Before picking up this novel, I knew very little about it. In addition, everything that I thought I knew was wrong. I started reading thinking this was one of those Russian “Red” novels, but turns out it was all set in France, post-Napoleonic war era.
There are two main themes that I’ll discuss on this review: Love & Vanity. As always, I’ll try not to include any spoilers.
The main character, Julien Sorel, is the son of a carpenter. Unloved by his own family, Julien’s father sent him away from the homestead to become a tutor to a rich Mayor. At twenty-two, Julien has no concept of what love is because he has never experienced it in life, in any form. As such, his responses to love are akin to a 12-year old boy and his disdain for most of society has caused him to have very limited friendships. A young man without a social network, but full of ambition, leads to explosive results.
Stendhal has been known in the literary world as being an expert on love. I found his knowledge on the way a man (uneducated on the concept of love) reacts, very accurate. Minor events become major, personal thoughts betray others, trust in friendships is questioned, etc. Stendhal shares this with us, through the eyes of Julien, and it takes some of us back to our childhood experiences.
In addition, Julien’s disdain for the vanity and resentment for high society, further adds to his confusion. He hates the rich, and yet desires to fit in with them. Of course, the rich have other ideas and view Julien and his ideals as a threat to their way of life. After all, if the son of a carpenter can move up the ranks due to intelligence alone, than the floodgates of the intellectual impoverished could potentially follow the same path.
One quote that stuck with me throughout was “All is French vanity.” In our bookclub, we had a great discussion on the definition of vanity. Are you either vain or not? Or does the concept of vanity move along a continuum, in which every human being falls? I personally believe the latter, but a good discussion was had on the subject.
As such, reading this book directly following “Vanity Fair” was a good stroke of luck. While both were written with the same message, I think Stendhal made his point more eloquently. That being said, there was no Dobbin… no real hero, despite his projection that Julien’s purpose was indeed that.
The book club meeting made me appreciate the book much more than I would have without it. Other themes and statements that I missed were uncovered, and I learned a little about French history (more from the discussion than the book itself).
That being said, I would not recommend this novel. While themes of vanity and love are applicable in today’s society (a central reason as to why this novel has withstood the test of time), the thoughts within the book are sometimes unfocused: some events seem to serve little purpose. If I had to pick a book before my time that took me on a winding road which I believed was completely necessary, I would have chosen “Tess of D’Ubervilles” by Hardy.
In conclusion, I’m glad that I had the opportunity to read and discuss the novel, but when compared to my favourite classics of all time, “The Red and the Black” does not come close. Perhaps I will have more luck with Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma.”
3 out of 5 stars
Next book on tap: “True at First Light” by my buddy, Ernest Hemingway.