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The Red and the Black - Stendhal, Burton Raffel ”Nothing can distinguish a man as a death sentence,” thought Mathilde. “It’s the only thing one can’t buy.”

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Julien Sorel was a young man with an audacious intellect. Such a gift can be a great resource that can be exploited for financial gain or it can be a burden that keeps a person in perpetual misery. Sorel, the hero of our story, experiences both the wonders and the loneliness that sometimes goes hand in hand with being too aware to accept fate without attempting to manipulate a better future. He is handsome, witty, and when money is plentiful dresses in such a way as to enhance his best features. He is prideful of his talents and humbled by his modest beginnings in equal measure like two halves of the same tarnished coin. Because he comes from the lower class of French society his opportunities for advancement are limited to the church or the military. Even though he shows few signs of or inclinations towards pious behavior Julien is sent to the church.

Julien is placed as a tutor in the household of Monsieur de Rênal, the mayor of Verrières. He isn’t a particularly good teacher. He’d rather be spending his time reading and daydreaming, but through guile and an exaggerated appearance of discipline he wins over the children and the parents. On a whim he decides that he must seduce the pretty Madame de Rênal as in his mind that is what a man of his nature is supposed to do. He is calculating, manipulative, hostile, and seductive and each of those characteristics are hampered by his own naiveness producing comedic results and embarrassing moments that left this reader squirming in his seat with personal memories of being equally stupid in moments of social ineptness. Those characteristics that we like the least in Julien are also the characteristics that we like the least in ourselves and leads us to identify so closely with Sorel that his triumphs and his setbacks create diverse reactions from a sheepish grin to burning shame.

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Madame de Rênal and her husband

Madame de Rênal is swept up in the attentions of our hero and soon finds herself in circumstances she never would have expected to experience.
”Suddenly, a word frightened her: adulteress. She could see it. The worst things that the vilest debauchery could stamp on the notion of sensual love swarmed into her mind. These ideas were trying to stain the glow of the tender, divine image she had constructed, both of Julien himself and the happiness of loving him. The future was painted in ghastly colors, She saw herself as contemptible.”

Julien is sent back to the seminary where he fits in about as well as a swan among ducks. ”Julien had tried in vain to make himself small and stupid, he could not be liked; he was far too different.” Luckily he comes to the attention of Father Pirard who realizes he is intelligent enough to have better uses. As enemies of both Father Pirard and Julien attempt to destroy them Stendhal, as he does through the whole book, shows that pettiness, hypocrisy, wealth, and social standing are to be found in equal measure among people of influence. Poor people are not let off the hook either as greed turns out to be such an unsavory aspect of Julien’s own father. The father that beat him and ridiculed him is quick to want to benefit from his son’s advancement. Honor is discussed in great detail throughout the book, but is revealed as a chimera when pride or money are being threatened.

Julien rises with the help of Father Pirard to private secretary for Marquis de la Mole. His office is to be the library. ”A few minutes later, Julien found himself alone in a magnificent library; it was a delightful moment. So no one would come to him, excited as he was, he hid himself in a dark corner. From there, he looked out at the books’ glittering spines. ‘I could read every one of them,’ he told himself.”

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Whenever I walk into my own personal library, unfortunately not as grand as the Marquis’s library, I still feel the flutter in my stomach that one might experience catching a glimpse of an old lover in a train station. The books speak to me stirring up fond memories of when words become images, scents become detectable, and fictional characters become flesh and bone. I don’t foresee a tablet with a digital bookshelf eliciting the same flutter in my stomach. The tactile feeling of individual books, unique in typeface, paper, and design are an important part of the reading experience for me. Books are more than just words to me, but a form of art. Running your eye over the hills and dales of Van Gogh”s brushstrokes while looking at the actual painting is such a larger sensory experience than looking at a picture of the painting in an art book; the two experiences are incomparable. I’m afraid as tech savvy as I am in all other phases of my life I’m a Luddite when it comes to books. I love the idea that more people are reading books because of the evolution of ereaders, but for me the experience that Julien has in that library is what I want.

”He turned his lips to hers, and with his hand
Called back the tangles of her wandering hair.”
Bryon, Don Juan

Julien meets Mademoiselle Mathilde de La Mole. He isn’t impressed. In fact he finds her annoying in so many ways. ”She’s even paler than before she went on the trip...Her hair is absolutely colorless, it’s so blonde! You could say the daylight goes right through it!...And what arrogance, when she greets people, when she just looks at them! She holds herself, she moves, like a queen!” Like a lot of things in Sorel’s life he is motivated by a grander vision than what he is capable. He has unsustainable ideas of honor ruled more by passion than any real sense of established decorum. He even defends immorality with affectionate intensity.

Altamira answered. ”We no longer have genuine passions, in the nineteenth century. That’s why there’s so much boredom, here in France. We do the most incredibly cruel things, but without cruelty.”
“So much the worse!” said Julien. “At the very least, crimes ought to be committed with pleasure. That’s the only good about them: How can we even begin to justify them for any other reason?”

Mathilde is Julien’s ticket to finally achieve the impossible. He can bound out of the chains of his birth and achieve a social position that would be talked about for generations. The game of love that plays out is almost as comical and ridiculous as his seduction of Madame de Rênal. His present and his past collide with devastating effects that will leave you flipping the final pages as fast as your eyes and mind can comprehend the sentences.

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Marie-Henri Beyle AKA Stendhal

I noticed with interest that there is a turning point in the book when I could tell that Stendhal began to like his own greatest creation. He lent more sympathy to the plight of Julien Sorel. He started softening the edges and letting the reader know that even when Sorel is an ass he is still a well meaning ass. Julien was certainly more innocent than those that were trying to manipulate him. It was as if in creating this character Stendhal started to understand himself through the character and maybe even started to tolerate those aspects of himself that had given him trouble throughout his life or at least look on them as youthful fallacies. Intelligence does not come wrapped with discretion or for that matter wisdom. Time is the only device that allows us to grow into our intelligence and hopefully use it to better ourselves and strengthen our communities. I came away from the novel knowing more about myself and wishing that I could meet the youthful Julien Sorel when he has some gray at his temples and a more docile tongue, but then maybe I just need to go look in the mirror. Highly recommended for all reformed smarty pants.