Summary and Analysis
Julien is overjoyed by a visit from Mme. de Rênal. He agrees to appeal if she will visit him every day in his cell. They know complete happiness. After three days, M. de Rênal has ordered that his wife return to Verrières. An ambitious priest has undertaken the conversion of Julien and has posted himself in all weather outside the prison, where much to Julien's annoyance, he attracts a great crowd. In desperation, Julien admits him, then rids himself of the troublesome priest by sending him to say masses for the poor.
Mathilde arrives on the heels of the departing priest to relate the treachery of Valenod and to try to convince Julien of the necessity of requesting a reprieve. Julien finally sends her away, requesting that she listen to a mass for him. The much dreaded visit of his father occurs. Sorel ceases his reproaches when Julien suggests that he will bequeath his money to his father and brothers. Julien then shares a bottle of champagne with two other prisoners and listens to the life story of one. Finally, Julien is left to his gloomy meditations.
Julien submits to confession, and provincial public opinion is thereby satisfied. Mme. de Rênal has left Verrières and, living with her aunt in Besançon, visits Julien twice a day. This bliss is interrupted by the daily visits of Mathilde. M. de Croisenois has been killed in a duel defending the honor of Mathilde. Julien angrily rejects a Jansenist's entreaties that he make a spectacular conversion, which, according to the priest, would encourage many lost souls to return to the Church. Julien must dissuade Mme. de Rênal from begging a reprieve from the king at Saint-Cloud. After the execution, Mathilde visits the cell and carries off Julien's head. Fouqué, carrying out Julien's last wishes, negotiates his burial on a high hill overlooking Verrières. Mathilde accompanies the procession and with her own hands buries Julien's head. Mme. de Rênal dies three days after the death of Julien.
In the time of the novel, the action of Chapter 43 occurs only one hour after Mathilde had left Julien's cell in the preceding chapter. In Chapter 43, the incident of greatest importance is, of course, Mme. de Rênal's visit with Julien. Then in almost a sentence, Stendhal indicates that "three days after these visits had been taking place," M. de Rênal recalls her home. The end of the chapter elaborates another short incident, the interview of the priest, and Chapter 44 opens with the immediate reaction of Julien after the priest has left. This is typical of Stendhal's treatment of time and events. A single chapter develops one incident (already begun in what precedes), culminates it (indicating that this incident was in fact typical by multiplying its occurrence, condensing time by an allusion to its passage), and introduces a second (to be enlarged in the following chapter).
The long-awaited event is the reunion of Mme. de Rênal with Julien. Stendhal tells us that Julien has never known such happiness, although the author's "pudeur" prevents him, as usual, from elaborating the ecstatic happiness that both enjoy during this supreme moment. He passes over it with: "much later, when they were able to speak." Mme. de Rênal loves Julien as a human should love only God. This is no doubt the love that Stendhal would have wanted to receive. Mme. de Rênal's sadness and admission of her disgrace prompt a "new happiness" in Julien. In Stendhal's conception of love, one constantly makes new discoveries in the object, which increases one's love for her.
We are now aware of the extent of Julien's love for Mme. de Rênal and of how instrumental it has been in his calm acceptance of the death penalty up to this point. Imagining himself bereft of her love, Julien was prepared for death. Now, a new possibility of happiness opens up before him, and he will really know the terror of the condemned man. The priest's visit serves to materialize Julien's despair, and thereafter, he sees death as horrible.
It was no doubt Stendhal's "pudeur" that prevented him from giving titles to the last four chapters in the original version of the novel. It is as if the suggestion of privacy were thus made after Julien has been condemned to death. Within one short chapter, Julien moves from the heights of bliss to the depths of despair.
Weeping about his own death, Julien will be visited, in Chapter 44, by three more "misfortunes": the visits of Mathilde and of his father, and exposure to the criminals with whom he shares a bottle of champagne.
From these he will draw food for meditation. During these meditations, the reader will witness, for the last time, Julien's solitude. There exists in this chapter the same movement as in the preceding one, but in reverse: From the depths of despair, Julien will emerge "strong and resolute, as a man who sees clearly into his own heart."
Julien finally learns about the machinations of Mathilde and Frilair. The latter, no doubt in an effort to mitigate the betrayal he has suffered personally from Valenod, has tried to shift the blame for Julien's conviction to Julien himself. Frilair sees the courtroom oration as an invitation for condemnation to death. Julien has great difficulty in concealing his despair from Mathilde. His remark concerning the prisoner's public situation vis-à-vis the world sets the tone for the chapter. Just as in life outside, Julien is forced to adopt a hypocritical air in dealing with his visitors to protect what remains of his courage.
The interlude of the prisoners is at once a moment of respite, of relief — an escape from the horror of the present moment — thereby permitting Julien to transform his self-reproach and grief into a more objective melancholy, and a pendant to the visit by his father. Both incidents are inspirational to his musings in the latter part of the chapter. The prisoner episode is reminiscent of the appearance of Géronomo at the Rênal home in Part I, which constituted a sort of poetic escape from the misfortunes of the family. Here, there is a more macabre note. Greed for money has motivated the life of this criminal, otherwise endowed with a brave heart.
Thus taken out of himself, Julien is able to recapture the necessary detachment to arrive at the re-creation of the required attitude before death. From Julien's meditations result some of the very important ingredients of beylism: the need to see man for what he is, not to be taken in, not to betray one's real nature; the danger of trading the present moment of happiness, so hard to come by, for sterile meditations about the unfathomable; in the absence of any ethical basis of society, the necessity of the creation of and adherence to a private code of morality based upon duty toward oneself.
Five days elapsed during Chapter 44. Stendhal terminates his novel with rapidity. One would be hard put to say over what extent of time the action takes place in the final chapter. It opens as a continuation of the final scene of the preceding chapter: Fouqué awakens Julien, the latter having regained his composure and resolution. Stendhal is winding up, moving from Julien's relationship to Mme. de Rênal, to Mathilde, almost without transition.
Julien admits to Mme. de Rênal that he mistook, at the time, the real happiness he had known with her in Vergy. Mathilde is insanely jealous of Mme. de Rênal's visits, and Julien's own role toward Mathilde has now become almost paternal, just as Mme. de Rênal's love for him still has a maternal character.
Stendhal's refusal to indulge in hyperbolic description and pathos is evidenced by his very sparse treatment of the execution of Julien, which has been termed literary euthanasia. We are told that the weather was beautiful and that Julien was poetic, courageous, observant of decorum. Stendhal even makes Julien "speak" after the narration of his death, as instructions to Fouqué concerning burial are given.
Note the final utilization of the "high place" motif in the burial of Julien. The cell has been the scene of his last happiness, and the heights culminate this representation beyond death. It is fitting that Mathilde be portrayed in this macabre scene retrieving Julien's head. It permits her to play the final scene in the drama from the past which she has re-enacted in her affair with Julien. There is likewise a kind of poetic justice attained thereby — her "amour de tête" is recompensed.
One wonders at the future of Mathilde de la Mole. Stendhal has hinted in a previous chapter that Frilair's attempts to replace Julien had not yet been noticed by Mathilde. As for Mme. de Rênal, her death is the logical consequence of her character and conduct. She and Julien have shared a more vital identity. Mathilde and Mme. de Rênal, each reflecting aspects of Julien, are complementary.