By light satire, I of course mean stylistically, not necessarily thematically. The Red and the Black chides every social stratum of France to be found in 1830, Stendahl claiming that almost every living Frenchman (and Englishman, via an amusing chapter set in London) is a hypocrite. This hypocrisy has real results on real people's lives, but nobody is interested in becoming better and thus creating a better world. The protagonist of the novel, Julien Sorel, makes it a point to live hypocritically, and every so often when his situation changes, "he had to construct an entirely new character for himself." New because Julien attempts to act in ways that will materially benefit him, ways that run counter to his actual (quite low) opinions of the people who are his benefactors. Julien believes that if he is his true self he will be despised and therefore starve to death. The irony of this is that Julien's true self is pretty awful; he's not the sublime and proud work of art he imagines himself to be. He's a petty and prideful little man who just happens to be good looking and was taught Latin at an early age by a generous curate. Julien is certainly not Candide either, for all The Red and the Black's debt to Voltaire (and Voltaire is mentioned frequently in the novel). Candide was an innocent; Julien is naive (or provincial, as the author will tell you at some length), but he is by no means pure and good.
In the nineteenth century when an influential man of good family meets a man of spirit, in the ordinary course of events he either has him put to death, condemned to exile or imprisonment, or humiliates him in such a way that the fellow is foolish enough to die of grief. In this instance, by chance, the man of spirit is not the one to suffer.Julien has been taken in by M. Renal, the mayor of a provincial town, as a teacher of Latin for his sons. Julien resents being treated as a servant (though he was regularly beaten by his father, who worked him at a saw mill, and so Julien's fortunes are markedly improved by this new position). He resents his social/economic place beneath the coarse and shallow M. Renal, and to revenge himself Julien seduces Madame Renal, the mayor's wife. The results are predictable and farcical, and Julien must eventually flee this employment. He is lucky to receive a scholarship to a seminary in the provincial capital. He immediately alienates his 200 fellow seminarians, and sees the whole project of organized religion as just another form of hypocrisy and self-serving greed. Being a self-serving greedy hypocrite, Julien works to be successful while despising everyone around him. At some point Julien is taken out of the seminary to work for the Marquis de la Mole in Paris. There, Julien is raised in station yet again, resents the world around him, and essentially the same series of events unfolds as happened in the Renal household. At least Julien learns to ride a horse in Paris.
I was just about to say that it's difficult to sustain satire for 500 pages, but what might be more accurate would be to say that I find it difficult as a reader to sustain interest in a 500-page satire. The novel is a bit of a picaresque in the way that Dickens' novels are picaresques: a character is followed as he interacts with a variety of other characters who represent the author's ideas of social classes or types. As such, the interest is primarily in the satire of the various social types, and the plot is repetitive. Julien finds a niche, fails to fit in, and must find another niche. And again. And again. Everyone he meets is corrupt in some way. This, I agree, follows the pattern of Candide, but Voltaire's novel was mercifully short. The Red and the Black is not short, and because it's built on a repetitive pattern, you can see the plot creaking along as it points you to actions you've long predicted. Some eye-rolling and sighing has been involved in the reading of this novel.
Why, my good sir, a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below. And the man who carries the mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror reflects the mire, and you blame the mirror! Blame rather the high road on which the puddle lies, and still more the inspector of roads and highways who lets the water stand there and the puddle form.That defense of the vulgar actions Stendahl's characters perform follows on the heels of the author's claim that his characters are "wholly drawn from imagination, and conceived as being well outside those social habits which will assure the nineteenth century so distinguished a place amongst all other centuries." Good one, Stendahl. This is a highly quotable novel, full of pithy paragraphs. It's not a great thing in toto, but it's pretty good and worth having read. It will probably be a few years before I take The Charterhouse of Parma down from the shelf, though.
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