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The Red and the Black | Plot Summary

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Summary

Book 1

Julien Sorel is the son of a wily peasant—a carpenter who neither loves nor cares for him because he is not like his brothers. They are burly and coarse, while Julien is fine boned, beautiful, and intelligent. Julien grows up without love and compensates for his lack of guidance by developing a strong ego and an exaggerated sense of pride. The first person who takes an interest in him is an old soldier who was in Napoleon's army; from this man Julien learns of the emperor's exploits and begins to dream of emulating him. Julien starts to believe he is honor-bound at all costs.

However, in Restoration France, the glory days of Napoleon are over and the army is no longer a viable career for an ambitious young man. Instead Julien decides to make his career in the Church, although he does not feel called to do so; he doesn't even believe in God. He apprentices himself to an old priest, Abbé Chélan, and to impress him Julien learns the entire text of the New Testament in Latin. Because he is perceived as learned, Julien gets a job as tutor to Mayor M. de Rênal's three sons. All this time resentment simmers barely below Julien's surface; he resents his oppression as a member of the working classes, and he takes a combative stance toward society.

After Julien has been in mayor's house for some time, the mayor's wife, Madame de Rênal, falls in love with him. A pious woman with a large reserve of passion, she is a dutiful wife, but seems to have little experience of romantic love. When Julien realizes she is in love with him, he decides to seduce her, although he is at least 10 years her junior. He sees this seduction as his duty and approaches it like a military campaign. Despite his awkwardness and inexperience, Julien gets the affair going, and soon Madame de Rênal is madly in love with him. At first the affair satisfies only his vanity, but then he falls in love with her.

When her youngest son gets sick, Madame de Rênal thinks God is punishing her for her affair. After her son recovers, she continues to think she is damned to hell, but she cannot give up Julien. In the meantime gossip about her affair reaches Valenod, the mayor's rival, who has a longstanding crush on Madame de Rênal; he is both jealous and outraged. He writes an anonymous letter to her husband, M. de Rênal, but Madame de Rênal convinces her husband the letter is malicious gossip produced by his jealous rivals. Still the gossip continues, and M. de Rênal feels he must ask Julien to leave town. Abbé Chélan gives Julien the option of going into the lumber business with his friend Fouqué or joining the seminary at Besançon.

Julien fears the seminary will feel like a prison to him, but he chooses it as the best route to success and embarks on a program to distinguish himself as a pious man and a scholar. Julien's fellow students hate and resent him for his intelligence and ambition, but the seminary director, Abbé Pirard, takes him under his wing. The director is a pious priest who leans toward the doctrine of Jansenism, which supports the idea that salvation comes mostly through divine grace. This opposes the Jesuit doctrines, but the Jansenists and Jesuits are mainly at odds because the Jesuits are closely aligned with the Ultras, the conservative wing of the Royalist party that wishes to roll back democratic rights achieved since the French Revolution. The Jesuit faction supports the Ultras because they want to get back the power they lost in the Revolution. Julien gets caught in the crossfire between Abbé Pirard, and his subdirector, Abbé Castanède, and the Jesuit Vicar-general Frilair. Pirard is soon forced out, and when he quits he takes Julien along with him. He has decided Julien will take the job of secretary for the Marquis de la Mole.

Julien must now move to Paris. First, though, he visits Madame de Rênal, whom he has not seen for 14 months. He finds her much changed—more pious and unwilling to break her marriage vows. But he knows her weakness for him and seduces her again despite her religious objections. He then leaves; the two will not see each other again for a long time.

Book 2

Julien enters the home of the Marquis de la Mole as a country bumpkin, but he soon shows his intelligence, and the aristocrat gradually begins to trust him with more and more responsibility. The young priest becomes a part of the household, and the Marquis's son, Norbert, takes him out riding. Julien attends the salons of the Marquise de la Mole and is introduced to Mathilde, the Marquis's daughter, and her circle of friends. Mathilde is beautiful and haughty and as proud as Julien. He watches as Mathilde and her friends make fun of people who attend the salons but are not in their circle. The friends talk about nothing of substance and spend most of their time gossiping. Mathilde is very intelligent and sneaks many forbidden books out of her father's library; however, she suffers from boredom because her life is too easy and her dull, aristocratic friends do and say the same things every day. Julien is glimpsing the Ultra class's decadence up close.

When the Marquis is laid up with gout for several months, Julien becomes indispensable to him, assisting with business but also growing into a close companion and friend. To manage these new relations, the Marquis asks him to wear a blue jacket rather than black religious clothing when they switch from business to friendship. When Julien wears the blue jacket, the Marquis treats him like the son of a good friend.

