The Last Days of Julien Sorel

I just finished teaching the section of my course on the European novel dedicated to The Red and the Black. Its ending is famously abrupt. Julien has achieved a dazzling success and the door appears to him fully open to a life of glory and distinction: he has become engaged to the lovely Mathilde de la Mole, and his future father-in-law the Marquis has given him a commission with in a regiment of the hussars and a title that brings him a substantial yearly income. But then he receives a desperate summons from his fiancée (“all is lost!”) to return to her in Paris from his barracks in Strasbourg. Julien’s former lover, Mme de Rênal has sent the Marquis a letter which accuses him of being an unscrupulous swindler who preys on the vulnerabilities of women to advance his career. Within the span of a page, Julien reads the letter, jumps onto a horse, and rides back to his hometown of Verrières, where he has a pair of pistols made by a gunsmith. He then heads over to the church where he sees Mme de Rênal, who appears deep in her prayers. After a moment’s hesitation, he fires one of the pistols, misses, and then fires the second, which finds its target.

This section of the novel is notable in part because the narration does not delve into Julien’s state of mind, fevered or not, as he embarks on this drastic act, one which brings to ruin his glittering rise from his peasant origins as the son of a carpenter to the most exclusive and elevated ranks of the aristocracy. Stendhal earlier portrays vividly the torments he undergoes when he finds himself at a complete loss over what to do after he forces himself to tell Mme de Rênal that he must visit her in her room at 2 in the morning. Julien is likewise rendered helpless after Mathilde regrets having made love to him and brutalizes him with her icy, scornful remarks. Julien, in the first instance, is compelled to be sincere, and his inability to conceal his true feelings has the consequence of winning the heart of Mme de Rênal. In the second instance, Julien is rescued by his Russian friend, Prince Korasoff, who advises him to pursue another woman, with whom Mathilde is acquainted, and then hands him a stack of letters to use in staging this false courtship. In the case of his attempted murder of Mme de Rênal, we are not given a single clue as to what he is thinking, other than his statement that he cannot blame the Marquis for refusing him the hand of his daughter.

This act comes across as particularly disruptive for the reader because there is nothing in Julien’s previous behavior to indicate that he would have been capable of behaving in such an utterly rash and precipitous manner. From the outset, he has nursed a shrewd and scheming spirit, seeking to become a cold-hearted student of the ways of the world, to master its signs and win for him a place of distinction in society. As a person of humble birth, he realizes with precocious clear-sightedness that virtue and hard work will not be enough to enable him to rise to a position befitting his talents and abilities. But in this single gesture he throws away all that he has striven so strenuously and laboriously to achieve. To become the future son-in-law of the Marquis de la Mole, he has endured the patronizing glances of the nobility, the penetrating insults and scornful looks of the haughty Mathilde, the corruption of the priests, and even a legitimist conspiracy. During the subsequent days, which he spends in jail, he reflects on the emptiness of the life he has left behind, and never for a moment does he regret his action: “I have been atrociously wronged; I have killed, I deserve death, but that is the sum of it” (475).

Does Julien commit this drastic act in order to escape the life of ambition he has opened up for himself, a path which surely leads to his promotion as a minister or some other high office? Both René Girard and Allan Bloom view his act as the prelude to his conversion. In the case of Girard, Julien cures himself of the infection of metaphysical desire, of the deviated transcendency that leads men to copy each other’s desires and conceive a deadly envy toward each other. Girard argues that the ending of the novel must be understood in religious terms, in which Julien recognizes his ambitions as false, renounces his former desires, and ascends to a godlike perspective from which he becomes himself able to recognize his life in the form of the novel, The Red and the Black. Here is Girard’s remarkable formulation: “The hero succumbs as he achieves truth and he entrusts his creator with the heritage of his clairvoyance. The title of hero of a novel must be reserved for the character who triumphs over metaphysical desire in a tragic conclusion and thus becomes capable of writing the novel” (296).

The knowledge of how to live in spiritual freedom, Girard declares, is identical to the ability to write the record of one’s life in the form of a novel. Indeed, in his final weeks in his cell, a profound sense of inner peace comes over Julien – he reminisces about the days he spent with Mme de Rênal and her children, and feels a tremendous sense of relief at how his imprisonment has liberated him from the petty intrigues and unrelenting theatricality of life in the aristocratic circles of Paris. But I think Girard’s interpretation does not quite do justice to the political consciousness Julien retains to the very end. Though there is a case to be made that the novel expresses a Christian perspective, contra Bloom’s insistence that it reflects the atheism of its author – when Julien is told that Mme de Rênal is alive, he is said to become at that “supreme moment,” a “believer” – nevertheless Girard does not give enough attention to Julien’s sober conclusions regarding the composition of society. He divides society between criminals who act out of need and criminals who are mere scoundrels, acting from their inability to keep their greed and other vices in check.

