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In Pursuit of Desire: A Study of the Stendhalian Protagonist Julien Sorel in Scarlet and Black

Scarlet and Black also titled as The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) is a 19th Century French novel by Marie Henri Beyle popularly identified as Stendhal, which explores the life of a young man whose ambitious and passionate nature leads to his tragic downfall. In this piece of fiction set during the Bourbon revolution, a period of socio-political value in French history, Stendhal beautifully combines romanticism and realism to describe the journey of his hero. The psychologist in Stendhal also gives the readers an insight into Julien’s scheming aspirations and ultimately, repentance following the guilt of attempting to murder his correct really like in the pursuit of his ambitions. This psychological viewpoint is considered a result of the influence of medical books especially Pinel’s Traite which Stendhal read in 1805 and 1810 displaying greater interest in a single of its chapters, Art of Counterbalancing the Human Passions by Other individuals of Equal or Superior Force, an Critical Element of Medicine (Kete, 2005). Thus, this essay will examine how want in the Stendhalian protagonist is unveiled in Scarlet and Black.

From the quite starting, Julien stands out in character due to his adore for reading and expertise and spirit. Even in the household, he is considered various from the household members which can be observed via the father’s attitude: “He may have forgiven Julien his small size, so little adapted to heavy labor, and unlike the build of his older brothers, but this mad craze for reading was hateful to him. He himself could not read” (Stendhal, 1831). It is this passion for reading that enables Julien to obtain the post as a tutor in an aristocrat’s household as the very first step towards realizing his dreams. Additionally, he meticulously chooses the clergy more than a military profession due to the fact of the energy yielded by the church particularly in French politics for the duration of this period and the great living offered to the clergy. He maintains close relations with Father Chelan from whom he gets training in theology with the prospect of entering the clergy. Nevertheless, Father Chelan who has “a troubled glimpse, deep down, of a dark ambition” inside Julien, doubts his intentions of being a priest (Stendhal, 1831). Father Chelan whom Julien dearly adores is possibly the only particular person who manages to catch a glimpse of Julien’s soul. The protagonist does constantly face an internal conflict when his moral codes are compromised in his journey to fulfil his ambitions and aims. Nevertheless, because “ambition was still his central passion… [which] was indeed his pleasure in possessing”, he has to most of the time go against his conscience to obtain material advantages (Stendhal, 1831). In addition, in Father Pirard’ seminary, he stands out from among the other students due to his liberal ideologies and spirit. Most importantly, he earns the respect and favour of the strict Father Pirard through whom higher connections in society are made particularly with the introduction to Monsieur de la Mole. In addition, like Stendhal himself, Julien is an ardent secret admirer of Napoleon and his heroic feats which continue to inspire him (Gleeson-White, 2012). Thus, Stendhal has made the protagonist stand out from the outset due to his appealing traits and too ambitious nature. In spite of his dislike for the aristocrats or royalists, Julien Sorel makes use of them to climb the social ladder and pursue his inordinate aspirations.

Comparable to Stendhal, Julien was a liberal who despised the techniques of the bourgeois, their treatment of the lower classes, in specific. Nevertheless, the difference between the two is that Stendhal who was raised in Grenoble, was originally of a Jesuit Royalist loved ones background which he grew to criticize even though his fictional hero is of a lower rank in society with a organic tendency to dislike the upper class (“Stendhal”, 2016). In the novel, Julien hides his genuine political inclinations and manages to impress the de Renal household, specially, the Mayor of the provincial Verrieres, Monsieur de Renal and even his rival Monsieur Valenod, via displays of memorized knowledge of the bible and other readings. Nonetheless, Julien becoming a proud creature, initially, expresses his discontent at getting provided a position as a tutor in Monsieur de Renal’s property mainly simply because of the fear of being decreased to the position of a servant in his household. “The horror of eating with the servants was not some thing natural to Julien to make his fortune he would have accomplished other factors equally unpalatable” shows that he would do something to make his way in life (Stendhal, 1831). Later on, in the novel, he even gains the favour of the effective Monsieur de la Mole due to his clever dealings with politics and reputation as a good tutor. Despite the fact that the fictional hero gains numerous benefits from these crucial individuals in order to fulfil his inordinate aspirations and even the chance to ride in the honour guard of the king’s parade, he continues to secretly criticize and disapprove of their life-types and attitudes. In spite of all this criticism, he furtively aspires to belong to their globe by hiding behind a religious façade. Hence, he can be perceived as a hypocrite as “hypocrisy and an absence of all sympathy were the usual techniques of safeguarding himself” (Stendhal, 1831). By putting up appearances and gaining a excellent reputation through his information of books, the protagonist, hence, enters the upper class society which is 1 step towards realising his ambitions.

