I love the process of reaching the halfway point of a lengthy read, under the pretense you’ve got everything figured out, only to realize that the plot refused to play out the way you thought it would in the second half nor were the characters who you particularly thought they were. It’s a humbling process, but indeed one that keeps us from putting down the book halfway through if the first half maybe didn’t live up to expectations. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on The Red and the Black by Stendhal at its midway point.
Since the focus is on one ambitious protagonist, Julien Sorel, any reflection on the novel naturally stems from an analysis of him. Going into the story, I had seen Sorel alluded to a few times prior elsewhere, and I knew that in spite of his flaws he is often portrayed sympathetically by the twenty-somethings of yesteryear that would pick up this book. Hamlet, Werther, Holden Caulfield, these are all characters in their youth that capture the imagination of the youthful person holding the novel. It’s some concoction of romanticism, ambition, immaturity, thoughtfulness, all of which youthful forms of these traits, that drive their thinking, action, and, often times, contribute to their early demise.
Thus far, Sorel has showcased an ambitious nature–I’d say far more so than the other characters I listed. Yes, he has a slender built and a relatively small stature altogether based on the descriptions of him given by Stendhal and the way other male characters often view him, but his slender build in many respects provides the chip on his shoulder to succeed. His father and siblings treated him poorly when he was young and would scoff at the books he would read. He continued reading and told himself that his reading would prove to be valuable down the road, and his thinking proves to be prescient as he continues to climb the French social ladder due to his intelligence.
What distinguishes Sorel from other slender, intelligent, bookish protagonists, who writers probably love to write about as they can often see themselves in them and root for them, is the way in which his ambition allows him to conquer what he wants to conquer. Sorel reads about Napoleon and his conquests throughout his youth, and Napoleon remains his idol during a time in France when it would not be particularly okay to profess such feelings. Sorel is of course not on the battlefield, yet anyway, but he applies the same military tactics to his social ascent. He learns character’s motives, understands their thoughts, and this scrupulous anticipation allows him to do all things from climbing to seducing to knowing when it is time to flee a dangerous situation.
It is quite clear to see, in this respect, why Sorel is often beloved by young intellectuals. It seems the he defies the notion that they cannot be forceful, that they cannot conquer, that they cannot take a world head on and emerge victorious. He provides a very seductive template on how to rise from rags to riches against all odds.
But what cannot be lost at this stage is the hints that Stendhal is providing that his ascent cannot last. Sorel is cunning, but the deck is stacked against a poor boy from the provinces, and the nobility generally does not take well to outsiders unless the outsider provides a clear gain for them. After all, if Sorel wasn’t so highly educated, the de Rênal’s never take him in in the first place and the ball never gets rolling for our ambitious protagonist. Sorel plays the game well, but sometimes he cannot stymie his pride, his true nature, one that aligns with Napoleon, one that hates the Restoration, one that hates the very nobility he is supposed to play nice with in order to continue to rise in France.
This dilemma leaves me with a few lasting thoughts. One pertains to the very fact that Julien hates the nobility, and yet acknowledges that he has to intermingle with them if he wants to continue to rise. I wonder if Stendhal would say there’s a way to do this without tripping up and showing your bluff at some point. I don’t know how Sorel falls, but I do anticipate one, and this will likely be the reason why. So does Stendhal think that one can rise amidst a sea of sharks that one does not like? I’m not sure, Sorel has made it 300 pages, but much of this I would chalk up to the fact that he had Mme. de Rênal as an outlet, a lover, someone to show that not all nobility were automatically corrupt if they were born sinless and somehow retained their beauty despite all the greed around them.
And finally, Stendhal also seems to question whether approaching stepping stones in life as things to be conquered is the best way to do it. When it comes to rising in rank, maybe it is, and Sorel is a testament to the fact that it can be done and at quite a remarkable pace. But perhaps when it is applied to other facets of life it can leave one unfulfilled. Mme. de Rênal genuinely loves Sorel and Sorel likely would love her as well if he could just disassociate any happening in life from a conquering. So yes, Sorel does conquer her in receiving her admission of love and all that comes with it, but he does not enjoy the exchange as much as he could if he just let his guard down and treated love differently from a conquering. That all goes back to pride–something that Stendhal would undoubtedly say Sorel needs to check if he wishes to ever feel fulfilled.
We’ll see how everything plays out here for the fascinating Julien Sorel and I shall report back.