Summary and Analysis Part 1: Chapters 4-5



M. de Rênal proposes to Sorel the next day that Julien come live with them and tutor their children. Old Sorel, a crafty peasant, meditates the conditions but refuses to answer before he has consulted his son Julien. Returning to his sawmill, Sorel finds Julien reading, sitting astride a beam above the saw he should be tending. Infuriated by his useless son, Sorel brutally knocks the book into the stream. Julien is saddened by the loss of this book, a cherished possession from the legacy his army surgeon friend had left him. His father demands an explanation of the strange offer from Rênal, but Julien is unable to account for it. In solitude, Julien decides that rather than submit to the humiliation of eating with the Rênals' servants, he will run away and enlist in the army. He abandons this plan immediately, however, since it would require that he renounce his ambitions for the priesthood, where success would be certain.

The next day, the bargain is struck, and Sorel has again outwitted Rênal, obtaining as much as he can for his son's services. Julien, meanwhile, has entrusted his possessions — books and military decoration — for safekeeping to his friend Fouqué. On his way to the chateau, Julien judges it wise for his hypocrisy to stop by the church. There he feels his courage waning but reassures himself with a Napoleonic "To Arms!" and resolutely goes forth to battle in his first encounter at the Rênal home.


Stendhal continues alternating exposition and dramatic action in these two chapters. We are not surprised that Sorel outwits Rênal in his two encounters since we have been prepared for it. Of main interest here is Julien, first seen in his characteristic stance — reading, and in a relatively "high place." This is the first of many times that Stendhal will set Julien physically above his fellows, emphasizing Julien's superiority and solitude and providing him with a secret refuge from society.

The fall from the rafter foreshadows Julien's ultimate fall. He is persecuted even by his family because he is different. This aspiring "pariah" will be forever excluded because of his superiority. Note Julien's response to brutality and ugliness: tears. His is a very sensitive nature. It is fitting that Stendhal first presents Julien physically at a moment when he is emotionally moved. Normally pale, his cheeks are flushed with anger, his dark eyes burning with hatred, revealing a reflective and passionate nature. Julien's eternal struggle to control his sensibility by self-mastery and discipline will characterize his future conduct. His hypocritical air helps ward off the blows of his father and will serve as a defense against society.

Julien's dual formation — by the military, through the old surgeon who has inculcated him with respect for Napoleon, and by the Church, through Father Chélan, who has found in him a quick intelligence, readily grasping theology and easily memorizing the Bible — is alluded to in these two chapters, reiterating the novel's title and sketching Julien's situation as representative of the youth of France during the Restoration: Born too late to achieve greatness in Napoleon's military endeavors, they must seek it through the Church.

During the interrogation by his father, Julien betrays his pride and ambition in three short, almost automatic utterances: "What will I get for that? . . . I don't want to be a servant. . . . But whom will I eat with?" We learn that his aristocratic pride is acquired from Rousseau, whose Saint-Preux he also resembles in his extreme sensibility.

Julien's ability to memorize will be an asset both in his success as a preceptor and later, when he plays the same role, that of subservient secretary, but in the highest circle of political intriguers. Another quality of Julien that is sketched is his distrustfulness — of youth, of his peasant heritage. He will not speak to Father Chélan of his new position since he suspects a trap.

In Chapter 5, Stendhal again takes up Rênal's fear of losing Julien to Valenod — a misunderstanding that will later justify Rênal's blindness to Julien's affair with Mme. de Rênal. It is Sorel who, quite by chance, hits upon the threat of a better offer for Julien elsewhere, which gives the old sawyer the upper hand in his bargaining with Rênal. Mme. de Rênal had already suggested this threat in Chapter 3. On that occasion, Rênal seized the danger as an argument — cleverly contrived, he congratulated himself — for moving ahead with his plan to hire Julien.

The church visit adds to the elaboration of Julien's character, permitting Stendhal to speak of his hero's hypocrisy, his best weapon. This permits more exposition, first of the Congregation, then of more details of Julien's relationship with Chénal and of his decision to use the priesthood as a means to success. Julien had witnessed the persecution of Napoleon sympathizers and was forced to keep silent on that subject. In alliance with the "ultra" monarchy, the all-powerful Congregation, a clandestine Jesuit organization, held absolute sway and did not permit dissension.

The art of hypocrisy requires complete self-control. Julien punishes himself for having openly defended Napoleon at a gathering of priests with Chélan. The manner of narration is characteristic of Stendhal: "At one point in the conversation he began fervently to praise Napoleon. He tied his right arm to his chest." Stendhal's psychological analysis sometimes omits transitional thoughts. The causal relationship between the two statements quoted must be supplied by the reader.

A final, very important trait of Julien is his personal honor, his only moral principle. It is called into play when he asks himself in the church if he could be a coward. Here he begins his ritual of self-imposing obstacles which his honor requires that he overcome.

The forewarning that Stendhal intercalates in the form of a scrap of paper (recalling the execution of the historical character who inspired the novel) bearing the ominous warning "the first step" on the other side cannot be taken seriously by the sophisticated reader. It is simply indicative of Stendhal's penchant for the secretive, the mysterious. Its presence cannot be logically explained since Julien's fate is realized without recourse to any supernatural powers. It also underlines Stendhal's intention to be closely inspired by reality in writing fiction.

Stendhal turns briefly to Mme. de Rênal, who is having her own doubts about the imminent arrival of Julien. Her initial and ultimate reception of him will be the subject of the next three chapters so that this final paragraph is transitional.

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