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The Red and the Black

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The Red and the Black

Le Rouge et le Noir
illustration from an 1884 edition
Henri Dubouchet's illustration for an 1884 edition of Le Rouge et le Noir, Paris: L. Conquet
Author Stendhal (Henri Beyle)
Original title Le Rouge et le Noir
Country France
Language French
Genre Psychological novel, Bildungsroman
Publisher A. Levasseur
Publication date
November 1830
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 2 vol.
ISBN 0-521-34982-6 (published before the ISBN system)
OCLC 18684539
843/.7 19
LC Class PQ2435.R72 H35 1989
Text Le Rouge et le Noir at Wikisource

Le Rouge et le Noir (French pronunciation: ​; French for The Red and the Black) is a historical psychological novel in two volumes by Stendhal, published in 1830.[1] It chronicles the attempts of a provincial young man to rise socially beyond his modest upbringing through a combination of talent, hard work, deception, and hypocrisy—who ultimately allows his passions to betray him.

The novel’s full title, Le Rouge et le Noir: Chronique du XIXe siècle (The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th Century),[2] indicates its two-fold literary purpose as both a psychological portrait of the romantic protagonist, Julien Sorel, and an analytic, sociological satire of the French social order under the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30). In English, Le Rouge et le Noir is variously translated as Red and Black, Scarlet and Black, and The Red and the Black, without the sub-title.[3]

The title refers to the tension between the clerical and secular interests of the protagonist, which is a matter of some debate.[4]


  • Background 1
  • Plot 2
    • Book I 2.1
    • Book II 2.2
  • Structure and themes 3
  • Literary and critical significance 4
  • Translations 5
  • Burned in 1964 Brazil 6
  • Film adaptations 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


Le Rouge et le Noir is the Bildungsroman of Julien Sorel, the intelligent and ambitious protagonist. He comes from a poor family[1] and fails to understand much about the ways of the world he sets out to conquer. He harbours many romantic illusions, but becomes mostly a pawn in the political machinations of the ruthless and influential people about him. The adventures of the hero satirize early 19th-century French society, especially the hypocrisy and materialism of the aristocracy and members of the Roman Catholic Church, foretelling the coming radical changes that will depose them from their leading role in French society.

The first volume’s epigraph is attributed to Danton: "La vérité, l’âpre vérité" (“The truth, the harsh truth”), but like most of the chapter epigraphs it is actually fictional. The first chapter of each volume repeats the title Le Rouge et le Noir and the Chronique de 1830 sub-title. The novel’s title refers to the contrasting uniforms of the Army and the Church. Early in the story, Julien Sorel realistically observes that under the Bourbon restoration it is impossible for a man of his plebeian social class to distinguish himself in the army (as he might have done under Napoleon), hence only a Church career offers social advancement and glory.

In complete editions, the first book ("Livre premier", ending after Chapter XXX) concludes with the quotation "To the Happy Few", a dedication that refers to The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, parts of which he had memorized in the course of teaching himself English. In The Vicar of Wakefield, "the happy few" refers ironically to the small number of people who read the title character's obscure and pedantic treatise on monogamy.[5]

Beyond that, "the happy few" conjures up the lines from Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech in Shakespeare;s "Henry V"--"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...."


In two volumes, The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th Century tells the story of Julien Sorel’s life in a monarchic society of fixed social class.

Book I

Book I presents Julien Sorel, the ambitious son of a carpenter in the fictional village of Verrières, in Franche-Comté, France. He would rather read and daydream about the glory days of Napoleon's long-disbanded army than work his father’s timber business with his brothers, who beat him for his intellectual affectations.[1] He becomes an acolyte of the abbé Chélan, the local Catholic prelate, who later secures him a job tutoring the children of Monsieur de Rênal, the mayor of Verrières. Although he appears to be a pious, austere cleric, Julien is uninterested in the Bible beyond its literary value and how he can use memorised passages (learnt in Latin) to impress important people.

He enters a love affair with Monsieur de Rênal’s wife, which ends when it is revealed to the village by her chambermaid, Elisa, who is also in love with Julien. The abbé Chélan orders Julien to a seminary in Besançon, which he finds intellectually stifling and pervaded with social cliques. The initially cynical seminary director, the abbé Pirard (a Jansenist even more hated than Jesuits within the diocese), likes Julien and becomes his protector. Disgusted by the Church’s political machinations, the abbé Pirard leaves the seminary, first rescuing Julien from the persecution he would have suffered as his protégé, by recommending him as private secretary to the diplomat Marquis de la Mole, a Roman Catholic legitimist.

