The Red and the Black | Study Guide


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The Red and the Black | Symbols


Red and Black

The novel uses a great deal of color symbolism, beginning with the titular red and the black, colors that work on several levels. Red may represent the military—specifically Napoleon and his army, worshipped by Julien Sorel—even though Napoleon's army did not wear red, Napoleon is frequently depicted wearing this color. Black represents the Church—it is the color of priests' robes. Julien Sorel is caught between the red and the black. He truly wants to be a soldier, but the time for military glory has passed, and he thinks his ambition would better be served in the Church. Red also stands for radicalism—the French Revolution and the ascendency of the lower classes and the glory of Napoleon. Black stands for clericalism, or the political power of the Roman Catholic Church, which was first smashed by the Revolution but then reestablished under the Restoration. It may, by extension, symbolize restrictive power structures more generally.

Red and black also may stand for Julien's two lovers. Madame de Rênal is the red, since she has true passion and loves Julien above all others. Her love is sincere and uncomplicated and springs from a full heart. Mathilde's love is darker and more perverse, so she is the black. Like Julien she is most concerned with power in relationships, and she sees sexual love solely as struggle for dominance. Red also symbolizes blood and violence; Julien sees what looks like blood on the floor of the Church at the beginning of the novel, which foreshadows his attempted murder at the end of the novel. Black in the end symbolizes crime and death and Mathilde's fascination with death and corpses.

Blue is also significant in the novel; it stands for the nobility. The "blue riband," or blue ribbon, is mentioned several times; it is the highest distinction of chivalry awarded by the king. The Marquis de la Mole has Julien wear a blue coat when he wants to interact with him as an equal; Mathilde and her friends sit on a blue sofa in the salon; and Julien accidentally breaks Madame de la Mole's valuable antique blue vase, which, according to Madame de la Mole, came from her "great-aunt the Abbess of Chelles ... a present from the Dutch to the Duke of Orleans." Finally, Julien's corpse is wrapped in a blue cloak, which may mean he achieves nobility in death.


In the novel ladders represent social climbing and act as phallic symbols. Julien uses a ladder to reach the windows of his lovers. He drags a ladder into Madame de Rênal's garden to climb into her window. In the case of Mathilde, she provides him with the ladder—at least showing him where it is—and he climbs into her window at her urging.

Although Julien does not consciously use these women to improve his social position, his liaisons with them serve that purpose. Thanks to Madame de Rênal, Julien has the honor of riding as a guard in king's parade. She also helps create his position of privilege in her house. After Mathilde becomes pregnant, Julien's role as her baby's father provides him with a title, money, and an army commission.


Walls are a status symbol in the novel; aristocrats surround their property with stone walls to denote what belongs to them and them alone, to earn others' envy, and to separate themselves, physically and psychologically, from the lower classes. In the first chapter of The Red and the Black, the narrator notes, "the more your property bristles with rocks heaped on top of one another, the more claim you have on your neighbors' respect." The narrator goes on to describe Mayor M. de Rênal's gardens as a "network of walls," admired because "the ground over which they stretch was not bought at a bargain." M. de Rênal may be the book's foremost wall lover; he also rejoices when he must requisition a big retaining wall for the town's public thoroughfare, giving him "the happy necessity of immortalizing his administration by a wall twenty feet high and between sixty and eighty fathoms long." Again the wall is a point of pride and power.

M. de Rênal is also surrounded by psychological walls, separating from others and leaving him solitary and lonely—a frequent plight of social climbers who must leave their former communities behind, as the mayor must. Julien's similar psychological walls, which close him off from love, friendship, and acceptance of humbler circumstances, destroy his happiness.

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