his ďnobleĒ death. If Stendhal had wanted us to agree that the death of Julien is indeed just a trivial, futile gesture, he could have made that more obvious. Those certainties, however, are not there. What we do have is a section of the book which seems to suggest that Julien has discovered something really important in prison, so there is, I think, a rising sense of anticipation that something important about life is being affirmed. But in those final two or three paragraphs, Stendhal does not come through with the sort of affirmation we had been expecting (if we were anticipating a tragic ending to the novel). Instead the final things we learn about deflate the significance we had been anticipating.
This doesnít, of course, cancel out the possibilities of tragic grandeur for Julien, but it casts them in doubt. We are not certain at the end of the novel whether his death has been, like most of his life, the vain pursuit of a futile illusion or whether it has affirmed something important about life. We can (and no doubt will) argue about it, but Stendhal has, through his narratorís Romantic irony, made sure that there is not enough there for us to determine the issue clearly on the evidence of what is in the text.
The effect here, as in so much of the novel, is to introduce a radical ambiguity just where we most urgently require clarity--or at least enough unambiguous evidence to be confident about the conclusions we draw. Since we donít get that, the novel leaves us somewhat perplexed: Just what have this life and this death amounted to? In other words, we want closure. Of course, we can impose closure on the novel, but only if we provide something that isnít clearly there or choose to ignore something that is.
Romantic irony of this sort is a favourite device for communicating to the reader the radical instability of value in the consciousness of the modern individual (including the reader), who through endless self-reflection, moral uncertainty, and constant social hypocrisy never quite knows where he or she stands in relation to firm moral or emotional territory. The search for the authentic life gets dissolved in the lack of any solid ground inside the self upon which to start building. Such irony is thus a very pronounced feature of the modern style, since one of the growing facts of modern life which writers wish to address is the lack of emotional and rational certainty about the most serious questions of self, morality, and faith, and the ways in which our constant desire to focus upon the interior of our selves induces at last a sort of emotional paralysis. We are going to meet this technique again.
In that sense Red and Black is a very modern novel, and Julien Sorel is a very modern hero, one who desires above all else to live an authentic life but who, lacking any firm sense of what an authentic life might mean and sufficient intelligent self-confidence and emotional strength to create one (so that his inner sense of himself is plagued with constant doubts) and existing in a society from which all notions of heroic conduct have long disappeared, except as nostalgic memories of the Middle Ages, is incapable of constructing what he most desires. The radical ambiguity at the heart of Julien Sorel speaks to a radical instability in the modern character, which is no longer able to manifest heroic conduct, because of the self- and socially imposed contradictions within the human situation.