Summary and Analysis Part 2: Chapters 17-20



In the days following the rendezvous, Mathilde is distant and cold toward Julien. He is perplexed and discovers that he is hopelessly in love with her. Confronting her one day in the library, Julien asks directly if she does not love him anymore. Mathilde answers that she is horrified at having given herself to the first one to come along. Julien's reaction is spontaneous: He rushes upon a medieval sword hanging in the room and, after unsheathing it, stops, checks his impulse to kill Mathilde, examines the blade curiously, and puts it back. Mathilde sees in the act a truly heroic gesture worthy of her ancestors. In desperation, Julien announces to the marquis that he is going on a business trip to Languedoc. The marquis has other plans for Julien, who is confined to his quarters to be available at any time for an important mission.

Mathilde now considers Julien worthy of being her master and for a week permits him to walk with her in the garden while she passionately talks of the love she felt in the past for his rivals. This is torture for Julien, who is suffering all the pangs of jealousy and unhappiness, thinking himself not loved. Blurting out his love for her, Julien finds himself hated again. The course of events increasingly depends upon Julien's imminent departure on the marquis' mission.

By a happy accident, Julien and Mathilde come quite independently to a state of mind propitious to a second midnight rendezvous. Mathilde begins to reproach herself for having been so unkind, then is carried away by the mood and sentiment that an opera inspires in her. Julien, for his part, is in the depths of despair and contemplates suicide as he daringly puts up the ladder and presents himself uninvited at Mathilde's window. Their second rendezvous is less studied and more successful than the previous one. Soon thereafter, however, Mathilde regrets having succumbed and having shorn her locks and presented them to Julien in a submissive gesture. Julien has again known, but lost, happiness.

At dinner, Julien finds that he has lost favor at court. He rides all day in an effort to numb his mind through physical exhaustion. As she confronts him one morning in the library, Mathilde tells him pitilessly that she does not love him. She overwhelms him with her vehemence. Julien accidentally breaks an antique Japanese vase, and his apology to Mme. de la Mole, made in the presence of Mathilde, intimates that his love, like the vase, has been irreparably shattered.


This four-chapter episode might well have been subtitled their war in love. Viewed as a whole, it consists of the ups and downs of the stormy relationship between Julien and Mathilde. Their love undergoes a reversal from the previous stage. Here, Julien falls madly in love with Mathilde because of her continued coldness and unavailability. He undergoes all the anguish, uncertainty, and torment that Mme. de Rênal felt in his affair with her. Julien has lost his advantage; his triumph has turned to ashes.

Several explanations are possible. Both egotists, the two are so similar in nature that they are bound to experience love unsuccessfully. Then, too, this is how love develops, according to Stendhal: It is an autonomous emotion that reserves unexpected developments for us. It dies, is revived, overpowers the victim. It is true that in this couple Stendhal has chosen extreme examples for the demonstration of love.

Mathilde, previously so ardent and the initiator of the rendezvous, flees Julien, insults and humiliates him. She denies even that she loves him. Paradoxical in nature, their love resembles that between Rodrique and Chimnène in Corneille's Cid: At moments when they are farthest apart and when their love seems impossible, they love each other most since it is during these moments that they are the most worthy of each other. Again, Stendhal reminds us that happiness is the energy expended in the pursuit of happiness.

Unwittingly, Julien has magically dispelled the idealization that constituted Mathilde's love for him. Since Mathilde has ceased to feel boredom for the last few months, Stendhal explains, she forgets what it was like and is now bored by Julien. Mathilde exists only for "magic moments" when she is placing her entire existence at stake. Once happiness is realized, it ceases to be interesting. In such a proud soul as Mathilde, the idea that another would be her master is unbearable. This fear of domination is another reason for Mathilde's rejection of Julien.

The sword incident demonstrates the paradoxical nature of their relationship: Mathilde scorns Julien and insults his honor. Julien reaches blindly for the sword to do her harm, so great is his anger. From this act of malicious intent results a temporary advantage in Mathilde's estimation of Julien, thus in her love for him. She is able to relegate this scene to the medieval past that is the basis of her idealization of their love. She is overjoyed at being on the verge of being killed by her lover. Hurriedly, however, she flees after having recaptured her vision lest Julien destroy it. Note that the entire dramatic effect of the scene depends upon the image of the sword, chosen with care by Stendhal to jolt the reader.

