Henri Beyle (Stendhal) was born in 1783, in Grenoble, into a respectable, middle-class family. Chérubin Beyle, Stendhal's father, a reactionary in politics, was an industrious, narrow-minded bourgeois, whom Henri detested and to whom he later referred as the "bâtard." Stendhal loved his mother tenderly, but this delightful woman, whose origin Stendhal liked to think was Italian, died when he was only seven. Later, he idealized her memory just as he exaggerated the mediocrity of his father. Of a fiery and rebellious nature, Stendhal declared himself early to be an atheist and "jacobin," or liberal — an expression of revolt, no doubt, against his father.
Stendhal studied at the Ecole Centrale in Grenoble until 1799, excelling in mathematics and art. Thirsting for adventure, he went to Paris, and securing a commission in the army, sojourned briefly in Italy, a country he came to love above France. Back in Paris, Stendhal resigned from the army, and from 1802 until 1806, he studied the eighteenth-century materialistic philosophers Helvétius and Cabanis, and aspired unsuccessfully to become a playwright. A highly placed relative obtained for Stendhal an administrative position in the army that took him to Germany, with periodic trips back to Paris. In 1812, he participated in Napoleon's Russian retreat.
Stendhal's first literary endeavors were biographies, Vies de Haydn, de Mozart, et de Métastase, written in 1815 in Milan, where he lived as a dilettante, fraternizing with Italian liberals, delighting in Italian art and music. He was so taken with Italy, and in particular with Milan, that he requested that his epitaph read: "Henri Beyle, Milanais." He believed that Italy afforded a more propitious atmosphere for the pursuit of the cult of energy than did more prosaic, post-Napoleonic France. Turning to art criticism, he wrote Histoire de la Peinture en Italie (1817), and addressing himself to tourism, Rome, Naples, et Florence (1817).
Stendhal's unsuccessful love affair with Méthilde Dembowski inspired him to write the autobiographical treatise De l'Amour (1822). Méthilde served as a model for various of Stendhal's subsequent heroines. The treatise analyzes the mechanism of love as Stendhal had observed it operating in himself. The second part of the work is a pseudo-sociological study purporting to show how rational temperament influences and modifies the love mechanism. Stendhal was forced to leave Milan in 1821 because of his liberal political beliefs.
Back in Paris from 1821 until 1830, Stendhal experienced financial hardships. In 1823 and 1825, he published parts I and II, respectively, of Racine et Shakespeare, in which he praised Shakespeare as superior in psychological analysis to the classical Racine. The work elaborates the prevailing romantic view in esthetics that proclaimed the relativism of beauty. Stendhal saw in Romanticism the latest manifestation of the beautiful. In Part II of the work, Stendhal addressed himself to the comic, attempted to define it, and proclaimed Molière, the French classical comic genius, to be a literary anachronism. Stendhal seemed to favor Shakespeare only when the latter Italianized his plays. Stendhal's cult of energy caused him to execrate contemplatives such as Hamlet.
At the age of forty-four, Stendhal wrote his first novel, Armance, which neither his friends nor the public acclaimed. It was intended as a psychological study of Octave, an impotent who ultimately commits suicide. Octave's physical anomaly prefigures and is symbolic of the Stendhalian hero's inability to accept life as offered by Restoration society. The Stendhalian theme of the pursuit of individual happiness is already apparent, but Octave is unsuccessful in his search, preferring suicide to compromise as a solution to his dilemma. Stendhal's own reserve and the prevailing mores prevented him from clarifying the nature of Octave's affliction for the reader, and the resulting ambiguity was the reason that the public found the hero enigmatic. The society that Octave opposes with such violence is not minutely described by the novelist, therefore the social dimension of the novel is unconvincing.
Turning away from the novel, Stendhal composed Promenades dans Rome (1829), utilizing surplus material from his earlier travelogues and notes offered by a cousin. The work has been called a glorified guidebook, by which is meant that Stendhal's original perceptions and impressions illuminate many pages of what would otherwise simply be a book of tourism. In this work, Stendhal again exposed the concept of relativism in esthetics, proclaiming that the concept of the beautiful varies from age to age and among cultures.
The realistic note that runs through Stendhal's literary endeavors — fictional, biographical, documentary, critical, and journalistic — stems from his need to anchor himself solidly in reality as a point of departure. Everything he wrote begins in the realm of facts. He imposes his impressions and transforms reality, but it is a reality exterior to himself that furnishes the plot or subject matter.
