Good heavens! Is being happy, is being loved no more than that?
Few books have so totally engrossed me as this French novel written nearly two hundred years ago. Stendhal has aged very well. The novel is just fun to read: with short chapters, simple prose, and a plot that keeps the reader constantly wondering. That the novel was not widely appreciated during Stendhal’s own lifetime shows how much literary taste has changed. Whether this change has been for the better is difficult to say. But at least we can now appreciate Stendhal’s masterpiece.
For me, Stendhal’s signature effect is the interplay of Romantic idealism and deflating realism. Like his contemporary Balzac, Stendhal catches the world in his net. Every character, scene, and situation is carefully realistic. Though hardly a political novel, Stendhal succeeds in painting a subtle and compelling portrait of his age—the dynamic between the provinces and Paris, the political clashes between liberals and royalists, the relationship between the peasants, the clergy, and the old aristocracy. His characters, while individual, are also recognizable types, which he uses to dissect and analyze the social realities of his age.
Yet acting as a great counterweight to the ballast of detail is Stendhal’s famous psychological acuteness. This turns what would potentially be a dated social study into a gripping story of universal import. For his protagonist, Stendhal creates Julien Sorel—passionate, brilliant, stubborn, naïve, calculating, ambitious, and manifestly unfit for his social station.
Stendhal, a liberal himself, could easily have written a kind of morality tale about what happens when a man of great gifts is born in the lower ranks of society, with hardly any legitimate way of advancing. This is indeed Julien Sorel’s position. This morality tale would show us a good-hearted man, doing his best to be recognized for his genius, but overcome by circumstances. Yet Julien is infinitely more interesting for being both flawed and devious. Stendhal does not only show us how society makes his lot difficult, but, far more subtly, shows us how society deforms his psyche.
Deprived of any external encouragement, Julien’s motivation must come from worldly ambition and an egoistic pride. Since his only path to advancement is through people he despises—the clergy and the aristocracy—Julien must be dishonest, hypocritical, and ever-cautious. Forced to suppress his own emotions so constantly, and forced so frequently to act against his inclinations, whenever Julien is given a taste of kindness, love, or happiness, he loses control and threatens to undo all that his calculating subtlety had accomplished.
This psychological portrait is so perfectly realized that we both sympathize with, root for, and yet see through Julien Sorel. He is extraordinary, and yet painfully limited by his surroundings. His tragedy is that circumstances deprived the world of what he could have been had he been born in a different time and place. That Stendhal could create, at the same time, a universal morality tale, a realistic sketch of society, a vivid psychological study, and a thrilling novel—complete with a burning love story—all in the simplest prose, is a testament to the author’s high art.
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