Book II

Book II takes place in the years leading up to the July Revolution of 1830. During this time Julien Sorel lives in Paris as an employee of the de la Mole family. Despite his moving among high society and his intellectual talents, the family and their friends condescend to Julien for being an uncouth plebeian. Meanwhile, Julien is acutely aware of the materialism and hypocrisy that permeate the Parisian élite, and that the counter-revolutionary temper of the time renders it impossible for even well-born men of superior intellect and аеsthetic sensibility to participate in the nation's public affairs.

The Marquis de la Mole takes Julien to a secret meeting, then despatches him on a dangerous mission to communicate a letter (Julien has it memorised) to the Duc d'Angouleme, who is exiled in England; however, the callow Julien is mentally distracted by an unsatisfying love affair, and thus only learns the message by rote, missing its political significance as a legitimist plot. Unwittingly, he risks his life in service to the right-wing monarchists he most opposes; to himself, he rationalises these actions as merely helping the Marquis, his employer, whom he respects.

Meanwhile, the Marquis’s bored daughter, Mathilde de la Mole, has become emotionally torn between her romantic attraction to Julien, for his admirable personal and intellectual qualities, and her social repugnance at becoming sexually intimate with a lower-class man. At first, he finds her unattractive, but his interest is piqued by her attentions and the admiration she inspires in others; twice, she seduces and rejects him, leaving him in a miasma of despair, self-doubt, and happiness (for having won her over her aristocratic suitors). Only during his secret mission does he gain the key to winning her affections: a cynical jeu d’amour (game of love) taught to him by Prince Korasoff, a Russian man-of-the-world. At great emotional cost, Julien feigns indifference to Mathilde, provoking her jealousy with a sheaf of love-letters meant to woo Madame de Fervaques, a widow in the social circle of the de la Mole family. Consequently, Mathilde sincerely falls in love with Julien, eventually revealing to him that she carries his child; despite this, whilst he is on diplomatic mission in England, she becomes officially engaged to Monsieur de Croisenois, an amiable, rich young man, heir to a duchy.

Learning of Julien’s romantic liaison with Mathilde, the Marquis de la Mole is angered, but relents before her determination and his affection for Julien, and bestows upon Julien an income-producing property attached to an aristocratic title, and a military commission in the army. Although ready to bless their marriage, he changes his mind after receiving the reply to a character-reference-letter he wrote to the abbé Chélan, Julien’s previous employer in the village of Verrières; the reply letter, written by Madame de Rênal—at the urging of her confessor priest—warns the Marquis that Julien Sorel is a social-climbing cad who preys upon emotionally vulnerable women.

On learning of the Marquis’s disapproval of the marriage, Julien Sorel travels back to Verrières and shoots Madame de Rênal during Mass in the village church; she survives, but Julien is imprisoned and sentenced to death. Mathilde tries to save him by bribing local officials, and Madame de Rênal, still in love with Julien, refuses to testify and asks for his acquittal. Despite this, along with the efforts of priests who have looked after him since his early childhood, Julien Sorel is determined to die because the materialist society of Bourbon Restoration France will not accommodate a low-born man of superior intellect and æsthetic sensibility who possesses neither money nor social connections.

Meanwhile, the presumptive duke, Monsieur de Croisenois, one of the fortunate few of Bourbon France, is killed in a duel fought over a slur upon the honour of Mathilde de la Mole. Her undiminished love for Julien, his imperiously intellectual nature, and its component romantic exhibitionism, render Mathilde’s prison visits to him a duty.

When Julien learns he did not kill Madame de Rênal, his genuine love for her is resurrected—having lain dormant throughout his Parisian time—and she continues to visit him in jail. After he is guillotined, Mathilde de la Mole re-enacts the cherished 16th-century French tale of Queen Margot, who visited her dead lover, Joseph Boniface de La Mole, to kiss the lips of his severed head. She makes a shrine of his tomb in the Italian fashion. Madame de Rênal, more quietly, dies in the arms of her children.

Structure and themes

Le Rouge et le Noir is set in the latter years of the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30) and the days of the 1830 July Revolution that established the Kingdom of the French (1830–48). Julien Sorel’s worldly ambitions are motivated by the emotional tensions, between his idealistic Republicanism (especially nostalgic allegiance to Napoleon), and the realistic politics of counter-revolutionary conspiracy, by Jesuit-supported legitimists, notably the Marquis de la Mole, whom Julien serves, for personal gain. Presuming a knowledgeable reader, the novelist Stendhal only alludes to the historical background of Le Rouge et le Noir—yet did sub-title it Chronique de 1830 (“Chronicle of 1830”). Moreover, the reader wishing an exposé of the same historical background might wish to read Lucien Leuwen (1834), one of Stendhal’s un-finished novels, posthumously published in 1894.

