Reading and Writing

Literature plays an enormously important role in The Red and the Black. When we first encounter Julien he is reading. This is an activity that he invariably finds a source of inspiration and solace. The books that he has read dictate his beliefs and behaviour, sometimes explicitly - on no less than three separate occasions does he attempt to seduce women by quoting directly from The New Héloïse by Rousseau and it is his ability to cite vast swathes of the New Testament in Latin which initially earns him his place in the de Rênal household - and sometimes less so (his affair with Mme de Rênal appears to replicate Rousseau's relationships with Mme de Warens, as described in his Confessions). Mme de Rênal is in fact the only one of the central characters who is not a prodigious reader; the Marquis de la Mole keeps a very well stocked library and one of the first things that Julien discovers about Mathilde is her habit of borrowing volumes of Voltaire and then attempting to conceal the gaps in the shelves. Writing triggers several of the most significant events in the novel: the most important example is the letter from Mme de Rênal to the Marquis in which she denounces Julien.

A preoccupation with texts is more common amongst post-modernist critics than nineteenth century novelists; Stendhal is particularly unusual in his self-referentiality and the extent to which he undermines the written word. Much of what is written is false: the Korasoff correspondence, the second anonymous letter in I, 20, even Mme de Rênal's denouncement, effectively dictated by her confessor. The Korasoff episode also provides an opportunity for a self-conscious debate about the merits of different literary styles. The discrepancy between the written word and experience is generally the source of error and failure; Julien fails to recognise the unsuitability of Napoleon's accounts of battles as a model for his own life and his leads him to adopt ridiculous courses of action. Julien is also famously mistaken when he declares in II, 34 that "my novel is finished". Stendhal persists with the irony when Mme de Rênal muses, "I'm starting to believe in this strange novel!" (II, 43) at its most incredible. There are as many elements of inter-textuality in the structure as in the content. Stendhal's choice of epigraphs is particularly worthy of study.


The Red and the Black is popularly perceived as a love story and it should not be forgotten that Stendhal owes as much of his fame to his 1822 treatise On Love. In the novel he details two basic different kinds of love, passionate love and vain love. Mme de Rênal's utter devotion to Julien, even after he attempts to murder her epitomises the former. It implies total sacrifice: Mme de Rênal prioritises it even over her love of God, for she cannot do otherwise. Mathilde's love on the other hand is a vain love. This is partly the consequence of a literary education - she is too well aware of the role that a woman in love should play for her actions ever to bear the stamp of great sincerity. This is particularly apparent in the awkwardness of her first sexual encounter with Julien. Mme de Rênal's love rapidly becomes independent of the loved one - his actions upset or please her but cannot alter her devotion - whereas Mathilde's vain love ensures that her feelings for Julien are entirely dependent on stimuli from him. She only loves him when he behaves as if he might leave her and in reverse, he falls easily into the trap of loving too much, at which point she loses interest. A concept important to the understanding of love in Stendhal is his idea of 'crystallisation', by which he means the stage in a relationship at which the loved one is discovered to have unforeseen perfections (for example, Julien's attempted murder of Mme de Rênal acts as an unlikely catalyst for the 'crystallisation' of his love for her). Stendhal derived the concept from the analogy of a leafless branch thrown into salt mines. When it is removed later on it appears to be covered in diamonds, although the branch is the same.


Julien is possessed of a vivid imagination; indeed, his huge ambition could not exist without it. On a number of occasions he becomes completely lost in reverie: in the religious procession in I,18 the narrator reveals that his imagination was even "no longer on earth" and, more contemplatively, on one occasion Mathilde enters the library and Julien, preoccupied, is totally oblivious to her. An overactive imagination can result in paranoia: it takes a lot to persuade Julien that Mathilde and Norbert are not engaged in a conspiracy to ridicule him and his duel occurs as a result of a largely imagined slur. For Stendhal, imagination is however a great redemptive force and it is the absence of healthy creativity in the salons that makes him so critical of them. It is also linked to spontaneity and impetuosity, such as in II,17 when

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