Bloom’s commentary is helpful here, as it stresses the hostility of the novel to bourgeois materialism. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard’s idea of deviated transcendency, one which stretches horizontally out toward one’s fellow humans instead of vertically toward God, makes it seem as though Julien awakens to the “truth” that he is just like all the others in striving for distinction and glory, and draws back from the vain pursuit of imaginary gratifications, when the novel, even to the end, stresses the extraordinary nature of his passions and his ambition. Bloom is surely more faithful to Stendhal’s spirit when he observes that Julien’s “vaulting ambition separates him from everyone else we encounter in the novel” (Bloom, 160). Julien is not a democratic striver who wakes up to the fact that he is like everyone else, and by means of this recognition rises above the petty affairs of bourgeois society. Rather, Stendhal is making the point that “in the midst of the society supposedly founded on the natural equality of man there are special kinds of genius deprived of proper vehicles for self-expression.” I would add, contra Bloom, that it is not only ambition that sets Julien apart, for in prison, the novel relates that Julien’s resolution in the face of death arises from the courage which has led him to confront it from his earliest days: “His whole life had been nothing but a preparation for misfortunes, and he had made sure never to neglect that which passes for the greatest of them all” (474).

Bloom goes on to note that Julien never receives the chance to achieve glory on the battlefield, which is the main subject of his Bonapartist dreams. Instead, he risks his life climbing up and down ladders to the bedrooms of his lovers and avoiding the servants who might have him killed. As Bloom notes, “the disappearance of Napoleon means only that the victory of the bourgeoisie predicted by Rousseau has come to pass” (162). Julien, in his determination to become a hypocrite, recalls the figure of Talleyrand, one of history’s exemplary survivors, but it is nowhere stated in the novel that Julien idolizes him, and we might say that his reaction to Mme de Rênal’s letter is to renounce his chance to become another man of influence in that Machiavellian mold.

Julien is a young man distinguished by his ambition and by his passion. He wishes to be unscrupulous, but fails to be fully amoral or wholly calculating. He has cultivates the air of a Talleyrand, but what holds him back? He has no particular desire to be lovable or loved by others, yet Abbé Pirard, the severe and devout Jansenist, cannot but feel tremendous affection for the upstart, even to the point of making a joke about Julien’s indiscretion with Mathilde (rather than berating the handsome skeptic) when he learns that the latter is pregnant. In this respect, the aged cleric is no different from the reader. In a key passage in the novel, the Marquis himself reflects on the enigma of Julien: “One cannot deny Julien a singular aptitude for business, daring, perhaps even a touch of brilliance… But at the core of his character I find something frightening.” The Marquis goes on to note that Julien has not ingratiated himself with the salons, which would give him refuge should the Marquis ever choose to reject him. Instead, Julien has altogether neglected to protect himself in the event of such a turn. “But is that out of an ignorance of the real nature of society?,” the Marquis asks himself. Julien does not possess the opportunistic cunning of a “sharp little lawyer.” Yet he speaks in maxims that are the “reverse of generous.” The Marquis then works out the conclusion, phrased as a question, “Does he repeat such maxims to serve as a dam to his passions?” (462).

Vaulting ambition, in the case of Julien, has served to give limits to his otherwise unbounded passions. One thinks of Nietzsche’s belief that the superior life is the one richest in contradictions. Julien has lived in a state of perpetual tension, using one tendency to serve as a check on the other, for in giving free rein to his passions, he believes, he would give up any hope of satisfying them. In riding off to shoot Mme de Rênal, one might say that he for the first time releases the dam, allowing the fierce waters to sweep away the works he has so painstakingly and laboriously erected below. Yet, the aftermath of this flood produces clarity, and Julien muses that he has “learned the art of enjoying life only now,” when the end draws near (479). The art of enjoying life is linked in Girard’s view to the experience of conversion, but it could also be regarded as the life of philosophic reflection, for Julien draws his strength and resolution from seeing “clearly into his own soul” (525). But is such clarity possible for those still living, or does it come only to those who can see their lives as a whole because they have reached the end of it? The novel in Girard’s account achieves its highest purpose in working out the necessary and unavoidable errors into which passion compels the protagonist. But can the recognition of these errors, reserved for the clairvoyance of the hero or heroine, exist at the beginning of a novel? In what sense can the knowledge of death, vouchsafed at the end, be converted into the knowledge of life, or a knowledge for use at the beginning?

Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Stendhal, The Red and the Black, trans. Roger Gard. New York: Penguin, 2002.


3 responses

  1. I read Stendhal in my secondary school in Russian and was deeply depressed then. I should re-visit him and see what the novel might generate now. Thanks for the cool post

  2. Have you read Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma? I used to read it over and over again, mostly perhaps, because it fed my teenage romantic illusions of princes and dames who get rescued. For some reasons, I felt the same regard I had for this novel as I had for Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

    1. Hopefully I’ll get to it during the summer break.

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