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The Red and the Black | Themes

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Will to Power

As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche imagined it, the will to power—individuals' innate desire to dominate their surroundings and shape their lives—is the driving force behind all human endeavor. Since everyone has a will to power, he reasoned, people find themselves in conflict with others when their demands are not met or they are thwarted in accomplishing their ambitions or goals. Julien Sorel's desire to shine is ferocious, and he wants more than anything to succeed and become a man to be reckoned with. His hero is the French military general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte; many French people of the time admired him as a figure who changed both France and the world for the better through his vision, drive, and determination. Napoleon had no scruples about displaying raw might and imposing his will to power on millions of people.

Julien's resentment stems from being thwarted in his ability to exert his will to power through his humble beginnings and uncertain social standing, and his entire life becomes a project in which he negotiates a social system that seeks to limit his ability to expand and achieve. The novel focuses on power relations between Julien and the other main characters as well as power struggles between Church and state, the Ultras and the liberals, and the bourgeoisie and the working class.

Love and Hate

Any intense relationship involves both love and hate, and this is particularly true in romantic relationships—most especially when they involve Julien Sorel. His desire to feel love and be close with Madame de Rênal and, later, Mathilde de la Mole, is entwined with his unshakeable resentment of both their class superiority and their emotional power over him. At the least sign of vulnerability, he must fight back and reassert his power. Because Mathilde and Julien have a similar makeup—their desire constantly battling with their pride and need to dominate and control—they fall into an extreme and perverse love-hate relationship. Madame de Rênal, on the other hand, feels primarily genuine and passionate love for Julien. As for Julien, his pride, suspicion, and envy keep him from feeling pure love until the final moments of his life.

Honor versus Vanity

Julien Sorel greatly values the concept of honor: being recognized and admired for his exceptional abilities and inherent nobility. But for him honor and vanity overlap to a dangerous degree. Julien's urge to be honorable—a trait he associates with his hero, Napoleon—is motivated not by the desire to help others or make the world a better place but rather by the desire to satisfy his vanity. He has what psychologists term grandiosity, or an inflated sense of himself, and he does whatever he must to maintain it. Julien's vanity makes him obsessively fearful of being cowardly or backing down under any circumstances, even when doing so would be the wise choice or he doesn't particularly want the offered prize. As a result he often abuses others—including those he loves—in his desire to boost his own self-esteem. Julien's idea of his duty to himself and his definition of what he needs to do to maintain his honor is a continuing thread in the novel.

Hypocrisy and Tyranny

Under tyranny the state is run by only one person, a handful of people, or a small ruling class that imposes its will on the majority and garners the lion's share of the benefits of living in society while the masses are oppressed. Tyranny necessarily creates hypocrisy. To survive under tyranny, individuals must be able to wear a mask or hide their true feelings and motives so they will not be crushed by the forces that control society. The Red and the Black explores tyranny in France in the 1820s, imposed on the populace by the Ultra-Royalists working in concordance with the Catholic Church to claim back the power they lost during the French Revolution. It is not surprising the smart and ambitious Julien Sorel decides to wholeheartedly embrace hypocrisy to get ahead in society: the novel supports the idea that this is the surest way to get ahead, and that Julien is in no way unusual for making his fortune through insincerity and posturing.

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