For the critic Eric Auerbach (author of Mimesis (1946)), Stendhal's appreciation of the events and circumstances that determine the lives of his characters, is what makes him the first writer with a "modern consciousness of reality". Not only the character of Julien, but also each individual scene is inconceivable divorced from the specific historical moment. For example, the boredom of the salon in the Hôtel de la Mole is no ordinary boredom; it is a construct of a post-revolutionary climate in which all potentially contentious subjects are taboo for fear of inciting conflict (many people blamed the Revolution on the radical freedom of Enlightenment salons). The importance of mimesis (the faithful imitation of nature) is evident from Stendhal's repeated use of the 'mirror' metaphor for writing. This is a common analogy, originally derived from Book X of Plato's Republic and also immortalised in Act III, scene 2 of Shakespeare's Hamlet ("the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature"). Stendhal's mirror is however distinguished by its movement ("a novel is a mirror walking along the highway. Sometimes it reflects to your eyes the azure of the heavens, sometimes the mire of the road's mudholes" II,19). This concept links realist mimesis to the chronicler's wish to record the passage of time.
Stendhal is also a realist writer in the sense that he - incredibly - derived his plots from true stories. The sources for The Red and the Black were accounts of murder trials that Stendhal read in the Gazette des Tribunaux, a publication specialising in courtroom sensationalism. Indeed this is the newspaper that Julien glances at in the church (I, 5). Stendhal actually discussed the first case, the trial of a cabinet- maker called Lafargue, in Promenades in Rome (1829). Lafargue was convicted of shooting his unfaithful mistress. Stendhal saw the whole story as an illustration of how violent passion had deserted the aristocracy for the middle classes. More significant in terms of the plot was the Berthet case. Berthet was a young theology student, tutor to the children of a M. and Mme Michoud in the Dauphiné. Forced to quit his job when he claimed the mistress of the house had seduced him he was then accused of having an affair with the daughter of his second employer, the Count de Condon. Blaming Mme Michoud for his misfortunes he killed her during mass. At his trial he was condemned to death.
Stendhal is not however an easy author to categorise, for his disdain for long descriptive passages (all the tumult of Julien's arrival in Paris is summarised in only a few brief paragraphs) and his strong authorial presence (e.g. the use of interjections) distance him from the aesthetics of later realists (such as Zola, or even his contemporary Balzac). Stylistically, Stendhal harked back to the previous century; he dreamed of conveying the sentiment of Rousseau in the precise language of Montesquieu. He despised the flowery prose of Chateaubriand (the most famous of the Romantic writers in France) and yet the in depth analysis of personal goals, the bond between nature and the imagination (I, 10), nostalgia for a more heroic age (a characteristic which he particularly admires in Mathilde) and even locations such as dark prisons and lofty mountains are all features common to Romantic literature.
It would be easy to assume that a book for which so much contextual detail is necessary cannot possibly stand the test of time. The Red and the Black may be firmly rooted in its age but its action- packed plot and acutely observed characters - feminist critics often cite Stendhal as one of the few men of his time capable of portraying convincing women - will ensure its popularity for a long time to come. Moreover, the highlight of the book is its psychological realism, the protracted struggle of wills between Julien and both Mme de Rênal and Mathilde. The passions so skilfully evoked here - jealousy, pride, vanity, and lust - certainly have transcendent qualities.
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