Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle) - "The Red and the Black" ("Le Rouge et le Noir")

The Red and the Black (1830) is one of the most arresting titles in literature, a simply polarity disguising a myriad of tensions and conflicts. With it, Stendhal successfully encapsulates both the personal dilemmas of his hero Julien Sorel: red for passion, lust, violence, the spontaneous, the unpredictable, the brave and the foolhardy; black for cold calculation, order, authority and steadfast virtue - and also the tensions he encounters as a man of his time, tensions familiar to the whole post-revolutionary generation. "I am still a hypocrite... Oh nineteenth century!" laments Julien enigmatically as he awaits the executioner (II, 44). Black is the colour of the cassock which he adopts in the hope of self- advancement (hence his hypocrisy - he has no real religious vocation), in contrast to the plush red of old regime royalty, or the blood red of the Napoleonic wars. Above all, red and black symbolise Revolution and Reaction, a dialectic driving political life in France until the late twentieth century. These are the tensions that generate the novel's relentless momentum.

The Red and the Black is also 'A Chronicle of 1830'. The historical moment is crucial to the novel and, although there are few scenes that are overtly political, without some understanding of the context and currents of Restoration France Julien's whole situation and experience become inexplicable. Stendhal's choice of 1830 was an unfortunate one, for as he tried to pin the year down so events rapidly overtook him. 1830 has been immortalised in French history as a year of revolution, of which there is no mention at any point in the book. Indeed it has been estimated that the book's internal chronology continues well into 1831 by which stage the Bourbons (Charles X) had been firmly replaced by the Orleanists (Louis-Phillipe). Presumably unwilling to alter his plot at such an advanced stage Stendhal introduces his chronicle with a caveat: it is his belief that the events in question all took place in 1827. Contemporary references, not least to the opening night of Victor Hugo's Hernani (in February 1830), (II, 10) contradict this claim.

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