Julien is imprisoned in Verrières, unaware that Mme. de Rênal has miraculously escaped death and that the kind treatment he receives in prison is due to her intervention. He writes his farewell to Mathilde, requesting that she never attempt to see him again. Julien is overjoyed to learn that Mme. de Rênal is not dead. He has confessed numerous times to the public prosecutor who visits him, and he hopes, by this means, to simplify the procedure and to be left alone. He is moved to another prison in a gothic tower in Besançon. He begins to relive his past with Mme. de Rênal and finds that there was happiness. He contemplates suicide, then rejects the idea.
Julien receives the visits of Chélan and Fouqué. Chélan disheartens him, weakening his courage. Fouqué cheers him. The interrogations continue in spite of Julien's frank avowal of guilt. Fouqué attempts to intervene by means of a visit to Frilair. The latter is increasingly intrigued by the mystery of the Sorel affair, and he will attempt to benefit from it. Julien hopes not to have to endure a visit from his father, and Fouqué is horrified at this lack of filial love.
Mathilde visits Julien disguised as Madame Michelet. She has made overtures everywhere to gain Julien's release. Of these attempts she tells him nothing. Julien finds her extremely attractive, and, out of respect and admiration, he abandons himself with ecstasy to her love. Mathilde has visited Frilair, leader of the Besançon Congregation, erstwhile enemy of her father. She discloses to Frilair enough information to arrive at a sort of bargain: She will exercise her influence in Paris to Frilair's advantage in exchange for Frilair's assurance that he will work for the acquittal of Julien.
Mathilde has requested that Mme. de Fervaques use her influence with a bishop to negotiate with Frilair. Mathilde has bribed the guards to gain constant access to Julien. The latter reproaches himself for not appreciating Mathilde's superhuman efforts to save him or her passionate ecstasies. He proposes that she turn over their child to Mme. de Rênal. Mathilde, offended at this suggestion, finds that she is increasingly obliged to fight against Julien's growing inclination for solitude and against an awakening of affection for Mme. de Rênal. He returns to the subject of his child's future but approaches it more diplomatically.
From this point on, Julien's life will be lived in the jail cell. Although his physical life will be severely limited, his mental and psychological life will be very active, and he will ultimately know the happiness he has sought, once the voice of ambition stills itself, out of necessity. Julien will arrive at a sort of self-knowledge. Here begin to unfurl the various preoccupations of Julien that will be fully developed in later chapters: his decreasing interest in Mathilde and the ever-increasing thought of Mme. de Rênal; his meditations on death, courage, and happiness.
Let us analyze one of Julien's states of mind. Finally emerging from his hypnotic state, Julien's first comment is that it is over; there is only death awaiting him, either by the guillotine or by suicide. Then he falls asleep. It is as if he realizes the necessity of steeling himself, of adopting an attitude, in order to avoid falling into the anguish of fear. His defiant confession to the judge is simply a refusal to submit to the humiliation of being judged, reserving this right for himself. Next he feels the tiresome duty of reporting to Mathilde, to inform her of his act of vengeance, to request that she forget him. It is not only an accounting to his partner in heroism to prove that he is worthy, but also the expression of an unconscious wish to be rid of her.
Then comes the first awesome realization of the death that awaits him. At the hint of the appearance of fear, Julien rallies his courage and rejects the idea of remorse by rationalization: He has been wronged; he has wronged; he must be punished. He rounds out this reasoning by scorning society, which might see some glory in his execution only if he were to scatter gold among the people on his way to the scaffold. Stendhal's presentation of Julien as the victim of society, condemned not for the crime of attempted murder but for not accepting his place in that society, no doubt inspired Camus in his portrayal of Meursault in L'Etranger. Meursault killed an Arab, but he is found guilty because he did not weep at his mother's funeral. Meursault's acceptance of the verdict echoes many of Julien's thoughts of these final chapters.
Julien's carefully constructed mask is completely destroyed when he learns that Mme. de Rênal is not dead at all. At this news, Julien is reduced instantaneously to a simple, defenseless child in tears, and he sees the will of God in his act. Only now does Julien permit himself to feel repentance for his crime, and it is his own renewed love for Mme. de Rênal that prompts his joyous cry that she will live, then, to love him still. Momentarily, he thinks now of escape but dismisses the idea since it would depend upon bribing the ignoble jailor.
Julien's prison tower cell affords him a beautiful view. It is another of the symbols of the elevated isolation of the superior soul. Stendhal puts Fabrice in a similar situation in The Charterhouse. Moreover, Fabrice comes to prefer the prison to freedom since he has fallen in love with the jailor's daughter. It will be only in such solitude, safely shut off from the world, that Julien will find happiness. Note that in Stendhal's view, the hero is less excluded from society by his imprisonment than is society denied access to the hero.
