Summary and Analysis
After reading Mathilde's letter, the marquis is beside himself with rage and hurls every insult at Julien. Julien offers to commit suicide or to be killed by the marquis' men. He goes to Pirard for advice. Mathilde learns of Julien's suicide note and resolutely tells her father that if Julien dies, she dies, and that she will appear as Julien's widow to society. When Julien returns to Paris, Mathilde convinces him to leave and to let her manage her father. The latter only shows indecision. Mathilde refuses to negotiate other than on the condition of a marriage with Julien, heedless of what their future might be. In a moment of tenderness, the marquis gives shares worth 10,000 francs to Mathilde for Julien. Julien stays with Pirard, who has become Mathilde's best ally in trying to convince the marquis of the necessity of a public marriage.
The marquis cannot bring himself to act. He alternately envisions Julien's accidental death, then entertains the wise counsel of Pirard. Above all, he refuses to believe that his ambition for Mathilde's brilliant future has been thwarted. Mathilde has been seeing Julien almost daily at Pirard's. Finally, the marquis gives the couple an estate in Languedoc as a means to put off making a final decision. By letter, Mathilde begs her father's permission to marry Julien. This causes the marquis to consider the possibility of protecting Julien, of helping him to build a brilliant career. He has a doubt, however, about Julien's sincerity. Has he merely used Mathilde as a means to get ahead in society? Rather than give his permission for the marriage, he gives Julien a title and a commission in the army. Mathilde replies by trying to bargain. She will not communicate news of the title to Julien unless her father agrees to the marriage. The marquis refuses categorically and demands that Julien leave for Strasbourg or all will be rescinded.
Julien prepares to leave for Strasbourg. Pirard explains how the marquis has bought Frilair's silence in order to gain acceptance of the fictitious noble ancestry he has devised for Julien. For five days the latter is in Strasbourg, where his calm dignified bearing, elegance, daring, and ability with arms inspire admiration in his men. Then a letter from Mathilde arrives announcing that all is lost and calling for Julien's immediate return to Paris. There Julien learns that the marquis has inquired of Mme. de Rênal about Julien's past. The answer she has written confirms the fears of the marquis. The letter accuses Julien of making a practice of insinuating himself into respectable families, of seducing the womenfolk, then of ruining them. Julien leaves immediately for Verrières, arriving on a Sunday morning. He buys revolvers, goes to the church, and shoots Mme. de Rênal.
In a crisis, Julien's women are able to act more efficaciously than he is. Mme. de Rênal resolutely initiated the deception of her husband; Mathilde confronts her father successfully. She is more resolute than her father and turns his indecision to her advantage. The passivity that Stendhal bestows on Julien provides the opportunity for enjoyment of maternal affection that the premature death of Stendhal's own mother denied him.
Twice in Chapter 33 Stendhal describes Julien's conduct as tartuffian. As a defense against the marquis' anger, Julien tries to justify his action, all the while expressing his gratitude to the marquis. Then, Julien adopts the required air of contrition to confess his situation to Pirard in the hope of getting advice. In Julien's initial confrontation with the marquis, the only solution the former can hit upon is suicide, or letting himself be killed, a solution he doubtlessly offers without reflection. The thought of his "son" comes to him for the first time, however, and this thought checks his willingness to be killed. Julien plays an extremely passive role in Chapters 33 and 34.
Chapter 34 narrates the give and take between Mathilde and her father. He sits in irresolution; Mathilde presses him by letter. The marquis grants a concession, and this encourages Mathilde to ask for more. Another concession is forthcoming from her father, rather than a definitive action that would condone their marriage. Although the marquis is more sympathetically treated by Stendhal than was M. de Rênal, both have the same role in the author's playing out of his Oedipus complex.
The marquis' doubting of Julien's motivation is a preparation for the event that will bring about the latter's downfall. A parallel development to this preparation, however, is the momentary "taste" of success that Stendhal will allow his hero to have. Stendhal will accord a title and a regiment to Julien. This is typical treatment by Stendhal of his superior beings. They are not destined for a permanent, commonplace happiness, which would, in fact, become vile to them.
Note that Julien already seems far away from the action. His thoughts are absorbed completely by the future of his child. Stendhal begins attenuating Julien's love for Mathilde, and his ambition is reappearing. Stendhal mentions Julien's ambition twice in this chapter. Julien's joy is boundless at the news that he is an officer of the Hussars. He is aware, however, of the ephemeral nature of this goal attained, as he remarks that his story has reached its climax. Julien still misunderstands situations, however, as he attributes his success to himself alone. He has succeeded in making himself loved by this monster of pride. And he summarizes his present situation astutely when he muses that Mathilde cannot live without him, nor M. de la Mole without her.
