Stendhal wrote The Red and the Black with a twofold intention. The first is to present a psychological portrayal of an ambitious provincial young man of lower birth who attempts to climb the social ladder through a combination of talent, hard work, deception, and hypocrisy. The second is to chronicle the French social order under the Bourbon Restoration. The First French Empire under the rule of Napoleon made it possible for any Frenchman, irrespective of his birth, to rise in the social scale by mere talent and military prowess. However, the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons once again restored the division between the aristocracy and plebians. This was clearly detrimental to those ambitious men who cannot change their birth. Stendhal’s story of Julien Sorel clearly demonstrates the tragic consequences of this division.
The protagonist, Julien Sorel, is an anti-hero with contradictory character traits. His constant contradictory actions and thoughts made him an enigma to decipher. When you start feeling that he is sincere, he dares you with his cunning, manipulative, and wicked action. Julien Sorel is a subtle devil with an angelic countenance and a remarkable memory that wins him acclamation among ladies of high society whom he remorselessly uses to consolidate his social position. It was impossible for me to like him. But I didn’t dislike him either, although his antics annoyed me. Rather, I was indifferent to him. I didn’t condone his actions, nor did I blame him for them for Stendhal has cleverly established why Julien had to do what he did. He was a plebian, and without the favour of the nobility, he couldn’t rise himself. Maddened by ambition, he trades his goodness to villainy.
Although I liked Stendhal’s premise and appreciated his indignance on behalf of the underprivileged, I miserably failed to be properly invested in the story or to connect with its characters. I tried three different translations, but none helped me to fully connect with the novel. It was also a bit too melodramatic for my taste, and so, I was a mere passive reader who was enjoying a historical account than a story. It was rather disappointing for I waited to read this masterpiece of Stendhal for quite a long time. Anyhow, I’m glad to say that I liked it overall.