Just before his trial, Julien pleads guilty of premeditated attempted murder to the judge and to his own defense lawyer, who visit his cell. Mathilde has succeeded in establishing a contact between Mme. de Fervaques and M. de Frilair with the result that promise has been intimated of a bishopric for Frilair in exchange for his willingness to influence the jurors. Frilair is certain of being able to control the votes of Valenod, de Moirod, and Cholin, and of being able to bring about an acquittal. In spite of the protests of her husband, Mme. de Rênal has come to Besançon and has personally written a plea of mercy for Julien to each of the thirty-six jurors.
All of Besançon has turned out for the trial. Mathilde makes a final tearful visit to Frilair, who assures her that all has been arranged. The jurors will vote as Valenod votes. Julien has decided not to speak out in his own defense at the trial. The trial begins. The audience, mostly women, is obviously sympathetic toward the defendant. The trial lasts far into the night with no recess. Julien delivers a final oration after the summation in spite of his resolve not to speak. The jury returns with a verdict of guilty with premeditation. Julien's only comment to the court is that he has been justly condemned to death.
Julien is moved to the death cell. His thoughts are only of Mme. de Rênal, whom he would hope to see before he dies. Mathilde disturbs his peaceful sleep to plead that he appeal for another trial. Julien stands firm in his refusal in spite of Mathilde's entreaties. Julien gives the same answer to his lawyer, and he feels more kindly disposed toward the lawyer as they depart than he does toward Mathilde.
These chapters relate the trial and the events immediately before and after it.
Julien's soliloquy reveals his calm acceptance of the inevitability of his death. This attitude is in marked contrast to the frantic activity of Mathilde and Mme. de Rênal to bring about his acquittal. Julien remains ignorant of their attempts, and the ironic result is that they are working at cross purposes: Julien admits premeditation, but Mme. de Rênal urges the jurors not to find premeditation; Julien refuses to consider a plea of jealousy, as Mathilde, swallowing her pride, urges him to plead.
Chapter 40 brings Mme. de Rênal back into focus in preparation for the final role she will play in the last chapters. The movement of the short chapter shifts from Julien's cell to the final efforts of Mathilde with Frilair, and finally to the passionate plea for mercy that is Mme. de Rênal's letter. In passing, Stendhal alludes to the effect that the trial has had on Besançon. This adds to the brief, but complete and suspenseful, summing up of everyone's pretrial state.
Note the point at which Julien has arrived in his elaboration of an "art of living." In his own mind, his affair is already classified. He is finally enjoying a life in which he may give himself over completely to contemplation, to dreams of past happiness with Mme. de Rênal, to an objective, dispassionate self-scrutiny and evaluation. Any invasion of his privacy by sordid details of life outside his cell is painful to him. Freudians would see in the Stendhalian hero's passive, blissful state achieved in the protectiveness of prison Stendhal's desire to return to the womb. When maternal Mme. de Rênal finally joins Julien in this happy seclusion, such a view is even more convincing.
We witness the trial scene from Julien's point of view. Thus, the reader adopts Julien's physical vantage point, and he observes not individual faces in the courtroom but groups of faces, mostly feminine, localized only generally by their position vis-à-vis Julien. Across from the dock above the jurors and judge, twelve to fifteen pretty women occupy three galleries. In the circular gallery overhanging the crowded courtroom are more young, pretty faces. Just as he enters the courtroom, Julien glimpses the gothic pillars, an isolated and clear detail of the blurred scene that surrounds him. After his initial view, by means of a wide sweep Julien's attention is attracted to the galleries above the jury, where he sees Mme. Derville. Only once does the point of view stray — to appreciate Julien's simple elegance as viewed by the ladies of the courtroom. The description is incomplete and fragmentary, but in that respect realistic. It is a foretaste of Stendhal's great battle scene in the Charterhouse in which the battle of Waterloo is seen from the point of view of an individual soldier, who is never quite sure of what is transpiring. This realistic technique was admired and imitated by the great Tolstoy. The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, portrays war realistically in much the same way that Stendhal had done.