How many events, and of what moment, Stendhal crowds into Chapter 35. He moves Julien to the pinnacle of success, lets him revel in this glory for the duration of one page, then precipitates events that will divest him of this worldly glory and ultimately destroy him. The marquis has again been Julien's fairy godfather who conjures up the illusion of success and glory, then takes it from him abruptly.
The scene sketched by Stendhal of Julien in all his equestrian glory evokes briefly the same scene in Part I where Julien played a role in the honor guard. The scenes have in common their illusory nature: Then, Julien was merely in the costume of a soldier; now, the abrupt ending of the real role makes its very existence seem doubtful.
Proof of the fact that Julien himself almost believes in his fictitious nobility is furnished by the letter he sends to Chélan, together with money to be distributed to the poor. This is the noble gesture of an aristocrat. Julien wants to believe in his nobility since he would not consider himself a monster if Sorel, a man whom he despises, were not his father. In this way, the tragic contradiction he has been forced to live — a superior soul stifled by mediocrity would be reconciled.
Happiness, for the superior being, is simply not available except in small, almost unbearable doses. The proximity of Stendhal to his hero is again underlined. Stendhal is self-demanding, almost masochistic, and his hero, to whom he denies happiness, is superior because of the denial.
We have noted that Stendhal has already begun to exclude Julien's intimate reactions. This tendency is even more pronounced in Chapter 35 as Julien returns hurriedly to Paris, learns what the catastrophe is, takes to the road again, arrives in Verrières, arms himself, and shoots Mme. de Rênal. It is partially Stendhal's reserve, his timidity, his refusal to let himself be seen that has dictated his attitude in narrating these events almost devoid of reference to the psychology that prompts Julien to act. This ambiguity has given rise to a literary debate that continues to our day. Is this act, the attempted murder of Mme. de Rênal, consistent with the character of Julien? Is Stendhal betraying that psychology in an effort to remain faithful to the historical episode that inspired the novel, and is the denouement therefore artificial? Here are some of the critics' views.
Emile Faguet, noted nineteenth-century critic, saw Julien as committing a senseless act that contradicts his character as established by Stendhal. Faguet denies Stendhal a great degree of intelligence, moreover. He sees Julien as the ruthless, ambitious man, coldly calculating and of unshakable will. The character thus conceived, continues Faguet, Julien should have realized that within a short time the marquis, already having accepted many compromises, would have reversed his decision and sanctioned the marriage. Julien seems to have forgotten that he is master of the situation. The denouement, concludes Faguet, seems a little more false than is permitted.
Another critic, M. Henri Rambaud, defends Faguet's interpretation, seeing Julien simply as the "arriviste" type. These critics would see, therefore, the rapidity and incomplete nature of the narration of these events as evidence of Stendhal's dilemma, his avowal, by omission, of the contradiction he was creating in Julien's character.
On the other hand, the critic Henri Martineau sees this act and the dry, sketched narration leading to it as logical given the character of Julien. Here is the extremely sensitive, impetuous hero who has throughout the novel attempted, with varying degrees of success, to submit his spontaneity to the discipline of self-control, to disguise his true feelings by hypocrisy. Such a type is capable, as his past conduct has shown, of seeing his discipline thwarted by the sudden eruption of his passion. When this occurs, the act is but the next movement from its inspiration. Therefore, Stendhal is obliged to reduce the narration to its barest elements, to get Julien there, to have him commit the act. The narration reflects the motivation: Julien is in a semi-somnambulistic state. He has but one idea — revenge on Mme. de Rênal — and any other detail would be extraneous.
And why does Julien want revenge? Herein lies the psychological insight of Stendhal. Julien both hates and loves Mme. de Rênal. He has never reached the end of his love for her, yet she has apparently deliberately lied about his conduct. She has ruined his success. His pride and sense of honor have also been wounded. He must avenge himself. Julien's sudden awakening after the act, his long sleep in the jail resulting from excessive tension — these, argues Martineau, are proof that Julien has acted consistently with his character.
Note the scene of the attempted murder. Julien is unable, at first, to fire on Mme. de Rênal because he recognizes her. The bell rings at that moment marking the Elevation of the Host. Mme. de Rênal bows her head, and he no longer recognizes her so clearly. He fires. Only when she ceases to exist momentarily, as herself, defined as an individual whom he loves, is he capable of the act. The ringing of the bell might be instrumental also in the very commission of the act. Its abrupt occurrence, followed by another action, the bowing of heads, calls for another: the firing of the pistol. This would constitute a sort of demotivation of the act, reminiscent of Gide's attempts to produce the gratuitous act in Les Caves du Vatican and of Camus' scene in L'Etranger, where Meursault through the complicity of things — — the sun's reflection, heat — fires on the Arab. Here, there is a "chain of events," one producing another, an inexorable rhythm created thereby, to which Julien almost involuntarily and mechanically contributes.