The Red and the Black By Stendhal Summary and Analysis Part 2: Chapters 21-23

Summary

The marquis prepares Julien for his role as scribe and spy. Julien will accompany the marquis to a meeting of a group of ultras, where he will take notes on the conversation, condense them with the help of the marquis, memorize the contents, and, inconspicuously dressed, start out on a mission to London. On the way to the meeting, Julien recites a page from the newspaper to the marquis to demonstrate his photographic memory. At the place of rendezvous, the room gradually fills with the plotters. Julien sharpens numerous quills waiting for further orders.



The marquis introduces Julien to the conspirators, and Julien demonstrates to them his prodigious memory. The twelve conspirators would plot means of strengthening the ultras' position against the ever-increasing threat of liberalism, or, as it was termed, Jacobinism. The question is whether to ask England to intervene in order to strengthen the ultra monarchy. The marquis is of the opinion that England will help only if the French help themselves by galvanizing their ultra supporters at every level of society. He would recommend severe curtailment of the liberty of the press in an effort to control public opinion.

A cardinal supports the proposal of the marquis, adding the necessity of relying on the power of the Church, whose 50,000 priests have the ear of the people. He suggests that the cabinet minister, M. de Nerval, resign since he is compromising their cause. Nerval, present among the conspirators, presents himself as favoring the ultra cause against the liberal monarchy. The discussion becomes heated and lasts until three in the morning. The minister leaves, then the Bonapartist, and the remaining conspirators conjecture that the Bonapartist might betray them in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the minister.

Later, Julien and the marquis edit the notes, which Julien memorizes, and the next morning Julien departs on his mission. Stopping at an inn near Metz, Julien encounters the Italian singer Géronimo, who informs Julien that their innkeeper has detained them in order to find a spy who must be apprehended. Julien awakens to find the Jesuit leader of the Besançon Congregation searching his effects. It is Géronimo who is suspected of being the spy. The singer has been drugged, having fallen into the trap that Julien has avoided.

Arriving in London, Julien finally succeeds in meeting the Duke of Wellington, to whom he recites the message in the secrecy of a shabby inn. Julien follows the duke's instructions to go to Strasbourg, then return within twelve days. Julien arrives in Strasbourg, eluding the watchful Jesuits.

Analysis

The mission to which Stendhal has previously alluded is conveniently introduced to create suspense, of course, but also to separate the lovers in order to reverse their roles. Upon his return, Julien will take the offensive. The transition between what preceded and the spy episode was constituted by Mathilde's musings on Julien's future.

Julien has definitely replaced Norbert as a son worthy of the Marquis de la Mole, and for the first time, the marquis explicitly states this preference. Freudians would see in this a disavowal by Stendhal of his own father and a legitimization of his view of himself as one of the "happy few."

Julien gains admittance to the inner sanctum of reactionary power, but he is still an outsider, a role to which he is condemned. He is made painfully aware of this role of outsider-inside by his isolation, obvious only to himself, before the meeting begins. His embarrassment, which he aggravates by endlessly sharpening quills, aptly characterizes Julien as a very self-conscious being. The presence of the Bishop of Agde serves to remind the reader again of the distance covered by our hero since Julien was also in the role of messenger when the bishop appeared in Verrières.

The affair of the secret note affords another insight into the manner in which Stendhal utilizes actual happenings as a basis for fiction. Although the novel is set in 1830, at the end of the autocratic reign of Charles X, this episode is based upon incidents that took place during the reign of Louis XVIII (1815-24), the more liberal brother of Charles. The memory of Napoleon's One Hundred Days in 1815 and Louis' liberalism actually caused the ultras to plot with foreign powers in an effort to re-establish the reactionary spirit of the "ancien régime." Stendhal's conspirators are speaking "historically," without naming him, of Louis XVIII, although they are "living" under the reign of Louis' successor, Charles X. The "Ordonnances de Juillet" by which Charles X attempted to revoke the Charter embodying the principles of the Revolution of '89 and to stifle freedom of the press precipitated the July Revolution of 1830, which hailed the "bourgeois king," Louis-Philippe, who re-established liberalism and reigned until 1848.

This incident and others of political inspiration in the novel were added by Stendhal after the July Revolution. He could hardly have included them with impunity before that date.

Stendhal has a predilection for the mystery of clandestine operations, of spy intrigue, including secret rendezvous to which only the initiated are admitted. It is at once related to his own adventures (he was pursued by the Austrian police for his liberal views) and simply an indication of the exclusiveness of the "happy few," the elite of whom Stendhal counted himself as one.

Although Julien has definite republican sympathies, he is in the service of legitimists. Aside from aptly describing this social pariah — the idealist who champions the revolutionary cause but who traffics with the enemy out of necessity — Julien's paradoxical position betrays the political ambiguities of Stendhal himself. Defender of liberalism and, at the same time, aspiring to the good old days of the monarchy, Stendhal nonetheless abhorred the idea of a democracy.

Stendhal's apology for inclusion of the political discussion should not be taken too seriously by the reader. Furthermore, the political and social substrata of the novel are the context in which Julien's individual adventure is realized. This is the most illustrious role that Julien will play as an individual subservient to others. His next brief "position" will seem to grant him a momentary social independence. The power hierarchy, so ubiquitous in the novel, is apparent even in this assemblage of the summit. Some are deferential to others, some can be outspoken and ironic, others must be silent.

It should be noted that Stendhal limits the narration strictly to Julien's perception and comprehension of the mysterious proceedings. The reader has the impression that he, too, is an outsider privileged to eavesdrop. We are rarely told any more than Julien knows. When Julien is excluded briefly during the course of the meeting, the reader is also excluded. And we take our cues from Julien, who takes his from interpreting the facial expressions and tone of voice of the Marquis de la Mole.

Three minor characters have reappeared in these chapters: Castanède, Agde, Géronimo. Their reappearance reminds us of Julien's progress: He is now the very successful protégé of the Marquis de la Mole, and he fulfills his mission without a hitch.

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