Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapters 16-23
Now their love idyll begins: Julien loves her madly, says Stendhal, but his love is still a form of ambition. Mme. de Rênal's great joy is clouded only by the fear that she is too old for Julien. The second night finds Julien forgetting his role and enjoying his experience. Mme. de Rênal takes great pleasure in educating Julien in social manners and in all the political intrigue that reigns in Verrières, of which Julien has been completely ignorant.
The town is honored by a visit of the king, and Mme. de Rênal succeeds in having a place in the guard of honor awarded to Julien. From his role of dashing, handsome officer, Julien moves to that of attendant priest to Chélan in a religious ceremony honoring the local saint. Other important personages to whose presence his role gives him access are the young Bishop Agde, officiating prelate, and M. de La Mole, influential and powerful Parisian aristocrat, Peer of France, in the king's entourage.
When one of her sons falls seriously ill, Mme. de Rênal is convinced that God is punishing her adultery. Witnessing her anguish and torment, Julien finds new reasons to love her. When Stanislas is well, her anguish nevertheless remains since the experience has made her aware of guilt. Their love, however, becomes deeper, more desperate, and somber.
M. de Rênal receives an anonymous letter denouncing Julien as his wife's lover. Julien senses what the letter is and warns Mme. de Rênal not to come to his room that night. She, however, constantly wary that Julien is looking for an excuse to abandon her, comes to his room anyway but is not received. She writes Julien a long letter, elaborating her doubts and reiterating her undying love for him. At the same time, however, she is capable of devising a plan in the event that there does exist an anonymous letter denouncing them. She will pretend also to have received such a letter and will deliver it to her husband to confound him and to allay his doubts.
M. de Rênal is suffering greatly from wounded pride, anger, and self-pity. He is unable to bring himself to take any decisive step. His wife arrives, hands her letter to him, and in the next breath requests that Julien be sent away for a time until the scandal dies down. This represents exactly the solution Rênal would have wanted. It relieves him of the necessity of finding out the truth since it is an avowal of innocence on her part. She furnishes him with further evidence in the form of old love letters written to her by Valenod. She succeeds masterfully in putting him on the wrong track, thereby saving appearances and her affair with Julien.
In order to prove to the town that all is well in the Rênal household, Julien lives in their townhouse. There he is visited by the sub-prefect, M. de Maugiron, who, on the behalf of another, sounds out Julien on the possibility of leaving the Rênal household for a new position. Julien congratulates himself on his ability to satisfy Maugiron with a long-winded answer that constitutes, in effect, no answer to his proposition. Invited to dinner at the home of Valenod, Julien inwardly condemns the vulgar ostentation and bad taste of his hosts. When Valenod silences one of the inmates of the workhouse, Julien finds further grounds to feel superior to Valenod and to scorn him. Julien is invited everywhere; he is held in such esteem as a learned and talented tutor.
When the Rênals come for the day to Verrières, mother and children form a happy family group with Julien, and their happiness irks the mayor, who interrupts the scene. The mayor has been forced by the Congregation to rent out a property at a much lower sum than he could have asked. Valenod, his subordinate whose trickery and intriguing with the Congregation have brought about the downfall of the Jansenist Chélan, has played a role in this intrigue. Valenod is indebted to the Vicar Frilair of the Congregation, and at the same time he is ingratiating himself with the liberals in the event that he falls out of favor with the conservatives and that M. de Rênal takes steps to disgrace him.
Julien learns of these machinations from Mme. de Rênal, and since he attends the mysterious auction, he is taken for the Rênals' spy.
The gloom that reigns in the Rênal household is momentarily dispelled by the unexpected arrival of an Italian singer, recommended highly to Rênal and seeking further recommendations to the French court. His gaiety, exuberance, and talent provide a welcome interlude for the family, and his mission further edifies Julien as to how influence assures promotion and personal advancement.
Meanwhile, several factors precipitate Julien's departure to Besançon. The town is scandalized that M. de Rênal has ignored the talk about the affair in his household. Through Valenod's machinations, Elisa has related to the Jesuit Maslon and to Chélan what is going on between Julien and Mme. de Rênal. Chélan therefore requires of Julien that he either enter the seminary at Besançon, the director of which is Chélan's lifelong friend, or that Julien become the partner of Fouqué. M. de Rênal agrees that Julien must leave. Julien accepts the ultimatum but volunteers, to the great joy of Mme. de Rênal, to return after three days for a last farewell. If Julien goes to Besançon, his education must be financed; if he stays, Valenod will engage him as tutor.
Another anonymous letter received by Rênal presents the occasion for the final intervention of Mme. de Rênal to convince her husband of the necessity of offering money to Julien. At first, Julien accepts the money as a loan, but ultimately, to the joy of the mayor, he refuses it because of his great pride.
Mme. de Rênal, paradoxically, lives only for the last night's rendezvous with Julien, but when it arrives, she is cold and lifeless, anticipating the future emptiness of her life. Julien departs for Besançon.
In these chapters, Julien plays a relatively passive role since his education requires that his experience be enlarged, and this requires that through his teacher, here for the most part Mme. de Rênal, fresh insights into the local political situation be managed for Julien and for the reader. It is as if by seducing Mme. de Rênal, Julien has displayed sufficient initiative so that he may now sit back without having to play an active role himself. He will have only to feel the effects of his relationship with Mme. de Rênal and of other conditions existing in Verrières.
Besides, this is also a political novel, and Stendhal takes time out to add to his scornful expose of the evils of the Restoration on the local level.