Mathilde becomes fascinated with Julien. He doesn't like her much at first and keeps her at arm's length. But Mathilde pursues him, and he comes to realize she has a romantic interest in him, even though they have a somewhat combative relationship. When she expresses her feelings in a love letter and invites him to climb a ladder to her bedroom window, he is overjoyed, and his vanity is gratified. He doesn't quite trust her, yet he feels duty-bound to respond to her invitation as a sign of valor.

Their first sexual encounter is awkward, and Mathilde regrets giving Julien power over her. Afterward, when she ignores him for three days, he feels himself starting to fall in love with her. He approaches Mathilde and asks her if she no longer loves him; she says she regrets giving herself "to the first comer." Incensed, he pulls a sword and scabbard off the wall and takes out the sword, but then he replaces it. This sends her into a paroxysm of passion, and she renews their romance. Still Mathilde tortures Julien with stories about other men in her life, exaggerating her feelings for them. When he again climbs the ladder to her window, this time without an invitation, she is impressed with his initiative and gladly lets him in. She asks for his forgiveness and claims she is his slave; she even cuts off some of her hair to prove it. But a few days later she reverts to ignoring him, and he begins to despise himself for not being good enough for her.

Mathilde's perverse nature can also be seen in her fascination with her ancient relative, Boniface de la Mole, who was beheaded in the 1500s by French queen Catherine de Medici. Boniface de la Mole's lover, a Frenchwoman named Marguerite, rescued his head and buried it with her own hands. Mathilde fantasizes about the romance of kissing a lover's severed head.

The Marquis de la Mole takes Julien away on business. Julien acts as a notetaker in a secret meeting of Ultras who might invite foreign influence into France to avoid another insurrection. He must wait for a week in Strasbourg to receive a message from a very important person; while he is there his friend, a Russian prince, advises Julien to win back Mathilde by making her jealous. When he returns to France, Julien follows this advice and courts another woman, and after several weeks Mathilde returns to him and declares her undying love. He also learns she is pregnant. When she reveals this news to her father, he severely berates Julien, calling him a monster. After some weeks, however, he relents and gives Julien a new title and a commission in the army, and he gives the couple money to get started in their new life.

However, the Marquis asks Julien for a character reference before he will sanction their marriage. Julien tells him to get in touch with Madame de Rênal. After about a week Mathilde tells Julien the wedding is off; the Marquis has cancelled it because Madame de Rênal has accused Julien of using women. Julien's honor is severely offended. He rushes to his hometown of Verrières, finds Madame de Rênal praying in the church, and shoots her.

After Julien is imprisoned for his crime, he learns Madame de Rênal is not seriously injured. However, he must face trial for attempted murder, which has the same consequences as murder. Mathilde rushes to Verrières and uses her money and influence to try to get him acquitted. But Julien insists on making a speech to members of the court, calling them hypocrites who want him dead because he dared to climb out of his class.

Julien refuses to ask for an appeal until Madame de Rênal visits him and says she will refrain from killing herself and will come to see him every day. The two reconcile, and she explains her church confessor made her write the letter to the Marquis because she was still pining over Julien. Julien realizes that he does genuinely love her. He doesn't want to hurt Mathilde, but by now he has lost interest in her and even in his own ambition. Mathilde continues to visit him in jail, however, and after he is beheaded, she convinces his friend Fouqué to allow her to take his head, which she buries herself in the cave where the rest of his remains are interred. She is re-creating the drama and passion of her ancestors, seeing herself and Julien as Marguerite and Boniface. Madame de Rênal keeps her promise to Julien and doesn't try to kill herself, but she dies naturally three days after his death.

The Red and the Black Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Julien is hired as a tutor for mayor M. de Rênal's children.

Rising Action

2 Julien and Madame de Rênal begin a love affair.

3 M. de Rênal suspects an affair and makes Julien leave town.

4 Julien goes to Besançon and enters the seminary.

5 Julien leaves the seminary to work for the de la Moles.

6 Julien begins a love affair with Mathilde de la Mole.

7 Mathilde tells the Marquis de la Mole she is pregnant.

8 The Marquis de la Mole angrily confronts Julien.

9 The Marquis relents and gets Julien a commission.

10 Julien sees Madame de Rênal's letter to the Marquis.

Climax

11 Julien shoots Madame de Rênal and then is jailed.

Falling Action

12 Julien rejoices when he learns Madame de Rênal is alive.

13 Mathilde visits Julien in jail and works for an acquittal.

14 Madame de Rênal visits Julien; they confess their love.

Resolution

15 Julien is guillotined, and Mathilde buries his head.

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