The Red and the Black | Study Guide


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The Red and the Black | Book 1, Chapters 16–20 | Summary



Chapter 16: The Following Day

Luckily for Julien, the transports of love masks his silliness in the eyes of his beloved. Julien conducts his love affair like a military campaign, and as "a duty to his dignity" goes back to his own room "deliberately in broad daylight, and with no precautions" to revel in his conquest. But after a few days he stops playing a part and is "desperately in love." He delights in "so noble and so beautiful a woman" as well as in the "feminine artillery" of Madame de Rênal—her clothing and "decorative objects." She instructs him on the niceties of etiquette known to the upper classes, which he now feels comfortable enough to ask her about.

Chapter 17: The First Deputy

Julien frightens Madame de Rênal by revealing some thoughts about Napoleon as a role model for young men, and he is forced to remember his mistress has been "brought up in the enemy camp." He decides to hide such thoughts from her in the future instead of confronting her prejudices and perhaps dispelling them. In the meantime, she explains the local politics of their town, which previously were opaque to him, and which further reveal the hypocrisy of the upper classes.

Chapter 18: A King at Verrières

In September a king will visit Verrières, and the prefect has ordered an honor guard. Since the king also wants to visit a church with a famous relic of Saint Clement, a large contingent of clergymen is required. Madame de Rênal arranges for Julien to have a place in that guard, and M. Chélan invites Julien to assist as a sub-deacon. At one point Julien meets the young, mannerly bishop of Agde practicing his blessings as he waits for his mitre, or bishop's hat. Later Julien is impressed by the pomp and expense of the ceremony and the glory of the bishop. He contemplates how he might also rise "toward the front ranks of society" and associate with people of "delightful manners."

Chapter 19: Thought Brings Suffering

After the king leaves, the entire town begins gossiping about how Madame de Rênal got "the carpenter's son" a place in the guard of honor. Her youngest child becomes seriously ill, and she thinks God is punishing her adulterous sin. Although she cannot give Julien up, she considers confessing to her husband to appease God. This crisis brings the lovers closer together and makes the affair more serious. After the boy recovers, the maid Élisa reveals the affair to M. de Valenod, who becomes enraged. He has a crush on Madame de Rênal, but she has nothing but disdain for him.

Chapter 20: Anonymous Letters

Julien surmises the mayor has gotten an anonymous letter about their affair, and he warns Madame de Rênal. When he does not visit her as usual in her room, she writes a passionate love letter which, at the end, advises Julien to cut out letters to construct a second anonymous note—accusing her of the same affair. She will then take this to her husband as another example of unfounded gossip. Before she met Julien, people sent her husband anonymous letters that were untrue, so she believes her ruse will be effective.


Madame de Rênal is now completely captivated by Julien and doesn't notice her lover is conducting their affair as if he is in a battle with her and her class. He is afraid of being thought inferior, but when he finally sees her angelic sweetness and realizes the depth of her feeling, he relaxes and finds himself in love.

Moreover, he can't help but be seduced by the artifacts of her class—her hats, dresses, decorative objects, and chiffons—which represent the wealth and power to which he aspires: "He would open her mirrored wardrobe and remain for whole hours admiring the beauty and the order he found there."

As a member of the class that identifies with previous generations guillotined by the unwashed masses, Madame de Rênal is understandably frightened when Julien reveals his admiration of Napoleon and talks of bringing justice to Verrières. Her cold reception to these ideas once again remind him he is at war, and she is in the enemy camp. Still he begins learning from her the upper classes' manners and mores; he begins to gain entrance to the citadel of class he wishes to breach. While Julien has contempt for the upper classes, he does not refuse a place of honor in the guard. And while the young bishop who has ascended the clerical ranks so quickly is a superficial, lightweight character, concerned with appearance and manners rather than any more important goal, Julien admires him, showing his own limitations.

Madame de Rênal's happiness is marred by her guilt when her son gets sick. Unlike Julien, she believes in the tenets of her faith, but she has suppressed them for the sake of passion. After Stanislav-Xavier, her youngest son, gets sick, she begins to think of her sin in the eyes of God. Julien is moved by her grief, which he realizes is genuine. He also realizes she loves him more than she loves her son. This thought gratifies his ego and increases his love. After the child recovers, she tells Julien she is damned, but she cannot repent. Moreover, her passion has made her cunning, and she contrives with Julien to convince her husband the accusations of adultery are no more than malicious gossip.

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