by Helynne | 2/20/2014
" The Red and the Black, published in 1830, is the most famous novel by Romantic-realist and psychological author Stendhal, and not an easy one to get through in its original French! After all, Stendhal destined his small, but intensely intellectual oeuvre of novels "to the happy few," as if he knew there would be only a small number who could fully appreciate or even make their way through his lengthy and somewhat dense works. English translation, however, does do justice to this interesting psychological study of young Julien Sorel, who is born to a humble, working-class family in early 19th-century France in the town of Verriers. The title, The Red and the Black, has generally been interpreted as referring to the only two avenues open to a second or third son in a family who does not stand to inherit any family money; that is, the clergy (black) or the army (red). However, a dear friend of mine from graduate school, Cheryl M. Hansen, professor of French at Weber State University, Ogden, Utah, has written a fascinating book, Color Symbolism in the Works of Stendhal, in which she illustrates how the truly defining color in Julien's life is blue. She cites numerous references to this color in the upward rise of Julien and how this ideal blue will literally color his life's choices. Julien is indeed first slated by this family for the clergy, but he is eventually undone first by his own ambition and, ultimately, by his sentimentality; thus, the power of idealism/blue. Julien harbors an infatuation and idealized longing for a married woman, Madame de Renal. When he finally succeeds in capturing her affection, their adulterous affair ends badly, and he must flee Verrieres. The plot is complicated and includes another affair and near-marriage for Julien, when Madame de Renal comes back into his life for reasons I will not reveal. The lengthy scene toward the end of the novel when Julien languishes in prison, able to save his fate if only he will do something he cannot bring himself to do, has been compared many times to a similar scene in Albert Camus's The Stranger, which was written some 120 years later. I won't give away either ending, but I'll assure future readers that they are in for an interesting surprise in The Red and the Black that will call for some real literary-psychoanalytical discussion. The original French-language film version stars the legendary Philippe Gerard as Julien, and it is very good and true to the Stendhalian spirit. (There is also a 1997 film version I haven't yet seen). "