Stendhal's first success as a novelist, Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) follows the social ascent and ultimate fall of peasant adventurer Julien Sorel. In this is follows the tradition of the roman d'apprentissage, well-established in the 18th century by such works as Les Egarements du cœur et de l'esprit, and Le Paysan parvenu. Unlike the authors of these earlier books, Stendhal makes the novel self-referencing; some of the characters seem to deliberately try to pattern their lives after novels they have read. (Flaubert picks up this trend in Madame Bovary.) Mathilde de la Mole, in particular, seems to think her destiny is to live out a Dumas adventure. Stendhal uses an outdated form with characters who are almost aware that they are living in a novel to portray and expose the outdated and self-conscious regime of his time: France under the Bourbon Restoration.
The novel opens with a description of the small town of Verrières, in the Jura. The mayor of this town, M. de Rênal, is an ultraroyalist, or ultra, who seeks any means of distinguishing his status in society. With this in mind, he hires Julien Sorel, son of a carpenter, to be his children's preceptor. Julien is a remarkable young provincial; he has memorized the entire New Testament in Latin, but he is not a priest (although his employer makes him dress as one). Julien is a hypocrite; he affects a priestly demeanor and conservative views, but in fact he is an unbeliever, an admirer of Napoleon, who imagines a great destiny for himself. A career in the church is simply his means of arriving. When a self-conscious affair with his employer's wife becomes dangerous, he is transferred to the seminary in Besançon, where he becomes acquainted with ecclesiastics who have connections with the aristocracy. Eventually he finds himself the secretary of the marquis de La Mole, a member of the Ancien Régime nobility and ultra-royalist. Because of his strange character and indifference to his splendid setting, he attracts the eye of Mathilde, the daughter of the marquis, and they elope. The marquis is prepared to endow Julien with titles and lands, to lessen the disgrace of his daughters mésalliance, but a letter from Mme de Rênal exposes Julien's past. Furious, Julien fires on her in Besançon cathedral, and is captured and condemned to death.
Julien Sorel is the dominant character of this novel, and the reader knows his mind better than any other character, although we often know what others are thinking. Julien is a person who never fits his place and time, and only by dissembling does he move about society with any success. His father and brothers reject him for being delicate and bookish, but he is no more at home with the rich M. de Rênal, whom Julien rightly perceives to be reactionary and ignorant — Rênal only employs him for reasons of status. When he transfers to the seminary, he is no better off. Not only does he have difficulty fitting in with the other seminarians, but he is honest with himself about his disbelief: he is entering the church only as a career move, and not from any spiritual vocation. Beyond everything else, Julien is a Bonapartist during the Restoration, a fact which he must keep secret above all else. He craves the adventure and glory of the Napoleonic era, when he might have made his fortune through military exploits. Unfortunately, France is a different place in the 1820's, and he surmises that the church is the only avenue of success for someone of low birth.
The marquis de La Mole, Julien's employer, is an immensely rich and powerful nobleman, who grew up before the Revolution, and who fled France with the émigrés. He is a member of the ultras, a semi-secret political party whose goal is the removal of the Charter, a sort of constitution promulgated by Louis XVIII in 1814. (The Charter, although monarchist, accepts many of the changes wrought by the Revolution, and provides for some level of representative government). He becomes fond of Julien, and even treats him as something of a favorite, but he justifies this to himself by comparing it to the favoritism he might show one of his spaniels.
Mathilde de La Mole forms an unexpected partner for Julien. Beautiful, proud, and bored, she reigns in young Parisian society. Like her father, and like Julien, she looks to the past. In her case, she dreams of the reign of Charles IX, for it was in this time period that her ancestor, Boniface de La Mole (and reputed lover of Marguerite de Valois), engaged in heroic exploits during the French Wars of Religion. She compares the vigorous nobility of the 16th century with the complacent, fearful, static nobility of her own time. The contradictions in her character are complex: although proud of her birth, she disdains the nobles around her for being backward-looking cowards, but to find the dynamic aristocrats she admires, she herself must look further back in time than her contemporaries. Mathilde incarnates the conservative Romantic, who sees in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance a time when life was lived and felt more keenly. Initially, she is attracted to Julien because he seems indifferent to her charms, but when she discovers that he shares her longing for heroism and adventure, a true passion develops. She is also as paradoxical as Julien about social status. When she reveals the affair to her father, she threatens her father with publicly wearing mourning as "the widow Sorel" (la veuve Sorel), but when he consents to the marriage and gives Julien a noble title, she thanks her father for saving her from the disgrace of the name Sorel.
This novel is dense in themes. On the surface, it can be read as a commentary on the political and social atmosphere of Restoration France, a political regime that satisfied no one, neither liberals nor conservatives. Julien's privileged position near M. de La Mole gives us a peek at the reactionary agenda of the ultras, but he also has contacts with liberals, who engage him to spy on La Mole. Julien's character assumes within itself the diverse types that figured in the French political mind at the time: he presents himself first as a priest, then as a secretary to a leader of the ultras, while harboring a secret desire to be a hero of the Napoleonic mold. Mathilde, on the other hand, sees in him both a Boniface de La Mole and a Danton. The very instability of his image, both inwardly and outwardly is a reflection of the instability of the régimes of 19th-century France. Did Stendhal predict the July Revolution? Or even the Second Empire? Julien contains elements of the Republican, the Bonapartist, and the Royalist within himself. If an individual cannot distinguish them, how can a nation?
Literature, of course, cannot be reduced to historical commentary. If we situate Le Rouge et Le Noir within literature, we see that the novel employs some of the language and themes of Romanticism without fully embracing the movement. In particular, it relies on the Romantic exaltation of the individual and the inner life. The novel plays as a struggle between Julien the individual, and the system that he must negotiate in order to survive. The other characters are individuals too, but as this is Julien's story, we follow him rather than anyone else. Julien's true self is repeatedly masked by various personae as he tries to succeed in a society where he feels ultimately utterly alien. He also keenly watches as others do this: he is surprised to see the bishop of Agde praticing making the sign of the cross in a mirror. Julien's need to conceal his true inner self is accompanied by a scorn for himself, a scorn which he projects onto the world. He assumes that the world at large disdains him as much as he disdains himself, and therefore he rejects everything before him, even as he pretends to embrace it. Only when the veil is torn and he is facing death does he act with what Sartre might call authenticity.
A simple review cannot do justice to a work that has inspired volumes. Le Rouge et Le Noir is truly one of the great works of French literature, even of world literature. It is a gripping story, a realist psychological study, a portrait of a historical period. Although I have not read any English translation of it, the Modern Library Classics edition comes highly recommended.