Stendhal repeatedly questions the possibility, and the desirability, of “sincerity”, because most of the characters, especially Julien Sorel, are acutely aware of having to play a role to gain social approval. In that 19th-century context, the word “hypocrisy” denoted the affectation of high religious sentiment; in The Red and the Black it connotes the contradiction between thinking and feeling.

In Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, 1961, (Deceit, Desire and the Novel) philosopher and critic René Girard identifies in Le Rouge et le Noir the triangular structure he denominates as “mimetic desire”, which reveals how a person’s desire for another is always mediated by a third party, i.e. one desires a person only when he or she is desired by someone else. Girard’s proposition accounts for the perversity of the Mathilde–Julien relationship, especially when he begins courting the widow Mme de Fervaques to pique Mathilde’s jealousy, but also for Julien’s fascination with and membership of the high society he simultaneously desires and despises. To help achieve a literary effect, Stendhal wrote some of the epigraphs—literary, poetic, historic quotations—that he attributed to others.

Literary and critical significance

André Gide said that The Red and the Black was a novel ahead of its time, that it was a novel for readers in the 20th century. In Stendhal’s time, prose novels included dialogue and omniscient narrator descriptions; his great contribution to literary technique was describing the psychologies (feelings, thoughts, interior monologues) of the characters, and as a result he is considered the creator of the psychological novel.

In Jean-Paul Sartre's play Les Mains Sales (1948), the protagonist Hugo Barine suggests pseudonyms for himself, including “Julien Sorel”, whom he resembles.

Joyce Carol Oates stated in the Afterword to her novel them that she originally titled the manuscript Love and Money as a nod to classic 19th century novels, among them, The Red and The Black "whose class-conscious hero Julien Sorel is less idealistic, greedier, and crueler than Jules Wendell but is clearly his spiritual kinsman".


Le Rouge et le Noir, Chronique du XIXe siècle (1830) was first translated to English c. 1900; the best-known translation, The Red and the Black (1926), by Charles Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff, has been, like his other translations, characterised as one of his “fine, spirited renderings, not entirely accurate on minor points of meaning . . . Scott Moncrieff’s versions have not really been superseded”.[6] The version by Robert M. Adams, for the Norton Critical Editions series, is also highly regarded; it “is more colloquial; his edition includes an informative section on backgrounds and sources, and excerpts from critical studies”;[7] it is modernized compared to Moncrieff, but also contains many errors on detailed points. Burton Raffel’s 2006 translation for the Modern Library generally earned positive reviews, with saying, “[Burton Raffel’s] exciting new translation of The Red and the Black blasts Stendhal into the twenty-first century.” Michael Johnson, writing in the New York Times, said, "Now ‘The Red and the Black‘ is getting a new lease on life with an updated English-language version by the renowned translator Burton Raffel. His version has all but replaced the decorous text produced in the 1920s by the Scottish-born writer-translator C.K. Scott-Moncrieff.”

Burned in 1964 Brazil

Following the 1964 Brazilian coup d'état, General Justino Alves Bastos, commander of the Third Army, ordered, in Rio Grande do Sul, the burning of all "subversive books". Among the books he branded as subversive was The Red and the Black.[8]

Film adaptations

  • A BBC TV mini-series in five episodes The Scarlet and the Black, was made in 1965, starring John Stride, June Tobin, and Karin Fernald.

See also


  1. ^ a b c  
  2. ^ The Red and the Black, by Stendhal, C. K. Scott-Moncrief, trans., 1926, p. xvi.
  3. ^ Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition, (1996) p. 859.
  4. ^ Red and Black?
  5. ^ Martin Brian Joseph. Napoleonic Friendship: Military Fraternity, Intimacy, and Sexuality in Nineteenth- Century France. UPNE, 2011, p. 123
  6. ^ The Oxford guide to Literature in English translation, by Peter France, p. 276.
  7. ^ Stendhal: the red and the black, by Stirling Haig, Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-521-34982-6, and ISBN 978-0-521-34982-6.
  8. ^ E. Bradford Burns, A History of Brazil, Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 451.


  • Burt, Daniel S. The Novel 100. Checkmark Books, 2003. ISBN 0-8160-4558-5

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
  •  French Wikisource has original text related to this article: The Red and the Black
  • Le Rouge et Le Noir at Project Gutenberg
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