The great Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “Power is founded upon opinion. ” In the wake of Napoleon’s rule, France was on the brink of chaos. The previously overthrown Bourbon family was restored to the throne, although France was nothing like it was when they had left. The church had lost most of its power, aristocrats no longer held dominance, and the once voiceless third estate was now a powerful adversary in the form of citizens with rights and demands. The monarchy no longer held the power to do as they pleased; they now had to answer to the voices of the people or face being overthrown for a second time.
Contrary to their revolutionary predecessors, many new thinkers believed that France should simply forget the revolution and continue life as it was before. Problems with this idea arose from around the nation and the people of France had little respect for the newly reinstated regime. Revolutionary ideas and results were still fresh in the minds of many, and the success of the revolution was far from forgotten. The monarchy underwent a process of systematically removing supporters of Napoleonic ideals and attempted to revitalize the church as a symbol of power and respect.
Despite their efforts, France was drastically different than it once was. Greater equality among men had created a sort of capitalist movement where the aristocrats had to compete with the bourgeoisie for wealth and respect. Aristocrats had to work to stay ahead and could no longer live lavishly relaxed lifestyles. The struggle for wealth, power, and respect creates high tensions between the liberal bourgeoisie and the conservative aristocrats. This tension became cause for outrageous levels of hypocrisy and deceit amongst the French population.
Stendhal’s The Red and the Black places young Julien Sorel in France’s restorative period. Julien is a young man from a liberal bourgeois family who idolizes Napoleon for his victories and his rise to power. He wants nothing more than to mirror Napoleon’s life and rise to glory at young age. Julien lives in a time where public opinion and respect reign supreme, thus causing hypocrisy and ulterior motives to run rampant. Julien recognizes the importance of public images and hides his Napoleonic aspirations behind a veil of Latin studies and service to the church.
Julien’s counterfeit aspirations catch the eye of M. de Renal, the mayor of Verrieres. Renal is a conservative who despises liberal ideas and practices and supports the restoration of the Bourbon house. Like most aristocrats of that time, Renal’s primary concerns lie within the opinions of his peers. In accordance with this idea, Renal decides to hire a tutor to reside in his home and to teach his children. Blind to the truth, Renal hires Julien due to his aspirations of becoming a priest and a Latin scholar.
Julien’s hypocritical artifice bears its first fruits and he infiltrates the house of a prestigious conservative family. The success of Julien’s tactical deception strengthens his ego and paves the way for his Napoleonic appetite to feed. He dedicates himself to his conservative ruse and develops a tactical view on every aspect of his daily life. Upon his arrival at Renal’s house, he flatters Mme. de Renal by reciting religious quotes in Latin. Julien’s intelligent performance stimulates such pride in the Renal household that M. e Renal invites the whole town to his home to show off his children’s fabulous new tutor. Renal’s demonstration of Julien further emphasizes the importance of public opinion during that period. Mme. de Renal’s maid falls in love with Julien, and her affection in-turn stimulates similar feelings in Mme. de Renal. Julien refuses relations with both of the women at first, but later sees a strategic advantage in having relations with Renal’s wife. He views Mme. de Renal as a sort of military conquest.
Julien compares the seduction of Renal’s wife to the glory and power of Napoleon’s military victories and pursues her vigorously. Moreover, he considers his actions to be a rebellious attack against the aristocracy. His actions are reminiscent of those during the revolution. Julien soon gains the opportunity to dress in military garb as part of the honor guard that welcomes the king. Julien’s pride swells over the thought that he is dressed as Napoleon once was. His pride is short lived due to the fact that he must change into church attire to assist in ceremonies.
Julien soon meets the young Bishop of Agde. The extent of the Bishop’s power at such a young age causes Julien to rethink his strategies toward glory. He faces a struggle between the red of the military and the black of the church. His ruse of church service and the monarchal efforts to restore power to the church put him in a position to pursue his dream of Napoleonic glory via different channels. Julien soon faces a dilemma when M. de Renal receives a letter revealing the affair between Julien and Mme. de Renal.
The two wittingly avoid any trouble by sending a second letter to Renal stating that the initial letter was a ploy to disgrace him. The importance of public opinion is so great to the aristocratic Renal that he believes the second letter and dismisses the accusations. This is reminiscent of the ignorant pride held by those who thought that revolutionary actions could simply be ignored and forgotten. Julien next ends up being sent to a seminary. It is here that the shift is made from militaristic glory to the gain of glory through the church, a shift from the red to the black.
Julien delves deeper into his hypocrisies by pretending to be fully devoted to the church. His intelligence and piousness gains the attention of the seminary’s director, Pirard. Julien’s gains reveal the true and corrupt face of the church at that period. The other priests become jealous and attempt to sabotage Julien’s efforts. Their malicious efforts bear no fruit, and Julien soon receives the opportunity to travel to Paris to act as the Marquis’ personal secretary. Julien achieves another victory towards glory.
He considers his new position in Paris to be a societal step up; one more step towards his ultimate goal. Stendhal effectively portrays the fragile state of France during the period of restoration. The revolution and Napoleonic rule had rocked the country’s foundations and had forever changed the thoughts of the common people. The portrayal of the Renal family shows the ignorant desires of the aristocrats. Power has shifted away from them and into the hands of the common man, yet the aristocrats refuse to open their eyes to the new France.
They believe that things can be as they were before the revolution. The dominance of deceit and hypocrisy amongst the French people is also highlighted throughout the book. Monarchal and aristocratic efforts to restore the old France force people to hide their support of revolutionary and Napoleonic ideas. Furthermore, many people act as if they support another cause in order to further themselves in society. On the surface, France is on the return to its roots; but upon a deeper look, a war rages on towards self-preservation and personal gains.