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Literature / The Red and the Black

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“La vérité, l’âpre vérité”
Danton ''note 

The Red and the Black is a famous novel of the French author Stendhal, dealing with the society of France in the 19th century.

Julien Sorel is a young dreamer, preferring to read his books and daydream about Napoleon than to do something useful for his family. He becomes an acolyte and then obtains a job as a tutor in the prestigious house of Monsieur de Rênal, mayor of Verrières. However, he pays less attention to the Bible than to the mayor’s wife.

Soon he finds involved in the political turmoil of the age and starts being manipulated by all kinds of factions, just as he’s trying to forget Madame de Rênal and starts trying to court the daughter of his new boss, Mathilde de la Mole.

Of course, things go downhill from there.

This book was one of John F. Kennedy's favorites.

This book has examples of:

  • Abusive Parents
  • Agony of the Feet: Julien is so nervous during his first meeting with the marquis that, between other mistakes, accidentally steps on his foot. Of course, the marquis’ opinion of him wasn’t the most high after that, especially considering he had gout.
  • Ambition Is Evil
  • Anguished Declaration of Love
  • Anti-Hero: Julien.
  • Betty and Veronica: Madame de Rênal and Mathilde de la Mole, respectively.
  • The Casanova: Julien.
  • Color Motif: Julien’s clothes are almost always black, which makes him stand easily on a crowd. Contrast it with the red clothes of the army which are ubiquous around him.
  • Coming of Age Story: Julien leaves the nest, climbs his way to the top using talent, hard work and hypocrisy and learns that nothing is as nice as it seems.
  • Corrupt Church: The church, with some individual exceptions, is generically composed of hypocrites pulling political threads in the shadows.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mathilde.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Julien gets distracted by an unsuccessful love affair of the letter he has to memorize to deliver it (he can’t get caught with it, so he can’t have it written). He manages to memorize it, but as a result of his distraction doesn’t get the subtext of the legitimist plot in it, the very faction he opposes.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Played with, as the reader is meant to see Julien as this when he is able to happily go to the guillotine after finally renouncing his Holier Than Thou persona and religion in general, and being authentic for the first time, despite the fact that society as a whole likely views him as scum.
  • Double-Meaning Title: There isn't a confirmed explanation on what "red" and "black" should exactly mean. The most commonly accepted interpretation is that the title refers to the Army and the Church, whose members at the time respectively wore red uniforms and black garments, as the two careers that Julien considers to advance his social status. Other views associate them to Julien's two main lovers (Madame de Rênal wears the red clothing of a married woman, while Mathilde is said to go around in a widow's black mourning robes), or to the red and black of a roulette wheel as a metaphor for the gambles Julien takes in his life.
  • Duel to the Death: Monsieur de Croisenois fights on a duel for Mathilde's honour. He loses. Julien gets himself on a duel too, but though he loses, he doesn’t die.
  • Elective Broken Language: Julien and Mathilde talk like that as a part of their playful banter.
    "And how me go 'way?" Julien said wryly, assuming a Creole accent. (One of the chambermaids had been born in San Domingo)
    You, you’ll leave by the door,” said Mathilde, fascinated by the idea.
  • Epigraph: All the chapters have epigraphs of well-known writers or others that sound like smart guys. Many of them were invented by Stendhal (like the one at the top).
  • Evil Jesuit: Averted with the abbé Pirard. Played straight with the rest.
  • Foreshadowing: When Julien is departing to the seminary, he gives one last look at the bell tower of Virrieres’ church. It’s the same church where Julien tries to kill Madame de Rênal at the climax of the story.
  • Gratuitous English: Some of the epigraphs are in untranslated English. In a straighter (albeit meta) example, it seems that Stendhal occasionally liked to insert English words into French sentences for no apparent reason. The notes he wrote on the blank pages following the end of Book I in his copy of the work illustrate this.
    Excerpt: "20 mai 1830. Je consign le 7e sheet of Le Rouge."note 
  • Gratuitous Latin: Julien can impress people citing memorized passages of the Bible in Latin. He pays little attention to the holy book beyond that.
  • Hypocrite: Almost everybody. Julien sees and hates the hypocrisy of the upper class, but he’s as guilty as them of that, even though he doesn’t see it.
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You
  • It's All About Me: Julien only cares about how things reflect on himself.
  • Longing Look: When Mathilde starts finding Julien interesting, she keeps sending him looks, expecting to catch his attention. He barely realizes at first, mainly because of his dislike of her upbringing.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Crazy enough to try to kill his former lover in public.
  • Mistress and Servant Boy: The protagonist Julien Sorel and the mayor's wife Madame de Rênal have this sort of dynamic between them. Downplayed, since it was him who seduced her in the first place, and she couldn't stop feeling guilty about their affair.
  • No Title: The last four chapters don’t have titles at all.
  • The Noun and the Noun
  • Off with His Head!: Julien.
  • Pride: Present in almost all the characters, including the three main protagonists. In fact, it’s Julien’s pride that moves much of the plot.
  • Rags to Riches
  • Sexy Priest: Julien, though technically he only gets to be an acolyte.
  • Slipping a Mickey
  • Smart People Know Latin: Subverted. All the rich people know some Latin from their education and use it to gloat, but that’s the extension of their knowledge. Julien is even worse: he’s hired by the Mayor because he can quote the Bible in Latin verbatim… but that’s all he knows about the language.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank
  • Traumatic Haircut: Self-inflicted by Mathilda.
  • Tsundere: Mathilde, especially toward Julien. She also displays some Yandere qualities. Madame de Rênal, too.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Julien Sorel.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Julien is used in a legitimist plot against his better judgment.
  • Vow of Celibacy: The title is sometimes held to refer to the ambitious protagonist's choice between civil and clerical avenues of advancement (although even among those who accept this explanation of the title, there's disagreement on which colour represents which). The protagonist is never actually ordained, but he's sufficiently part of the church that the abbé sends him away to a seminary when he's revealed to have had an affair.