M. de Rênal is the mayor and wealthy owner of the nail factory in the small mountain village of Verrières in the eastern province of Franche-Comté. Situated above the river Doubs, the village owes the prosperity of its peasant citizenry to sawmills and to the manufacture of calico. The sudden arrival of M. Appert, sent from M. de La Mole in Paris to inspect the municipal workhouse and prison administered by M. Valenod, the mayor's assistant, has erupted on the otherwise peaceful existence of the village.
The village, a microcosm of Paris and of all of France in this respect, is politically divided into two camps: royalists like the mayor and a liberal element dissatisfied with the Restoration. They are in agreement, however, upon the importance that they attribute to money and in their slavish respect for small-town public opinion. Father Chélan, Jansenist and village priest for many years, takes M. Appert on a tour of the workhouse and prison, thereby disobeying the wishes of M. Valenod, who risks being exposed for misuse of funds, given the pitiable conditions existing in these institutions. Rênal and Valenod have, in fact, visited Chélan and reprimanded him for this action. This is the subject of the conversation between M. and Mme. de Rênal one day as they are strolling with their three children on the "Cours de La Fidélité," a public promenade sustained by an enormous retaining wall, the glory of Verrières, the construction of which is due to the administration of Mayor de Rênal. The latter then proposes to his wife that they hire Julien Sorel, student priest of Chélan, as tutor for their children, a move destined to increase his own social prestige since it will cause envy among the liberal textile mill owners. Julien's father, a crafty sawyer, has already, in the past, outwitted Rênal in a land transaction.
Note that Stendhal does not rely for his exposition on many pages of description and documentation. His method might be called "free associational" and characterizes the entire novel since the exposition never ends. It is clearly not that of his famous contemporary Balzac or of the latter's predecessor Scott. (Balzac quite often utilizes the "in medias res" technique of the epic: short dramatic scene, followed by pages of description explaining the initial glimpse, which then re-catches that glimpse and develops it into dramatic narrative.) Stendhal moves rather swiftly back and forth from background description to an action scene as the need arises, after an initial five pages of introductory setting.
Chapter divisions are entirely arbitrary: Chapter 1 situates Verrières, characterizes the economy of the town, then introduces a hypothetical Parisian visitor who will encounter the mayor, giving Stendhal the opportunity to present him for the first time. Most of the short chapter is, in fact, devoted to M. de Rênal, to his home, his past, and his relationship with Sorel even before Stendhal reaches Chapter 2, which, as the title indicates, is to be devoted to M. de Rênal.
Stendhal does not exhaust the description of a newly introduced character upon initial presentation, but rather he returns periodically to "round it out," having been led astray into digressions. Nothing is seen out of relation to other considerations: describing Rênal physically leads Stendhal to ascribe to the passerby a moral judgment about Rênal, condensing time; this then leads Stendhal to Rênal's home; then a parenthetical note about his ancestry; next Rênal's imposing "retaining walls" are evoked; then a comparison with gardens of other manufacturing towns; this leads the author to mention Sorel since it is through him that the land was acquired; follows a necessary remark about the shrewdness of Sorel; and finally an incident which illustrates that M. de Rênal suspected that he had been bettered in the bargain. Had Stendhal followed the path into Verrières consistently as his means of introduction, the reader would have been enlightened about Sorel's sawmill at an earlier point.
This omission is not an oversight, however. Before Sorel and especially his son Julien, the hero of the novel, can be introduced, the adversary against which Julien will pit himself in its various forms must be defined. The adversary will be all of society as it incarnates the corruption and stagnation of the Restoration, thereby oppressing a superior being.
Chapter 1 thus gives us a sweeping, superficial tour; Chapter 2 repeats this gesture, now evoking Valenod and Maslon by the same "afterthought" technique before introducing the action proper: the Rênals' conversation on the promenade. The last few lines of this chapter begin the conversation, the meaning of which escapes the reader, and Stendhal must reappear to furnish more background details at the beginning of Chapter 3. The latter, in turn, involves a "flashback" to an episode having occurred the day before — this before we hear the end of the conversation between the Rênals. Thus, we hear briefly of Julien for the first time in Chapter 3, and we see him through the eyes of M. de Rênal, whose judgment we have already learned to question. Julien can't be a liberal, reasons Rênal, since he has been studying theology for the last three years.
These recurring views of M. de Rênal in interaction with other people permit us to judge him as pretentious, vain, easily duped, proud, and avaricious. Stendhal next turns to Mme. de Rênal and devotes a page to her character and history, taking care to emphasize her virtue and resignation to her lot. She is unaware that life holds anything better than what her husband offers her. Even the method of exposition fits a description of Stendhal's style as that of "improvisation." It suggests the image of ever-widening, superimposed circles.