It is mainly to Mme. de Rênal that the initiative falls because her love has taught her the necessity of ruse. Julien's earlier petty scheming seems even more ludicrous judged against Mme. de Rênal's daring and heroic stratagems inspired by love. Her love has crystallized to the point where she would make any sacrifice for Julien: She educates him socially and, at the risk of scandal, obtains for Julien the position in the guard of honor. It is likewise she who takes the initiative to skillfully dupe her husband about the anonymous letters. Their love is that of mother and son at the same time that it is of mistress and lover. Julien has never had a mother or the love of a family, and Stendhal remedies this lack by the insertion of an idyllic family scene in which Julien displaces completely Mayor Rênal in Chapter 22. The conclusions to be drawn about Stendhal's own childhood are obvious.
Note that it is mainly on faith that we must believe in Julien's superior intelligence, for Stendhal will rarely permit us to witness any examples of his brilliance and articulate eloquence. The author intervenes to assure us of Julien's superiority, others acclaim him (the Valenods and their guests), and Mme. de Rênal herself predicts a great future for such a brilliant man. His inexperience, at this stage, accounts somewhat for the lack of indications, it is true, but in his later experiences in Paris, the same absence of proof will be noticeable. Julien out-Jesuits the sub-prefect when the latter attempts to enlist him in the service of Valenod, but we hear none of his brilliant conversational digressions to avoid an answer. Stendhal simply tells us that his reply was perfect, as long-winded as a pastoral letter in that it suggested everything and stated nothing. Since Stendhal was, in a sense, writing the novel for himself and for the "happy few," he evidently felt no need to demonstrate a superiority of which he was convinced. His modesty was another factor in this reticence.
Thanks to the love that Mme. de Rênal has for him, Julien has made two noticeable strides ahead in his onslaught on society: He enjoys a vicarious military experience in the guard of honor and, because of his roles that day, is soon sought after by all of Verrières. He makes progress and profits from his education in spite of the generally passive role he assumes. He has progressed in the art of hypocrisy: When he lets slip praise of Napoleon and is rebuked for it by Mme. de Rênal, his pride does not incapacitate him, and he is even adroit enough to dodge responsibility for the statement.
Julien's self-appointed role as messenger to Bishop Agde previews his later roles as secretary and as spy. Julien will never attain a position of independence vis-à-vis society; rather, he will always be a protected and cherished instrument of others. He actively compares the success of alternative ways of action as he sees them in others. He prefers the refined manners of Bishop Agde to those he has found in the province. He sees everywhere examples of compromise in order to succeed: the letter left in the room occupied by
M. de La Mole; the mission of the Italian singer. The latter he compares favorably to M. de Rênal, who is forced to humiliate himself before the Congregation.
At the Valenod's dinner, Julien is horrified at the ill-treatment the workhouse inmates receive, although he is able to contain his true feelings. In the face of the ultimatum given him by Chélan, Julien debates as to whether he should take offense, but again he remains master of himself, silent in a feigned attitude of humility. It must be reiterated that Stendhal does not condemn Julien's hypocrisy. A nature as sensitive, generous, and spontaneous as Julien's is forced to this extremity to survive.
The playing out of the novel's title in Chapter 18 will not have been missed by the reader: Julien plays alternately the role of soldier, then priest. It will be, of course, the latter vocation that he will choose as a means to success since Napoleon's disappearance has rendered the former impossible. Nonetheless, the spurs that he wears under the priest's cassock indicate that his career in the priesthood will be marked with the ruthlessness and dashing of the soldier.
Although Julien is capable of more love for Mme. de Rênal than before his seduction of her, he is far from being a victim of it. Goaded by ambition, Julien's mind is not yet a fecund "theater" where this imperious emotion may manifest itself and thrive. Stendhal makes passing allusions to the "mad" love Julien has for her and to the fact that he finds new reasons to love her, but we are hardly convinced. His love for Mme. de Rênal must await the end of the novel for its full development. It might be argued that in making Julien master of the love experience, Stendhal is getting his revenge on all of the women with whom he had been unsuccessful.
Julien's love brings him, at this stage, contentment and a peace and happiness he has never known. He seems to love her more as he sees more and more how much she loves him — particularly when Mme. de Rênal's son is critically ill. At that moment, Julien realizes how completely his mistress is a helpless, suffering victim of love. He feels only momentarily the doubts and torments that continue to plague her and that move her love to constant renewal in new crystallizations. It is quite possible that it is Stendhal's own sensibility, modesty, and need for privacy that prevent him from disclosing much of what Julien's love for Mme. de Rênal entails, for Julien is a projection of what Stendhal would like to be, as are all his protagonists.
It will be obvious to the reader at this point in the novel that Stendhal does not take great pains to conceive an overall view of the action in which subsequent events are mutually interdependent and which would seem to be "necessary" as logical and expected results of previous causes. On the contrary, he invents incidents as he needs them, and the resulting haphazard nature of succession results from an almost improvisational technique of composition and is one of the meanings of his definition of the novel as a "mirror which is carried along the road."
He needed, for example, the sudden grave illness of Stanislas to permit a further crystallization of Mme. de Rênal's love for Julien and an intensification of his love for her. The unannounced arrival of Géronimo is a fortuitous event needed to alleviate the series of defeats that M. de Rênal has just undergone and that have plunged the household into gloom. In Chapter 23, almost without any warning, the reader learns that because of the scandal of Julien's affair with Mme. de Rênal, a scandal hardly surprising but heretofore not even alluded to by Stendhal, a decision must be made as to Julien's future. Obviously. Stendhal wants to move him on to Besançon, and this is the logical means. Similarly, Elisa chooses this moment to inform Chélan of Julien's conduct, and it is this "father-figure" alone who can prevail on Julien to leave.