Political Background

Julien Sorel is a child of the Napoleonic Empire, born in its heyday in approximately 1808. Of low birth but high ambition he is inspired by Napoleon's own story and by the opportunities that the new meritocracy afforded to men like him. The old regime, with all its institutionalised hierarchy and prejudice was restored under Louis XVIII in 1814 and again in 1815 (following Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo). Yet all the yearnings of the clergy and aristocracy could not erase the recent bloody past. The legacy of revolutionary politics was to dominate the political agenda in France for the whole of the nineteenth century and the divisions it engendered, between Ultras (Royalists) and Liberals (Republicans) underpin many of the novel's conflicts. For example, Julien is always suppressing his true beliefs to appease his employers. Louis XVIII died in 1824 and was replaced by his more extremist brother, Charles X, who antagonised these divisions. Elements of his religious policy are reflected in the extraordinary theatricality of the service Julien attends in Bray-le-Haut (I, 18). Despite, or perhaps because of increasingly conservative measures the Liberals won a majority in the elections of 1827. The Ultra conspiracy plotted by the Marquis de la Mole and his influential companions (II, 22-4) could easily have occurred around this time. Charles X addressed the situation by appointing ever more conservative ministers; his chief minister Polignac (on whom M. de Nerval is probably based) is even said to have derived his policies from visions of the Virgin Mary. The situation came to a head in 1830 when Charles X twice dissolved an unfavourable Chamber of Deputies. Revolution broke out in July.

Another ongoing conflict in the novel is between the Jesuits and the Jansenists. The Jesuits in The Red and the Black are eminent in the sinister "Congrégation", a secret society devoted to elevating the position of the clergy. The abbé Pirard is a Jansenist whose position is made intolerable by Jesuit plotting. A Jesuit confessor offers Julien the chance to save his life if he converts publicly. Much of the petty intrigue in Verrières is directed from a distance by the Jesuit priest M. de Frilair (who is also engaged in a long-running legal battle with the Marquis). The Jesuits were originally a missionary order founded by Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century. In the 18th century many Jesuits were very influential in court circles in France. When they fell out of favour pressure from Louis XV led the Pope to suppress them in 1773. They were restored worldwide in 1814. This restoration also revived the old conflict with the Jansenists: a 17th century Catholic sect (named after Cornelius Jansen) whose teachings were accompanied by a harsh moral rigor. This is very evident from the tensions in The Red and the Black in which the pious Jansenists are portrayed as the victims of the worldly, politicising and corrupt Jesuits.

The role of contemporary politics in the novel is discussed by Stendhal in the conspiracy scenes (II, 22). Here he inserts an imaginary argument between author and publisher:

"'Politics', the author resumes, 'is a stone tied around the neck of literature and which sinks it in less than six months. Politics in the midst of imaginative interests is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. The noise is deafening without being energetic ... 'If your characters don't talk politics', resumes the publisher, 'then they are no longer Frenchmen of 1830, and your book is no longer a mirror as you claim it is.'"

Previous chapter Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Bibliomania.com Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.