Julien resigns himself again, however, to the justice of the death penalty. Life is not boring for him since he begins to see it from a new slant. Julien is amazed at what is happening to him inwardly. Stendhal's heroes watch themselves, discover themselves. There is nothing predetermined about them in the sense that characters are often "flat" and never surprise us. Balzac tends to create flat characters; Stendhal's are round, using the terminology of E. M. Forster (Aspects of the Novel). It is this aspect of Stendhal's character portrayal that has found much favor with contemporary existentialistic critics. The Stendhalian hero is forced to be free, is condemned to the eternal state of becoming. He discovers himself daily in order to remake himself.
What are these perceptions of his glorious future in prison? Julien's rediscovery of the happiness he had with Mme. de Rênal and of the fact that he still loves her. Stendhal's analysis of Julien operates by the associational method: Remorse makes Julien think of Mme. de Rênal and of his past happiness; at other times, thinking that he might have killed her, Julien swears that, in that event, he would have committed suicide; suicide, an imagined consequence of that past possibility, then looms as a possibility in the present. Still measuring himself against Napoleon, Julien rejects suicide since Napoleon went on living. The end of Chapter 36 finds Julien temporarily happy with his present surroundings.
Julien's imprisonment will be punctuated by intermittent visitors. Even here he cannot escape the outside world. Note the contrasting effects that his visitors have on him: The aged Chélan presents to Julien only the images of death and decay in spite of his reasoning that his own death in the prime of life ought to dispel such a vision; the antidote is the vision of the sublime afforded by the simplicity, sincerity, and artless friendship of Fouqué.
Part of Stendhal's uniqueness for his age as a psychological novelist is obscured to us by the developments in the novel posterior to Stendhal, and to which we are very much accustomed. Stendhal was one of the first novelists to portray how the individual is altered by the influence exerted upon him from surrounding reality. In this respect, he antedates naturalism. Such alternations have, in fact, been carefully noted throughout the novel be Stendhal, but they are particularly noticeable during the episode relating Julien's imprisonment. Here, any intrusion on Julien's isolation produces dramatic reactions in his soul.
Julien hits upon the idea of the thermometer to measure his courage, and this gives rise to his resolution to be courageous when it will be required of him. We have already witnessed Julien's tendency to bolster his courage in the present by assuring himself of his future self-control.
Although he is safely imprisoned, Julien is still the victim of society and of its intrigues. This theme is taken up again by Stendhal and will be amplified in what follows.
Julien plays almost no role in Chapter 38. More hints are given that he is losing interest in Mathilde. The time has come for Mathilde to play out in reality her ideal dream of heroic self-sacrifice for her own version of Boniface de La Mole. The Julien-Mathilde continues to be Cornelian: Julien now really merits her love since Mathilde may assume that what prompted his crime was love for her. This incarnation in Julien of her ideal plus his increasing indifference toward her will intensify Mathilde's love. She seems, in fact, to love Julien desperately even though Stendhal will tell us that this love needs the third party to witness it. That is, Mathilde's heroic efforts to save Julien at the risk of loss of her own reputation are partially inspired by her need to impress the world, to be admired by others. She aspires to see herself loving Julien as others would see her. Hers is still an intellectual love.
Mathilde's visit to Frilair is reminiscent of Julien's entrance into the seminary. Both must screw up their courage as they approach the lion in his den. The confrontation between Mathilde and Frilair might be considered a battle in ruse in which Mathilde will not have the upper hand. Nevertheless, Frilair and Mathilde are fairly evenly matched as adversaries, and, in the end, both will be duped.
The action in Chapter 39 takes place wholly in Julien's cell. At first there is not one specific incident narrated; rather, several visits, all similar, are fused to comprise a typical one in which the attitude of Mathilde and Julien are contrasted. The final conversation closing the short chapter becomes the result of what precedes and stands for one specific visit. Here is represented one of Stendhal's typical methods of narration.
Julien is tired of heroism. He is more virtuous now than at any time in his life since ambition no longer goads him. Therefore, he reproaches himself for what he has done to the marquis and Mathilde de la Mole. It is here that Stendhal advises us that Julien, unwittingly, is hopelessly in love with Mme. de Rênal. Julien's awareness of this fact is dim, expressing itself only in his desire to give his offspring to Mme. de Rênal. Rebuffed by Mathilde, Julien artfully returns to the same subject, expressed in terms that would appeal to Mathilde's turn of mind. Note that Stendhal does not comment on Julien's stratagem. His conduct toward Mathilde is reminiscent of that which he adopted in his "seduction" of Mme. de Fervaques. This is the first manifestation of Julien's new attitude toward Mathilde. He relies on duplicity to convince her. Later, as he becomes increasingly irked by her presence, he will punish her somewhat sadistically.
Note, in Julien's presentation, Stendhal's own preoccupation with the future. Stendhal was convinced that his real public would be that of the twentieth century. The appearance of the idea of abolishment of capital punishment, a contemporary issue, would bear out Stendhal's conviction that he was writing for the future.