A bleak yet somehow charming and in the end complex satire of hypocrisy in love and politics (of all kinds) during the Restoration Era in France.
Julien Sorel, the hero of Stendahl’s tale, starts out life as the apparently very intelligent and physically abused son of an ignorant carpenter. He is befriended by the parish priest who instructs him through enough schooling (in Latin and Bible studies mostly, I think) to get him a position as a tutor in the home of the rich local mayor.
This works nicely until Julien falls in love with the mayor’s wife and creates jealousy in others. Julien really puts on a lot of snobbish airs at first. He has not learned the fine art of hypocrisy – but he’s bright, he’ll figure it out. Also, the mayor has enemies who want to use him and/or get revenge which complicates matters. The love is reciprocated but eventually Julien has to leave and go into the seminary.
There, too, Julien faces jealousy, bullying and being a pawn in a battle between factions. Another opportunity for him to learn the social and career-building bases of French manners. Fortunately, he is befriended by one influential man and ends up with a transfer to a higher position.
But the love affair with Mrs. mayor is not yet concluded – Julien sneaks off to see her, spends the night and escapes to Paris.
Part 2 –
In Paris he gets an even better job, as the assistant to the Marquis de la Mole, a wealthy and powerful aristocrat with a beautiful daughter, Mathilde. Paris upper class society is the most hypocritical of all and Julien learns its ways and advances in his position. He attracts the notice of Mathilde and again falls in love.
And the games of love and war begin. Julien is in love but if he shows it, he will lose his beloved to scorn. He has political missions to undertake for the Marquis and learns more about winning the heart of his beloved. The story continues with very interesting twists and turns – what are the costs of such ambition and hypocrisy? What does all this have to do with the clergy, the military and politics of Restoration France? ( The Red and the Black) A lot!
Stendahl’s book is the first novel to try to focus on the interior of the human psyche providing an emotional texture which is really superb. But while he does this he never lets the reader identify too closely with Julien or any other character – the reader always wonders about the motives and this wondering creates distance. To me, it definitely felt like the republican (Napoleonic) Stendahl used Julien’s voice to make his own political statement.