The Red and the Black | Study Guide


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The Red and the Black | Book 2, Chapters 36–40 | Summary



Chapter 36: Melancholy Details

Julien is carried off to prison. Luckily his shot has not mortally wounded Madame de Rênal. She has been suffering because of Julien's absence and wrote her letter under pressure from her confessor. "To die by Julien's hand would be the height of felicity," she thinks. Julien admits to premeditation when the magistrate appears. He writes to Mathilde, urging her to forget about him and to marry the Marquis de Croisenois. He is ready to die but still feels he has been wronged. Still he is overjoyed to hear that Madame de Rênal will live, "falling to his knees and shedding warm tears." He thinks she will forgive him and love him again.

Chapter 37: A Keep

Abbé Chélan visits Julien, which cheers him but then reminds him of death because the priest is so old. He is also touched when his friend Fouqué visits and wants to sell all his possessions to bribe the jailer so Julien can escape. Fouqué goes to Frilair to beg his help, but the Vicar-general is thinking about how he can use the incident against Madame de Rênal, who doesn't respect him.

Chapter 38: A Man of Power

When Mathilde visits Julien, he allows himself to be transported by her "extravagant" love, knowing his death will eventually restore her social standing. On her side, "Boniface de la Mole seemed revived in him, but in even more heroic form." After leaving Julien she visits Frilair and offers him money "to smooth it over with the little people" on the jury who will decide Julien's fate. The Vicar-general thinks Mathilde can help him gain influence with an important bishop in Paris and assures her he can easily manipulate the jury verdict to get Julien off. He also deliberately taunts her with the idea Julien attempted to kill his former lover out of jealousy.

Chapter 39: Intrigue

Julien is shaken when he realizes he feels bored when Mathilde is near—even as she is ruining herself for him. She becomes more passionate by the day, feeling a need to "astound Society with the intensity of her love" while Julien feels "weary of heroics." No longer ambitious, he finds himself thinking about the happy days he spent with Madame de Rênal. To Mathilde's chagrin he asks her to put her child out to nurse in Verrières under Madame de Rênal's supervision and says in 15 years she will think of her love for him as a folly.

Chapter 40: Tranquility

Julien does not think of his impending doom, which he plans to give "serious attention only on the day it arrives." He finds himself at a seeming mental height, thinking "I have learned the art of enjoying life only now, when I see its end so near." Frilair is scheming behind the scenes on Julien's behalf, and Madame de Rênal has written to members of the jury pool, urging them to save him. She claims he falls prey to excessive melancholy from time to time, which drives him almost to madness.


Julien takes joy in not killing his true beloved, yet she feels to die by his hand would be "a felicity." Julien reenacts the scene in the library with Mathilde, in which he briefly thought about killing her with a sword on the wall because she wounded his pride, and she looked upon his passionate violence as proof of his love. In this second instance, though, the emotion felt on both sides is heartfelt, not a pretense. Both Julien and Madame de Rênal feel remorse for hurting each other, while Mathilde is simply caught up in the drama of killing and dying for love. Still there is a perversity in what happens between Julien and Madame de Rênal, because he must nearly kill her to fully embrace the whole of his feelings for her.

Julien is embraced by two other people who genuinely love him—Abbé Chélan and Fouqué. Abbé Chélan calls Julien a monster but seeks to comfort him, and Fouqué is ready to give up all his possessions to save his friend. Julien would not accept help from these two friends earlier in his life because he was determined to chart his own course.

When Mathilde arrives on the scene and sacrifices her dignity to work for Julien's acquittal, he is horrified, but he doesn't experience guilt. Even in the case of Madame de Rênal, Julien feels remorse for shooting her only after he learns she is alive and he can rejoice. This is more evidence of his well-defended ego. At this point he doesn't wish to hurt Mathilde, but he cannot pretend any passion for her, and he hurts her by asking her to give up her child to Madame de Rênal. But he also knows ultimately this will be best for the child. While Madame de Rênal is affectionate and motherly, Mathilde shows no evidence of maternal feeling under her flair for drama.

In the final dramatic irony of Julien's tragedy, only after he destroys his life and faces down the abyss of death can he let go of excessive ambition, pernicious vanity, and overweening pride. These enormous blots on his life have prevented him from living fully, and from experiencing potential happiness when it was offered in the form of sexual pleasure and romantic love, a successful business enterprise, or close and genuine friendship. As he observes, he learns to enjoy life only as it is ending.

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