Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapters 6-8
Mme. de Rênal receives Julien, and after their mutual embarrassment has changed — for Mme. de Rênal to relief and for Julien to a beginning of composure — he is outfitted in a new suit and presented to the children. Now in complete command of himself, Julien recites at random entire passages of the Bible in Latin, earning the respect and admiration of all. Within a month, he is considered as a real prize by M. de Rênal.
During the next five weeks, Julien engages in petty negotiations beginning his scheme of success through hypocrisy. The self-righteousness that this society feels causes him to feel superior to it, and this, in turn, alienates him from it. His utter ignorance of most matters prevents him, at this stage, from understanding much of what he hears. He craftily convinces Rênal of the necessity of taking out a subscription with the liberal bookseller, presenting the matter in such a way that it will not offend the vanity of the Royalist.
Julien is extremely wary of Mme. de Rênal since her beauty caused him to stumble when he first arrived. She, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly drawn to this charming and intelligent young man. Unaware of what love is, she gives no thought to the fact that she is attentive to his needs and that her husband is becoming increasingly unbearable to her.
Mme. de Rênal's maid, Elisa, has designs on Julien, and Father Chélan urges him to consider favorably the possibility of such a match and discourages him from entering the priesthood. Julien's burning ardor makes Chélan fear for his salvation should he pursue a career in the Church. Julien retreats, then returns to try to impress the priest by a new tactic. To no avail, for Chélan is not fooled. This is a defeat for Julien.
Mme. de Rênal is overjoyed to hear Elisa confess tearfully that Julien has rejected her. Soon Mme. de Rênal becomes aware that she is in love with Julien.
In the spring, the family moves to the summer home in the neighboring village of Vergy. Animated by a fresh outlook, Mme. de Rênal agrees to Julien's suggestion to create a meandering path "à la Julie," among the walnut trees. Catching butterflies provides a new activity and topic of conversation for the inexperienced couple. Mme. de Rênal changes clothes two or three times a day, unaware, however, of what prompts this interest in her appearance. The arrival of Mme. Derville creates a happy threesome. Julien relaxes to the point of reading not only at night in the solitude of his room but during the day. This increased reading finally gives him some ideas about women.
The three begin to assemble at night outside in the darkness for conversation. One evening, in his animated gesticulation, Julien happens to touch Mme. de Rênal's hand. When it is instantly withdrawn, he decides it is his duty to hold it. A new challenge disturbs his peace.
In these chapters, Stendhal brings Julien and Mme. de Rênal together for the first time, then concentrates on their separate progression. As will be typical of Julien's character, he reacts spontaneously when surprised by Mme. de Rênal. An aspiring hypocrite must learn to control his reactions. He hates her "because she is beautiful" — that is, her beauty produces a violent reaction in him, a superior being born to exalt in beauty and to be offended by ugliness, but his reaction is spontaneous, and in betraying it, he ruins his "pose."
His pride is offended when she expresses amazement at his knowledge of Latin. Her supplicating tone causes him momentarily to forget his pride, and as his self-confidence becomes progressively stronger, he dares himself to kiss her hand. This daring act he accomplishes. His composure is shattered again when he gives way to the expression of joy, caused by his new clothes, but once again, after collecting himself in his room, he reassumes the calm and dignity befitting a tutor.
The scene relating Julien's arrival is important for several reasons. It establishes the pattern of conduct that will characterize him throughout the novel. In him there seethes a conflict between spontaneous expression of joy associated with happiness and the hypocritical wearing of a mask imposed by ambition. The scene illustrates the tender irony that characterizes Stendhal's attitude toward his "chosen" characters. He deliberately places them in awkward situations that will challenge and embarrass them after already creating them with a contradictory nature that will cause them to stumble. He has great affection for his "chosen" characters, but he demands of them as much as he demands of himself.
Julien's petty maneuvering wins him minor triumphs in this household which he disdains. Throughout the novel, his prodigious memory will be a sure means of winning for him the admiration of others, but it seems to produce a special effect on the provincial bourgeois, incapable, says Stendhal, of appreciating intelligence in any other form. The almost photographic memory that Julien possesses would seem to serve in place of keen reasoning and eloquence to convince the reader of Julien's superior nature, as we will see.
Misunderstanding it, Julien rebuffs Mme. de Rênal's offer of money and succeeds in tricking the mayor on two occasions. His social behavior is quite unacceptable, and his efforts to play a role accentuate his ineptness. On the other hand, he unknowingly charms Mme. de Rênal with his eyes. He is unable to deceive Chélan, and the great emotion he experiences at the love and concern shown him by the priest betrays an ardent soul thirsting for friendship and happiness. Thus, to enjoy this emotion completely, Julien takes refuge in the mountains, where his superior soul may not be surprised — unguarded — by the watchful eyes of society.
Stendhal intervenes at this point to assure the reader that Julien will succeed as a hypocrite — he is only a beginner. This intervention betrays the sympathy of the author for his amoral hero and dictates the reader's reaction. Since the novel is also the story of the education of Julien, Stendhal will intervene periodically to praise or censure the conduct of his hero.
For the first time in his life, Julien is happy — interestingly enough, only when he momentarily forgets his relentless ambition and hypocrisy. His ambition reawakens at a gesture of Mme. de Rênal: When she withdraws her hand, Julien vows, in a chivalric way, to force her to leave her hand in his. His code of honor is very demanding and depends entirely upon personal criteria. For Julien, personal honor replaces morality.
The chapters advance Mme. de Rênal toward her role as mistress more so than Julien toward his of lover, although the affair will necessarily begin awkwardly and almost by accident, both parties lacking experience and even a conception of what love is.
The awakening and development of love in his characters is illustrative of the crystallization process that Stendhal elaborated in De l'Amour. The feeling manifests itself autonomously of will and, after a preliminary stage of admiration and hope, soon crystallizes in the mind of the lover. This means that it becomes the exclusive obsession of the victim smitten, and every subject, no matter how far removed in appearance, ultimately leads one back to discover new perfections in the loved one.
Mme. de Rênal has never before been so deeply moved by a purely agreeable sensation as when she learns that this delightful young man is the stern priest she had anticipated. Note that only when her mind is at ease over the fate of her children does she notice Julien's good looks. She will remain in the early stages of "admiration" for a seemingly long period of time because of utter inexperience and ignorance of love.
She feels in Julien a kindred spirit and has never imagined that such a man existed, so different is he from the husband whom she has considered the prototype of manhood. She involuntarily conceals her pleasure at the prospect of Julien's staying, her subconscious forcing the opposite reaction in the conscious.
Mme. de Rênal is greatly moved when she finds Julien beaten by his brothers. She notices the attentiveness that Elisa shows him, then wants to show him kindnesses. Increasingly she disapproves of the lack of delicacy and tact in her husband. Leaning on Julien's arm during a walk, she offers him the gift. His refusal leaves her trembling, and she takes some pleasure in his reprimand. She redoubles her attentions, giving herself the pretext that she has offended him. She becomes physically ill when Elisa speaks to her of Julien's refusal. At this point, Mme. de Rênal becomes consciously aware that she is in love; what pleasure it is to plead the cause of Elisa, to speak of Julien knowing that he has refused. She actually faints from the joy that the interview causes her. With this realization does not come guilt since Mme. de Rênal is unaware of what love implies. Thus she plunges head on, in her innocence, attending to her toilette with unprecedented care.