Two important relationships that play an crucial role in Julien’s plans are his affair with Madame de Renal and Mlle. Mathilde. The spirit and fervour within Julien attract each girls who had never been in love before. This can be seen in the instant attraction Madame de Renal feels for Julien in their 1st meeting, For her part, Madame de Rênal was utterly beguiled by his fine complexion, his wonderful black eyes, and his beautiful hair, which was curlier than most men’s—since, to freshen up, he’d just plunged his head into the waters of the public fountain (Stendhal, 1831). Julien uses this bewitching character to seduce Mme. de Renal in order to get educated on a lot of issues about refined society and its politics by way of his discussions with her, which he finds helpful for his schemes in the near future. Even so, his initial relations with the delicate and charming Mme. De Renal, can be considered the point in which he understands correct adore or the “presence of being in love” (Haig, 1891). It can be perceived that his feelings for her have been genuine as he realises his true passion for her when he is confined to the cell and repents his crime, as “in his heart, ambition had died, but from its ashes another passion had emerged: he known as it remorse for getting attempted to kill Madame de Rênal” (Stendhal, 1831). In contrast, his affair with the proud and haughty Mlle. Mathilde can be considered much more of an intellectual attraction as he is able to express his most personal, cynical views of class inequality and other politics to her which he concealed in the earlier affair. This relegates Mlle. Mathilde to the position of a confidante. 1 instance of the blend of romanticism and realism in the novel can be observed by means of Julien’s selection of mistresses as the first a single has an inclination towards romanticism whilst the second one, formed more on an intellectual and logical basis, reflects a tinge of realism. His second affair to him was much more of an achievement to pursue his dreams than a romantic entanglement, And I’m going to seduce his daughter—me! Possibly her marriage to de Croisenois will be impossible—a marriage that glows in Monsieur de La Mole’s future (Stendhal, 1831). To him, she was much more like a trophy to be won as by means of her, he could acquire numerous of his cherished desires. This proves to be accurate as Monsieur de la Mole has no decision but give his consent to the affair and arrange him a steady living with the title of Chevalier de La Vernaye which is the climax of Julien’s immoderate yearnings. The two relationships serve his purposes effectively in interestingly different ways.

Nevertheless, his final act of crime committed even though passion due to Mme. de Renal’s betrayal marks his downfall as “all the expectations and hopes of ambition had to be yanked out of his heart” due to his death penalty (Stendhal, 1831). Nevertheless, he gets the time to repent his actions and his final words of advice to Mlle. Mathilde regarding her marriage to Monsieur Croisenois and the care of their child depicts his logical considering and affection for the ladies in his life even on the verge of death. In spite of all the meticulous scheming, this man “maddened by ambition” reflects a story of “un ambitieux” which “presents itself in Le rouge et le noir as a nightmare of democracy, of aspirations grasped and lost” (Kete, 2009). Therefore, this novel is a realistic account of the nature of ambition as it beautifully captures the inordinate aspiration of the Stendhalian protagonist.


Principal supply

Stendhal., (1831). The Red and the Black. Raffel, B. (trans), New York: The Contemporary Library (this edition 2006).

Secondary sources

Gleeson-White, J. (2012). ‘Love is a madness most discreet’: The Red and the Black, A Chronicle of 1830 by Stendhal. [on the web] Overland literary journal. Available at: [Accessed 18 Oct. 2016].

Haig, S. (1989). Stendhal: The Red and the Black. 1st ed. [ebook] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Obtainable at: [Accessed 18 Oct. 2016].

Kete, K. (2005). Stendhal and the Trials of Ambition in Postrevolutionary France. Trinity College Digital Repository, [on the internet] (Summer time). Offered at: [Accessed 17 Oct. 2016]. (2016). Stendhal. [on-line] Offered at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2016].
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