Mme. de Rênal contrasts with Mathilde in age and in nature. The two further reflect different aspects of Julien's nature: Mme. de Rênal is spontaneous, sensitive, tenderhearted, as is Julien; Mathilde shares his pride. Mme. de Rênal awakens to a new existence when she falls in love with Julien. It is as if her previous thirty years had not existed. This sudden, overwhelming blossoming of her being explains the violence and permanence of her passion.
Her love sharpens her intelligence and endows her with momentary cunning and daring, making her again the reverse of Mathilde. At first a very moral person and somewhat naive, she sacrifices every scruple to her love for Julien. She is incapable of self-scrutiny, so instinctive a creature is she. Mme. de Rênal never achieves the amoral freedom that typifies the "happy few," although her existence on the instinctive level approximates amorality.
From her son's illness, which she sees as divine punishment, to her death following Julien's own, she is constantly tossed between passion and guilt. This fluctuation is not as obvious as it is in the case of Mathilde, but it is nonetheless basic to her nature. Mme. de Rênal can make claim to be of the "happy few," however, in that her happiness is found in love and it is doomed to failure. It is the happiness of the moment and of eternity. The maternal nature of Mme. de Rênal's love for Julien is complemented by the latter's paternal concern for Mathilde.