When talking about Stendhal’s The Red and The Black, I suppose it wouldn’t be untoward to look first at the actual story. After all, it is a thoroughly developed and interesting story, packed with vivid and human seeming characters.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for Norman Mailer, 6th for Joyce Carol Oates, 5th for Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and 4th for Elizabeth Spencer.)
In The Red and The Black, we have the poor but ambitious carpenter’s son, Julien Sorel. As the story progresses, Julien rises to become a tutor to a rich man’s children, falls in love, flees to study at a seminary, flees the intrigues of the seminary (and rises farther) to become another rich man’s secretary, falls in love again, and eventually falls from grace.
I don’t think I’m exactly giving away spoilers in saying the above. It isn’t like the basic plot of this book isn’t well known. Anyway, that quick summary is really far from giving away anything significant.
Regardless, impressed as I was with the overall story and characters, the most interesting aspect for me is how Stendhal twists human emotion and scheming together. The characters go about their passions in a scheming way at the same time that their passions drive their scheming thoughts.
For example, the wife of the provincial rich man who hired Julien to be his children’s tutor falls in love with Julien. Julien ends up falling desperately in love with her, but his first motivation is not love. Instead, he pursues Madam de Renal out of revenge:
When he went into the garden that evening, Julien was ready to listen with interest to the thoughts of the fair cousins. They awaited his coming with impatience. He took his accustomed seat, by Madame de Renal's side. The darkness soon became intense. He attempted to clasp a white hand which for some time he had seen close beside him, resting on the back of a chair. There was some hesitation shown, but finally the hand was withdrawn from him in a manner which betokened displeasure. Julien was prepared to regard this as final, and to continue the conversation in a light tone, when he heard M. de Renal approach. The rude words of the morning still rang in Julien's ears. 'Would it not,' he said to himself, 'be a good way of scoring off this creature, so lavishly endowed with every material advantage, to take possession of his wife's hand under his very eyes? Yes, I will do it, I, for whom he has shown such contempt.'
Later, the daughter of the Parisian noble who hired Julien as his secretary decides she is in love with him. She eventually does become as passionate about Julien as she believes, but she initially goes after him out of boredom:
Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: 'I have the good fortune to be in love,' she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of joy. 'I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti. They are perfect, too perfect perhaps; in short, they bore me.' She turned over in her mind all the descriptions of passion which she had read in Manon Lescaut, the Nouvelle Heloise, the Letters of a Portuguese Nun, and so forth. There was no question, of course, of anything but a grand passion; mere fleeting affection was unworthy of a girl of her age and birth. She bestowed the name of love only upon that heroic sentiment which was to be found in France in the days of Henri IV and Bassompierre. That love never basely succumbed to obstacles; far from it, it caused great deeds to be done. 'What a misfortune for me that there is not a real Court like that of Catherine de' Medici or Louis XIII! I feel that I am equal to everything that is most daring and great. What should I not do with a King who was a man of feeling, like Louis XII, sighing at my feet! I should lead him to the Vendee, as Baron de Tolly is always saying, and from there he would reconquer his Kingdom; then no more talk of a Charter ... and Julien would aid me. What is it that he lacks? A name and a fortune. He would make a name for himself, he would acquire a fortune.
Usually writers seem to pick one of these to dominate, but in The Red and The Black all this scheming and passion seems hopelessly intertwined and completely inseparable. Are these people ruled by their scheming, or their passions? Perhaps they can’t stop scheming any more than they can prevent themselves from being ruled by their emotions.
Now, I don’t know if this was Stendhal’s intent. Regardless, this is what made the novel fascinating for me. It was substantially more complex than I had been expecting. The story and characters are wonderfully done, but the interplay between these themes entranced me. It easily kept me reading all the way through The Red and The Black.