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The Red and the Black | Context

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The Germ of the Story

Stendhal's idea for The Red and the Black began with a true account from an 1828 French newspaper. Antoine Berthet was a seminary student who worked as a tutor in a middle-class family and was dismissed for carrying on an affair with the mistress of the house. He moved on to a second family and seduced a young woman in that household. After a letter from his first mistress alerted the family, the angry tutor shot his first mistress in church, but he failed to kill her. He then tried and failed to kill himself. He stood trial and was convicted and executed.

A King Deposed and a King Restored

France was a monarchy until the French Revolution (1789–99) began. This political revolution in France was the inevitable result of the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840)—the period when rural, farming societies became industrial and urban—and the rise of the bourgeoisie—prosperous and wealthy commoners, such as merchants, manufacturers, professionals, and even prosperous peasants who demanded more political power. The time was ripe to put aside the idea of governance by the divine right of kings. The revolution's most immediate cause, however, was France's crop failures and food shortages of 1788 and the government's bankruptcy—which came after France helped the Americans win their own revolution.

As the French Revolution progressed, radicals executed the royal family along with many others who were deemed disloyal to the new ideas. By 1795 the radicals were replaced by more moderate elements, but the government relied on the military to maintain its authority, which is how the military leader Napoleon Bonaparte successfully staged a coup in 1799 and crowned himself emperor in 1804.

Napoleon was a despot—a leader who exercised absolute power—and aimed to amass as much territory as possible for France, yet his land grab led to the spread of democratic ideas. Napoleon conquered much of Europe before suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of the Russians in 1812. A coalition of European troops forced him to step down in 1814, and Louis XVIII took the French throne. Napoleon retook France in 1815 but was defeated for good at Waterloo, and Louis XVIII resumed his reign. This was the French period known as the Restoration, which saw a swelling of political debate. The conservative faction wanted to bring back absolutism, in which a king has complete, unlimited power; the conservatives looked to the French army and the Catholic Church to help strengthen their force. Meanwhile the middle class was growing. It generally favored a constitutional monarchy, in which the king's power is limited by the law.

The Red and the Black takes place over approximately three years, most likely sometime between 1826 and 1830. Since the protagonist, Julien Sorel, is 19 at the novel's outset, Louis XVIII would have been king during Julien's childhood. France had drifted to the right by 1820, as the "Ultras"—the Ultra-royalists, or strong supporters of a return to monarchist government—gained more political power. In 1824 Louis XVIII died and the Ultras' leader, Charles X, inherited the throne. Charles became increasingly unpopular as he attempted to abolish all democratic reform, and in the July Revolution of 1830 he was overthrown. His cousin Louis Phillipe, a less despotic ruler who favored constitutional monarchy, took the throne (although he, too, was eventually overthrown). Since this event does not appear in the novel, Stendhal seems to imagine his story taking place before Charles X was removed from office. The severely polarized social elements in the novel—the Ultras versus the liberals and Bonapartists—signal the unrest below the surface of polite conventional society.

Ultras, Liberals, and Bonapartists

The Ultra-royalists, or Ultras, were the extreme right wing of the Royalist movement, which supported restoring the French king as the head of government. In The Red and the Black the Marquis de la Mole as well as the Jesuit clergy belong to the Ultra faction. After Napoleon's reign ended and the monarchy was restored, France retained some of the liberties won during the French Revolution, becoming a constitutional monarchy. This period was characterized by the reestablishment of the Catholic Church as a force in French politics and a return to aristocratic privilege. The Ultras included large landowners, the aristocracy, Church clerics, and those returning to France after being exiled or forced out during the revolutionary period.

The Ultras did not try to bring down the Royalist government; they sought to dominate it. They controlled the lower house of the French Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, from 1815 to 1816 and from 1821 to 1827, as well as the cabinet from 1821 to 1824, and their leader, Charles X, took the throne in 1824. They further restricted the press and increased the Catholic Church's power. During the first period of their Chamber control, they went after so-called "enemies of the state," firing civil servants and army officers and controlling state budgets.

The Bonapartists supported Napoleon and his heirs; Napoleon's nephew, Louis-Napoleon, ruled France from 1848 to 1870. This party made Napoleon a cult figure and saw him as the champion of the common man, forgetting his tyrannical side. Like Julien Sorel, the Bonapartists saw their leader as a military genius who ruled the world in the name of France. The Bonapartists sanctioned Napoleon's co-opting of principles from the French Revolution to justify his own imperial rule. They desired public order and longed for national glory. Most of the men who fought with Napoleon remained his supporters, as does Julien Sorel's first mentor, the Surgeon-major.

The liberals supported neither the old monarchy nor the excesses of the French Revolution and were the precursors of a republican government. The liberals wanted to keep the civil liberties gained after 1789 as well as ascend to power. However, they were neither truly egalitarian nor tolerant of aristocratic privilege; they were moderates who came mainly from the middle classes. In The Red and the Black Valenod begins as a liberal—he is not in the aristocratic class—and then changes places with M. de Rênal, who becomes a liberal after he is ousted from his job as mayor.

Jansenists and the Jesuits

When The Red and the Black's narrator refers to Jesuits, he does not necessarily mean clergymen of the Jesuit order; rather, he often is referring to the clerics and their followers who are "ultramontanists"—people who strongly believe in papal authority and infallibility, or the pope's inability to make a mistake in rulings on religious doctrine. The Jesuits, traditionally the intellectuals of the Catholic clergy, are associated with ultramontanism and the agenda to reassert Catholic political power in affairs of state. The clergy identified as Jesuits in The Red and the Black fulfill the Jesuit stereotype: they are double dealing, greedy, hypocritical, and power hungry. In the novel the Congregation is a Jesuit-inspired spy network involved in political activity on behalf of the Ultras.

Stendhal was mainly anti-clerical, but he portrays the good priests and their followers as Jansenists. Jansenism was a movement within Roman Catholicism to reconcile divine grace and human freedom. It was founded by theologian Cornelius Otto Jansen, who read the work of St. Augustine as a corrective to certain teachings of the Jesuit order—particularly its emphasis on human responsibility for redemption rather than grace. The Jesuits were attempting to counteract the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin, which included the idea of predestination for heaven. Jansen thought the Jesuits had gone too far and cited Augustine's idea that grace is needed to accomplish any good act. The Church condemned the Jansenists; in France Jansenism became associated with the desire to restrict the pope's power and opposition to the Ultra-royalists. In truth Jansenism was mostly a movement to return to the spirit of early Christianity. In the novel Abbés Chélan and Pirard and Madame de Rênal are associated with Jansenist Christianity.

Critical Reception

The Red and the Black got little notice when it was published; Stendhal predicted in a diary that the novel would not be appreciated until the later 1800s, and his prediction came true. Around the end of the 19th century critics began to look more closely and appreciatively at his work. Today he is known as one of the fathers of realism, for his determination to present contemporary life with complete honesty and accuracy, and of the psychological novel, which examines the "inner person" and his or her circumstances, motives, and emotions.

The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was delighted to discover Stendhal and said he was ahead of his time. In his work Beyond Good and Evil he called Stendhal a "remarkable anticipatory and precursory human being" and "France's last great psychologist." A writer's writer, Stendhal has been cited as an influence by a wide range of authors, including Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, American writer Ernest Hemingway, English writer Virginia Woolf, and British writer Doris Lessing.
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