Thus, The Red and the Black, Chronicle of the XIX Century, written in 1829 and published in 1831, fictionalizes and elaborates an actual happening of which Stendhal had read in records of court proceedings. The historical person who served as a model for Julien Sorel was a certain Antoine Berthet, convicted, like Julien, of murder in December 1827, at Grenoble. Berthet was the son of a Brangues blacksmith. At twenty, he became preceptor in the home of a local dignitary, M. Michoud, and probably became the lover of Mme. Michoud. Leaving the Michoud home, Berthet entered a seminary at Belley, from which he was dismissed as undesirable. From there, he went as preceptor to the home of M. de Cordon. He had an affair with the latter's daughter and was sent away. Now desperate, without a future or position, but still in love with Mme. Michoud, Berthet began writing threatening letters to Mme. Michoud, accusing her of infidelity toward him and of calumny, holding her responsible for his failure. His intimidations and threats finally caused M. Michoud to find a position for Berthet in the home of some cousins. One Sunday, however, Antoine returned to Brangues, followed Mme. Michoud to church, and shot her during the service.
Berthet's story, reduced to this pattern, is the story of Julien Sorel, hero of the novel. The three successive stages in Julien's adventure have their counterparts in Berthet's life. Few details about the third phase of Berthet's life were available from the Grenoble trial records, and Stendhal was forced to stray from the facts in his creation of Julien's experiences with Mathilde in the Mole episode. Critics still debate as to how successfully Stendhal extricated himself from the dilemma resulting from the implicit divergence in the careers of Julien and Antoine in the third phase.
The novel has political and social dimensions also. The story of the individual, Julien, is narrated against a background of contemporary events. A variation of the subtitle given by Stendhal to the novel Chronicle of 1830 — calls attention to the circumstances of the composition of the novel and to its political implications. Stendhal conceived the novel at the end of the autocratic reign of Charles X, and although the novelist foresaw the revolution that overthrew the Bourbon dynasty in 1830, he dared not publish it until the following year.
Just as Stendhal's position vis-à-vis his time was one of revolt, his protagonists, as projections of himself, are portrayed as being in conflict with their milieu. Julien Sorel is an outsider, a peasant, nurtured by the example of Napoleon, the army officer become emperor, who would become an aristocrat in a caste society where the equality promised by the revolution was no longer a possibility.
The Stendhalian hero without insuperable obstacles would no longer be a hero, nor for that matter, would he be worthy of portrayal through analysis at all. Since the Stendhalian ideal of the superior man engaged in the elaboration of an art of living to assure him happiness is only conceivable in a negative posture of revolt, society presents itself quite naturally in the role of the obstacle. Julien has not only the exterior world as an obstacle, he is likewise endowed with a contradictory nature that compounds his dilemma. His extreme sensibility, virtue, and generosity will prevent him from succeeding like the unscrupulous, calculating bourgeois parvenu, Valenod.
The novel presents conflict on two levels: Julien's inner struggle is waged between ambition and a predisposition to an idyllic happiness; and his conflict against society engages both aspects of his nature.
The social and political aspects of the novel are inseparably fused with the psychological study of a superior being, and this fusion constitutes the artistic unity of the work. Such an organic unity was lacking in Armance.
This novel demonstrates Stendhal's belief that art is the expression of intense emotion, presented with simplicity and directness. The reader, Stendhal hoped, would be jolted by what he read and would participate by visualizing, by experiencing the narration personally. Although Stendhal possessed the extreme sensibility of a woman, as he put it, he reacted violently against the personal effusions and unbridled subjectivity of the Romanticists. He believed that even passion has its modesty. Therefore, Stendhal carefully checks and controls the expression of Julien's emotions as he does his own.
Stendhal's character presentation alternates omniscient analysis and interior monologue. Both methods are characterized by transitional omissions, which betoken Stendhal's "pudeur," his refusal to be penetrated by another consciousness, and by sudden, seemingly spontaneous, affective reactions that startle the characters themselves as much as the reader, and that demonstrate realistically the autonomy of the emotions. These sudden jolts experienced by the characters as they discover themselves and Stendhal's rapid narration create an air of tension that intrigues the reader.
A disciple of the eighteenth-century materialists and a precursor, in this respect, of the determinism of Naturalism, Stendhal conceived the formation of mind and character of man as resulting from experiences he undergoes with external reality. He puts his characters, therefore, in typical situations of everyday life and watches them react.
After the ascension to the throne of Louis-Philippe, the bourgeois king, Stendhal secured an appointment as consul in Civita-Vecchia, Italy, where he served from 1831 to 1836. During this time, he wrote his autobiographies, Souvenirs d'Egotisme, the Vie de Henry Brulard, and an unfinished novel, Lucian Leuwen. These were all published posthumously.
