Summary and Analysis
Julien sees Mathilde after a period of separation, and she commands him to attend a ball with her brother. Julien is dazzled by the magnificence of the Hôtel de Retz and by the brilliance of the aristocracy in attendance. Although Mathilde is the center of attraction, she is bored with the lack of color that characterizes all of her suitors. Julien and Altamira, a liberal condemned to die, are the only men present who intrigue her, and they seem unmoved by her charm, unlike Croisenois and the others of his ilk.
In her boredom and because of her fascination with the unconventional, the exciting, the unusual, Mathilde seeks out the company of Julien and Altamira, who are deeply engrossed in a conversation about political expediency and idealism. They remain oblivious to her presence. Piqued, Mathilde seeks to tire herself by dancing and engages in a verbal bout with the impertinent Fervaques, a bout in which she is pitilessly victorious. Julien's admiration for Altamira is unbounded, and the day after the ball, as he works in the library, he is still engaged in an endless inner debate between expediency and idealism. Mathilde appears and reappears, hoping to attract his attention. When Julien deigns to answer her question about the object of his thoughts, he overwhelms her with his reflections. Mathilde hastily retires, realizing that she has interrupted his thoughts.
These chapters serve as preparation for the beginning of Julien's affair with Mathilde. Unaware that she is doing so, she will instinctively seek out Julien as a potential realization of the ideal she seeks — a noble soul capable of self-sacrifice for great ideals.
The chief point of view of narration is that of Mathilde. Stendhal's artistry as a psychological novelist requires that the reader supply the explicit formulation of the characters' motivation. Why does Mathilde command Julien's presence at the ball? We are to conclude that this is precipitated by her boredom and by the conversation she has had with her father concerning Julien. In that conversation, the marquis praised Julien for being capable of the unexpected and found his own son inferior by comparison. Stendhal transforms psychological analysis into action, expecting the reader to supply the explicit description of the psychological movement. Not even Mathilde arrives at an awareness of her own motivation.
Stendhal creates the ball, in all its sterile glitter, as a fitting stage where Mathilde's boredom may be displayed as having reached its paroxysm. In this regard, the ball scene is the culmination of the salon scenes in the Hôtel de la Mole.
Stendhal takes little interest in describing the ball as such. He presents no exhaustive description of costumes, physical surroundings, or of guests. We have the impression of crowds mainly because Mathilde seems endlessly searching for Julien. Stendhal limits the point of view to that of Mathilde and Julien. The reader's appreciation of the ball is, therefore, limited to that of the characters. This represents a partial abandonment of the traditional omniscient point of view and previews more radical innovations in technique by late nineteenth- and twentieth-century novelists.
Were Mathilde less appealing to her suitors, she would be less bored. Stendhal emphasizes her role as the most sought-after beauty of the season in order to put her boredom in relief. Any unearned victory, rather victory as such, is considered by Mathilde as a defeat since it supposes an end to battle. Happiness, for the "beyliste," is no more than the search for happiness. Ironically, only those potential realizations of Mathilde's ideal are indifferent to her — Altamira and Julien.
It would be inexact to say that Mathilde is, at this stage, directing her attentions exclusively toward Julien as an individual. Julien and Altamira appear not as individuals but as a human type, a realization of her ideal. Mathilde's ideal will ultimately individualize itself into Julien.
Julien finds a kindred soul in Altamira, the only individual in the novel who earns the hero's unreserved admiration. In these chapters, Stendhal gives more ample consideration to the conflict between idealism and expediency. Ironically, Julien aspires to revolutionary liberalism, but he is becoming more firmly entrenched in the home of an ultra. He, an ambitious pariah, idolizes Altamira, a liberal whose idealism has condemned him to death. This, Stendhal is saying, is the lamentable state to which the glorious revolutionary principles have degenerated during the autocratic Restoration. Altamira is Julien's double. Because of her pride and superiority, Mathilde is very worthy of Julien, although he continues to find her unattractive, and her pride offends his. Julien has become a dandy, Stendhal tells us, and he conducts himself coldly as a defense against Mathilde's haughtiness. He will not fail to notice, however, that others admire her, that, in fact, she is the attraction of the ball. He will begin to see her differently since, prized by others, she must be worthy. Note that Julien disagrees with Altamira, although the reader realizes that Julien is really undecided as he defends so forcibly the position of expediency.
The graphic image of character disposition that may be seen in the ball scene is the following: Altamira is impassioned by his ideal of freedom; Julien shares this ideal and is only attentive to its exponent, Altamira; Mathilde instinctively pursues both as representatives of her own heroic ideal. The result, temporarily, is parallel and unfulfilled aspirations.