The Red and the Black traces the fortunes of a gifted and handsome hero, Julien, from his humble origins, the son of a bullying peasant carpenter who despised his son’s intellectual genius, to engagement with the heights of political and social influence in Paris and execution at the age of twenty- one. In the shift from provincial to Parisian mores and society, in all its complexity, the reader witnesses the last throes of the late Bourbon Restoration at the approach of the July Revolution of 1830.
The tale is presented in an easy, fluent style, judging, at least, by Burton Raffel’s translation, that never ceases to entertain, even where Stendhal expresses (in parenthesis) personal doubts about the inclusion, at the behest of his publisher, of limited political explanations. Yet this compulsive read masks a work of sharp conflict, political, moral, personal and sexual, never resolved, and a sad commentary on the misplaced loyalty of devoted women for a deceptively vain and ambitious man. Never once does Julien suffer true remorse, not even at his end, where pride and rank obstinacy prevail over the efforts of those who try to save him. He is a would-be romantic without a cause, save that of his inevitable self-destruction. His father, however cruel and avaricious, was right about him.
Finally, condemned to death, Julien comes face to face with himself. Until then, the reader has only unfocused outlines of what the hero is and what he believes. Now, all becomes clear, not only to the reader, but to Julien also. He confronts all that which motivates life: what people are, wealth and poverty, conscience, power, God’s reputed goodness or vengeance, the politics of revolution and the call of true love … and fails.