No novelist succeeds as well as Stendhal in forcing the reader's complicity. In effect, appreciation of Stendhal depends upon the active participation of the reader, who must supply the motivation for the acts that Stendhal has his characters commit. The resulting complicity between Stendhal and the reader is particularly operative in episodes such as the love duel between Julien and Mathilde.

Her ideal partially salvaged, Mathilde now readmits Julien to her presence for walks in the garden, where she sadistically forces Julien to listen to her passionate narration of feelings she has felt for his rivals. Mathilde must keep the upper hand, with herself as master and Julien as victim. Only by seeing herself as the master is she able to permit herself to love him. Julien's admission of love to her is a blunder on his part. Sure that he loves her, Mathilde utterly despises him. Mathilde resorts instinctively to these stratagems to keep her love alive in its ideal state. She half hopes that Julien doesn't love her any more since that would furnish her with a new adventure, permitting her to experience new emotions. The two characters seem to be looking for a safe way to love themselves through the eyes of the other.

Julien has never known such unhappiness. The jealousy that he feels is reminiscent of that felt by Mme. de Rênal. And just as the latter felt pleasure pleading the cause of her rival's, the servant girl's, love for Julien, the hero now praises his rivals in order to "share" the love he thinks Mathilde feels for them.

Stendhal is preparing for Julien's departure, which will occur at the end of Chapter 20, the lowest point and end of Julien's subordinate role in their hateful love. Mathilde projects the future of their relationship, trying to see it as a glorious one, worthy of the ancestry she reveres.

Chapter 19 portrays another partially gratuitous victory for Julien. The thought of suicide inspires him with a courageous act. He will visit Mathilde's room again, then kill himself after she has rebuffed him. Mathilde might well have rebuffed him had she not been once again at the "high point" of the idealization cycle.

Mathilde arrives at this point of intoxication in three ways. She continues to project a glorious future for Julien in which she will play a part, then reproaches herself for having acted so cruelly toward him. Second, her idle daydreaming prompts her unconsciously to draw a sketch of Julien. Such an imaginative and romantic nature as Mathilde's could only see this as an almost supernatural sign and proof of her love. The third event congenial to the creation of a receptive frame of mind is the opera that she attends, where again she is able to participate safely, at a distance, idealizing her own love by seeing it in the opera. Stendhal himself sees Mathilde's love as intellectual and contrasts it unfavorably with that felt by Mme. de Rênal. The latter's love comes from the heart and does not need to see itself, to examine itself.

Stendhal's intervention to justify Mathilde's character represents an ironic way of condemning those who would condemn his portrait of the times. Mathilde's adventurous and fanciful flights are certainly not to be found in the conduct of the young ladies of his age, he continues, since nineteenth-century France is incapable of great passion. Then, in an apparent contradiction, he introduces his definition of the novel as a mirror carried along a highway. Should it reflect the mire it encounters, the novelist is not to blame, but the mire. Balzac, Stendhal's great contemporary, defends his realism on similar grounds, as had the eighteenth-century French realistic novelists. The point is that even though Mathilde cerebrates her passion, she is capable of one. She, like Stendhal, scorns the apathy and sterility of society.

Discreetly, Stendhal hardly alludes to the rendezvous. By chance, the lovers' exalted moments coincide, and Julien knows happiness reminiscent of that with Mme. de Rênal. The unsolicited avowal of servitude made by Mathilde, betraying her chief concern, Julien will find almost immediately afterward disavowed by her. After having almost half shorn her head and thrown him the locks in a romantic gesture symbolic of her submission, Mathilde, by the next evening, regrets her conduct. She is again at another low ebb in her love, having found only banal reality, much to the bewilderment of Julien.

Chapter 20 confirms the view that Mathilde is playing a game with herself, and Julien is but an instrument. She congratulates herself on the power of her will, which has dominated her love and which has finally permitted her to announce to Julien that she was only deluded into believing that she loved him. Although a conflict is waged in Mathilde's mind between her love and her pride and modesty, she does not appear to be a real victim of love at this stage in their relationship.

Julien's symbolic remark about the vase represents another accidental, clever move. He regrets later having claimed that he no longer loves her, but the avowal, no matter how feigned and insincere, is actually the type of strategy needed to revive Mathilde's love for him.

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