The Red and the Black By Stendhal Summary and Analysis Part 2: Chapters 1-4

Summary

Julien's voyage to Paris is enlivened by the conversation of his fellow travelers — a Bonapartist, former friend of M. de Rênal, and a newly formed liberal, Saint-Giraud, who is fleeing the pettiness and intrigue of provincial life for the calm of Paris. The latter had sought peace in the provinces, but because he refused to take sides in the great debate between ultras and liberals, he was persecuted by both. The conversation reflects their opposing political views: Saint-Giraud maintains that the present disorder is due to Napoleon's desire to revive the monarchy. Such strong argumentation does not prevent Julien, upon his arrival in Paris, from making a pilgrimage to Napoleon's palace at Malmaison.


Pirard describes to him in detail the new life he will lead at the home of the Marquis de la Mole. Pirard warns Julien of what to expect from this aristocratic and haughty family.

Chapter 2 is devoted to Julien's arrival and few days in the Mole household. He is first presented to the marquis, who has him outfitted and finds it necessary, in order to improve Julien's grace, to have him take dancing lessons. Invited for dinner in the salon, Julien meets Mme. de la Mole and Mathilde. The latter he finds uninteresting and even unattractive in comparison to Mme. de Rênal. He finds Norbert, the marquis' son, charming. At dinner, Julien succeeds in making a favorable impression by his knowledge of the classical writers.

Julien takes his working post in the library, where the vast array of books dazzles and inspires him. Mlle. de la Mole enters to smuggle out a copy of Voltaire, and this encounter strengthens Julien's impression of her as a cold-hearted, uninteresting woman. Norbert, on the other hand, continues to delight Julien by his kindness, and he accepts Norbert's invitation to go riding. A mishap while riding is later related at dinner, and Julien's good grace and innocence in the avowal of his awkwardness cause the marquis to look favorably upon him and incite the curiosity of Mathilde.

Further equestrian attempts on Julien's part elicit the remark from Norbert at dinner that Julien is very courageous. Julien's many mishaps are especially relished by the servants of the household.

Chapter 4 describes a typical evening in the salon of the Mole family. Julien reacts as violently to what he witnesses as he did in the Verrières home of Valenod, and the scenes are, in fact, similar. Court at the Mole's is strongly reminiscent in its sterility of the court of Louis XVI. There reigns an air of decorum, politeness, and cruelty. Only insignificant subjects are discussed, nothing controversial, and the barrenness of the conversation inevitably leads to calumny, derision, and mockery by those in favor with

M. de la Mole, directed at those out of his favor. Admitting to Pirard how distasteful he finds these evenings, Julien is overheard by Mathilde, who admires this courage and sincerity.

Analysis

Stendhal loses no opportunity to further the education of Julien, rendering, at the same time, a view of the political situation of the period. Julien would seem by nature and inclination to be a liberal, although he frequents only ultra milieus: the Rênals and the Moles. Julien is, in fact, an opportunist — he has no allegiance except to himself and to others of the "happy few" who befriend and love him. The only reaction that Julien registers at this revelatory discussion during the coach journey is one of astonishment, and Napoleon remains his idol.

Saint-Giraud's situation is an ironic preview of what Julien's future holds, but in reverse. Saint-Giraud is returning to Paris after having vainly sought peace in the provinces. He apparently considers Paris as the lesser of the two evils. Julien will follow the reverse route — arriving at the same conclusion: present happiness is not appreciated.

The scene is an effective transition between the scenes of action from another point of view. It indicates that France's lamentable situation during the Restoration is localized neither in Paris nor in the provinces-it is ubiquitous. We have seen corruption and compromise as it operates on the local level, in the grass-roots, then in the seminary, where the purveyors of weakness are formed. Now we will witness the motor source of France's sickness in the aristocratic and ecclesiastical powers in Paris.

Note the father-function of Pirard, whose kind intervention will minimize Julien's chances of being ridiculous in the Mole household.

Although the other members of the Mole family are cruelly and concisely described by Pirard, Mathilde is only briefly mentioned at this point.

Compare Julien's wary but self-assured air upon introduction to the Mole household to his awkwardness and intimidated state upon arrival at the Rênal home, fifteen months before. Stendhal tells us that Julien has come to expect the worst from people; therefore, he is not easily intimidated.

Note, however, how astutely Stendhal renders, almost in passing, a psychologically convincing detail describing Julien's manner of confronting a new situation, where he must find some weakness in his adversary, the discovery of which will bolster Julien's own confidence. (The same mechanism functioned for Julien as he met Mme. de Rênal, whose beauty had intimidated him.) It seems to Julien that M. de la Mole's wig is much too thick. Thanks to this observation, he is not at all intimidated. That is, observing no matter how slight a deficiency in a superior, Julien is able to derive confidence from it. At dinner, his self-assurance does not falter this time because he decides that Mathilde de la Mole will never be a woman in his eyes.

Mathilde takes an interest in Julien for the first time in Chapter 3, and it is his uniqueness and candor, in contrast to the stereotyped characters to whom she is accustomed, that will constitute much of the basis of her interest and subsequent love for Julien.

Julien must undergo a social metamorphosis as part of his education, and learning to ride a horse is part of this training. Stendhal notes, at the end of the chapter, that Julien already feels himself to be an outsider in this family, the customs and manners of which are strange to him. This concluding remark serves as a transition to the subject matter of the following chapter.

Stendhal benefits from Julien's role of outsider to view the sterility of this social institution, the aristocratic salon of 1830. Pirard's austere presence and conspicuous isolation contrast with the habitués' obsequious conduct, their superficial and docile character, as they mingle and assume their roles in their respective sub-circles Julien does not fail to note this contrast. Julien's violent disapproval of the cruel derision of merit, especially by his rival secretary, Tanbeau, is reminiscent of his reaction at the Valenod's dinner party. It is by means of this device that Stendhal elicits the reader's sympathy for his hero: Stendhal satirizes Julien's adversaries through ridicule; the reader, therefore, naturally allies himself with Julien.

Admitted as a silent spectator into Mathilde's circle, Julien observes her suitors, the most favored of whom is the Count de Croisenois. In passing, Stendhal observes that Mathilde admires Julien's courage in denouncing this type of social gathering to Pirard — a second hint at the future relationship of Julien and Mathilde. The description of the salon no doubt inspired Proust in his own vivid and satirical depiction of early twentieth-century salon mores. It was Proust, incidentally, who first called attention to the recurrent theme of "high places" in the works of Stendhal.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

After Julien dies, what does Mathilde do?




Quiz