The Red and the Black | Study Guide


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The Red and the Black | Book 2, Chapters 16–20 | Summary



Chapter 16: One in the Morning

When Julien climbs into Mathilde's room, he is not sure how to behave. He has brought his pistol with him in case of an attack. Mathilde helps him let down the ladder and asks him what he has done with her letters. Answering truthfully, he tells her of his suspicions, and she now understands his coldness. At first she resists his advances, but then she submits, thinking, "he's my master." She addresses him tenderly, although her tone belies her words. "The truth is that their raptures were somewhat willed," the narrator says. "Passionate love remained more of a model for imitation than a reality." He thinks her Parisian ways have ruined love, while she feels misery and shame.

Chapter 17: An Old Sword

The next day Mathilde avoids Julien, angry because he now has something to hold over her. When he approaches her on the third day, she responds to him with disdain. The narrator notes the lovers, without knowing it, are "fired by the most vivid feelings of mutual hatred." After their quarrel, Julien finds himself "adoring" Mathilde. The next night, she waits for him in the library, and he asks her, "Then you don't love me anymore? She says she is "horrified at having given myself to the first comer." In a rage, he draws an ornamental sword from a scabbard, but then recalls himself and puts it back on the wall.

Chapter 18: Cruel Moments

Julien's action sends Mathilde into a mental swoon. The two begin having extended conversations, and she tortures him by relating her flirtations with other men and exaggerating the feelings she once entertained for these rivals. Julien experiences mental agony, and his lovesickness even affects his work.

Chapter 19: The Opéra Bouffe

Mathilde secretly nurses tender feelings for Julien, but the narrator notes love "generated in the mind ... has only flashes of enthusiasm." A song she hears at the opera makes her feel as if she is over him. For his part, Julien berates himself for being unworthy. That night, in a fit of hope and despair, he climbs to her window again, and she lets him in, falling rapturously into his arms and declaring she is his slave. When he climbs down the ladder after a night of lovemaking, she throws him her hair, which she cut off on one side of her head to prove her devotion.

Chapter 20: The Japanese Vase

Mathilde is back to ignoring Julien, and a few days after their encounter she tells him she doesn't love him anymore. Once again, she is remorseful for having given Julien "rights over her." She treats him with scorn, and he begins to "despise himself," thinking he will love her all his life. Mathilde, on the other hand, is pleased she has put "the little abbé" in his place. The next day at lunch, Julien accidentally breaks Madame de la Mole's cherished porcelain vase. He tells Mathilde the vase is now destroyed, just like his love, and asks pardon for "the stupid things it made me do."


The seduction scene in Chapter 16 may be more pathetic than comic. Here is Julien, on his way to a lover's tryst, armed with pistols. He somewhat awkwardly tries to put his arms around Mathilde without success, and she asks what is in his pockets. The narrator spends time explaining how the would-be lovers get the ladder down with the help of some ropes Mathilde has kept on hand, and she warns him not to break the window. This comic interruption in the middle of what should be a tender love scene goes to the heart of the strain in this forced encounter, where both feel awkward and shy, but not in a romantic way. In addition, as with Julien's first sexual encounter, neither he nor Mathilde experiences much genuine pleasure: they act out the parts of lovers rather than simply being lovers. In a sense Mathilde is in the same position as Julien—not really wanting to surrender herself to this lover but feeling a refusal will amount to a failure of character on her part.

To revenge herself on Julien, the occasion for her shame, Mathilde first avoids and then insults him. Julien is comparing his experience with Mathilde to his love affair with Madame de Rênal, so when he approaches her after three days, he is somewhat shocked by her rage. Her rejection, however, fuels a new passion. He stupidly asks her if her feelings have changed, and she hits him where she knows it will hurt the most—his pride—by saying she gave her virginity to a nobody. Her success can be seen in his fleeting thought of killing her with a sword; this rekindles her passion and appeals to her sense of romance and desire to court danger. She begins speaking to him again, torturing him with the idea of other men in her life whom she seriously considered as romantic partners. She sets up a love triangle of sorts with these hypothetical partners to make him jealous and to fuel his passion. These interactions between Mathilde and Julien are the first of many containing elements of perversion. When Julien breaks into her room without an invitation, she acts out the role of slave by cutting off her hair to remind herself she belongs to him. When she entirely revokes her surrender a few days later, treating him with scorn, he begins to doubt himself and believe he doesn't deserve her. Where Madame de Rênal's changes of heart came from a crisis between romantic love and a sense of wrongdoing, Mathilde, like Julien, sees in terms of conquering and giving in. Like Mathilde, Julien is intrigued by a partner who can best him.

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