Is it accurate to say that Julien commits suicide? Again, Stendhal does not offer an explicit answer. The answer lies partially in another question: Would Valenod have betrayed Julien had the latter not denounced the society that condemns him? Stendhal has been careful to reintroduce Valenod intermittently and to assert Valenod's jealousy of Julien, who had succeeded in making Mme. de Rênal his mistress. Would this hatred and desire for vengeance have sufficed to cause Valenod to instruct the jury to condemn Julien, or was Julien's brutal condemnation of the aspiring bourgeoisie the final blow that precipitated the betrayal?
At any rate, it is because of his accurate evaluation of the situation and because of his courage in proclaiming it to others that Julien plays a truly heroic role in the court scene. Julien tells the jury that he will be condemned not for having committed the crime but for having violated the social hierarchy, for having risen above his class. Julien, like Camus' Meursault, executes a reversal in position: The accused condemns the accuser. In a sense, Julien assumes the way in which he will die: He rejects the death penalty unless he, first, has admitted its justice. In this regard, he is the ancestor of Malraux's heroes, who do not undergo death passively, but who assume their death.
To what extent is Julien aware of the gravity of the consequences of his oration, assuming that it did incite Valenod to betrayal? It would not appear to have been a deliberate attempt to bring about his own condemnation; rather, it is prompted by his sense of duty, which arises spontaneously. His manner during the trial is one of dignity and courage, although he has difficulty at times in controlling his emotions. During his emotional moments, Julien is seeing himself as the lady spectators see him. The oration would simply be another of those moments when Julien's sensibility betrays him. An impulsive awakening of emotion catches his mask of self-control and calm off guard. That Julien is aware of how others are viewing him during this trial when his life is in the balance should not surprise us too much. This is another faithful rendition of psychological truth by Stendhal. In crucial moments, immediate reactions will many times be quite far from the vital issue. Julien seems to view his trial with a certain objectivity.
One critical view holds that Julien unconsciously harbors a death wish. Such a view would give more responsibility to Julien in the resulting verdict of guilty.
Another view would see in Julien simply another example of the fate of the Stendhalian creature who, having lived so intensely, has burned himself out. It would be the extension on a grander scale of such phenomena as Mathilde's involuntary fainting, of Julien's loss of consciousness in the presence of Pirard, of La Sanseverina's falling asleep while seated in the Charterhouse. Such an interpretation of Julien's role in his own condemnation would be in keeping with Stendhal's romantic conception of character.
Even after the death sentence is read, Julien keeps his aplomb and inner calm. He lucidly examines the act of vengeance that Valenod has committed and muses momentarily on what will await him after life. Recalled to reality by Mathilde's cry, Julien's thoughts come with haste and confusion, but he contains these and expresses outwardly only his approval of the death penalty.
Note that the most strained emotional moments undergone by the characters are related with the most clipped, terse, and abrupt prose by Stendhal.
Stendhal continues to "detach" Julien from the action, a tendency we first noticed when the hero left to assume his commission in the army. Now that he is condemned to death, Julien's detachment is even more strongly pronounced. In musing about himself, Julien utilizes the past tense. He sees himself as having already been guillotined, which produces the effect of an even greater degree of objectivity achieved by Julien. This approach and the ironic self-detachment characterizing his interior monologue are no doubt a sort of defense mechanism. Julien is steeling himself in order not to give way to the horror of death. At the same time, it is part of the new happiness, the "art of living" that Julien has perfected now that he is in the seclusion of the prison cell.
Unconsciously, Julien is punishing Mathilde for all the humiliations she has imposed on him, as he refuses to give serious thought to her appeals. He even solicits her praise at his courtroom heroism, which is reminiscent of the ideal that characterized their love. In a sense, Julien has been victorious in their heroic rivalry: He has invited death and refused to appeal the sentence. It is quite possible that Mathilde feels somewhat cheated. Julien is destroying her own heroic role.
Stendhal depicts for us here a truly superior soul. Julien is moved by genuine suffering, sensitive but proud to the point of refusing to expose his suffering to the view of others, thus to debasement. The tiresome presence of Mathilde succeeds only intermittently in piercing the reverie that increasingly characterizes the mental life of Julien. He imagines Mme. de Rênal's reaction after his death. Stendhal is preparing for the long-awaited arrival of Julien's first and only love.