Henry Brulard is just one of the dozens of pseudonyms that Stendhal adopted and discarded during his life. The work investigates his early life through adolescence and was prompted by his need to know himself. It is the antithesis of Rousseau's Confessions in that Stendhal, typically rigorously self-demanding, is frank and truthful to the point of deprecating himself. He reconstitutes his intellectual and emotional formation in Grenoble. Although the work is full of historical inaccuracies, it presents an accurate account of the psychological reactions of the child and adolescent.
The Souvenirs d'Egotisme recalls later years, specifically the last years of the Restoration. Stendhal abandoned his autobiographical attempts because of his inability to resolve the inner conflict that they inspired. Although he felt the imperious need to know himself, he was constantly checked by his strong sense of modesty and reserve.
Lucien Leuwen again satirically opposes a protagonist to the contemporary scene, the politically and socially corrupt France of Louis-Philippe. The melancholy and calm of the novel contrast in mood with the tense Red and the Black. The hero, Lucien, is not motivated by passion or energy. Rather than imposing himself on the world, he seems to undergo influence more passively and, with aloofness, scorns those with whom he must interact. He would seem to exemplify Stendhal's thirst for freedom from restraint. Like Julien, Lucien is in search of an identity and happiness. He is not orphaned or alienated from society but is protected by his father in a political career, and had Stendhal finished the novel, Lucien would have ultimately married his only love, Bathilde, patterned after Méthilde, and presumably would have found happiness. In this novel, Stendhal took greater pains to render in depth the lesser characters. His inspiration for the novel went beyond contemporary events. The plot he plagiarized from a work that a friend had written with the request that Stendhal criticize it. Stendhal, no more so than the classicists of the seventeenth century, did not feel scruples about plagiarism.
Temporarily abandoning fiction, Stendhal turned again to biography, Vie de Napoléon (1839), to tragic adventure stories, Chroniques italiennes (1837-39), and to another travelogue, Mémoires d'un touriste (1839). The latter is a satire of customs and mores of provincial French life.
Within a period of two months at the end of 1839, Stendhal improvised his second masterpiece in the novel, The Charterhouse of Parma. The source was again historical, an old Italian chronicle narrating the life of Alexandre Farnèse. Although the action of Stendhal's novel is placed during the first third of the nineteenth century, the violent passions and fierce individualism of the Italian Renaissance motivate the characters. Love is the theme of Charterhouse, as it had been the major preoccupation of Stendhal's life, although political intrigue and heroic adventures abound.
Fabrice del Dongo follows somewhat the pattern of the Stendhalian hero — he seeks happiness — but in his adventurous pursuit, he is joined and protected by three other chosen creatures. Fabrice does not, therefore, know the social solitude of Julien. He is loved by his aunt, Sanseverina, and protected by her husband, Count Mosca. While imprisoned, Fabrice falls in love with the jailor's daughter, Clélia, and it is this love that changes him profoundly, as it does the other "elect." Fabrice does not repeat the projected denouement of Lucien, however, by an idyllic marriage. Like Julien, Fabrice is allowed but a glimpse of happiness on this earth and then dies young. In Fabrice's separation from Clélia, there is glory and the hope that a final union beyond this life will occur. Rather than being a creature of egotism, such as is Julien, Fabrice is a more generous soul. Even though society is opposed to Stendhal's ideal of individualism, the forceful alliance of these four exceptional beings — Fabrice, Clélia, La Sanseverina, and Mosca — would seem to represent a sort of triumph over society. Balzac commented that this novel could only be truly appreciated by the diplomat, statesman, or man of the world, so intricate are its political innuendos.
Stendhal returned to his consular post in Italy in 1839, where he began his last novel, Lamiel, destined never to be completed. Instead of a hero, here he presents a heroine, Lamiel, who further differs from Stendhal's previous protagonists in that she is driven only by an avid curiosity and meets with success by yielding to the expression of spontaneity. She is the most successful adventurer of Stendhal, the most primitive of his protagonists in her amorality, rising from the peasant class to become the queen of Paris.
When Stendhal died in Paris in 1842, his burial in the Montmartre cemetery was attended by three faithful friends, one of whom was Mérimée. Stendhal had written for himself and for the "happy few," and his prediction that he had taken a ticket in a lottery that would be drawn in 1935 has proven accurate since his most appreciative audience has been that of the twentieth century.