Study Guide

The Red and the Black

By Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle)

The Red and the Black Introduction

If there's one thing that powerful people don't like, it's being told that they're hypocrites.

Maybe that's why there was such a backlash against Stendhal's The Red and the Black when it was first published in France in 1830. Since the French Revolution in 1789, it hadn't always been clear who was in charge of the country, and this made any criticism extra uncomfortable. This book's critique of the hollowness and cynicism of the upper classes was so sharp that copies of The Red and the Black were still getting burned 130 years later in Brazil. Now that's staying power.

Stendhal's book follows the adventures of Julien Sorel, a young French peasant who dreams of becoming a Great-with-a-capital-G man. Had he been born only a few decades earlier, there would have been many chances for him to rise in the world by enlisting in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. But those days have ended in France, and now people are pretty much born into whatever social status they'll have for the rest of their lives. Being a good protagonist, Julien doesn't accept this reality and does everything he can to make his fame.

While he's busy pursuing his fortune, Julien has a couple of high-profile sexytimes relationships with upper-class women. Both relationships are totally scandalous. They eventually land Julien on death row after he tries to murder his first lover for interfering with his second lover. Once he gets center stage in the courtroom, he seizes the opportunity to tell all the upper class people of France exactly what he thinks of them. Spoiler alert: not much.

The Red and the Black is basically a story about a proud young man who tries to climb the social ladder while despising all the phony people he meets along the way. In the end, he decides to go with his true beliefs and tell everyone the truth, even though it basically gets him killed. But he'd rather tell the truth and die than become a phony and live a wealthy life.

If this sounds bleak, it's because, well, it is bleak. But it's also true to life, and Stendhal—who many credit with helping start the movement of Realism and psychologically-truthful fiction—would, like Julien, rather die a thousand deaths than sugarcoat the truth. Hats off to you, Stendhal.

What is The Red and the Black About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever felt like you've had to compromise on your values in order to have success? If not, then you're totally lucky… and we don't believe you're human. You've never had to compromise your values of "I need to rewatch all seasons of Game of Thrones" in order to write an essay? Or compromised your value of "the Man sucks" in order to sling fries in order to pay for your first car? Do you live in a sealed container somewhere? Maybe you're not that lucky.

If you have ever compromised your values in order to succeed, then a) welcome to the club and b) you probably can identify with the conundrum that our man Julien Sorel faces throughout The Red and the Black.

This kid really wants to make a name for himself as a great man. He also wants to do it on his terms… which is what causes problems. The first move he makes up the social ladder is becoming a tutor for the children of the wealthy Monsieur de Rênal. Julien loathes this guy's upper-class hollowness, but also wants his money. So what does he do? He sleeps with the guy's wife as a way of hurting him without losing his income.

Now we're not recommending that you go out and act like Julien. It might get you killed. But we are inviting you to think about the compromises that Julien often has to make (or refuses to make) between his values and his worldly ambition. As Stendhal shows us, it's almost impossible to become rich and famous and stay true to all of your deepest beliefs. The reason is because a lot of the wealthy people in this world are total hypocrites who will always forget their values for the sake of improving their social status. And for Stendhal, that's just about the lamest thing a person can do.

We're not offering any clear, satisfying solution to this compromise, and neither is Stendhal. He's just keeping it real (he is the great-Grandpappy of Realism,  after all), and as we all know, the truth hurts.

The Red and the Black Resources

Websites

Stendhal at BrainyQuote.com
Check out this link for some pearls of wisdom from our main man, Stendhal.

Stendhal at NNDB.com
For a really solid look at Stendhal's life, check out this link.

Stendhal on Facebook
Yup, he's on Facebook and he's looking for your "Like."

Movie or TV Productions

The Red and the Black (1997 film)
The DVD jacket boasts that the movie is 3 hours long, although we're not sure if that's the best way to make people buy it.

The Red and the Black (1954)
This version is pretty old. But then again, so is the book.

Articles and Interviews

Stendhal at his Best: A "Worthless" Historian
Michael Johnson explains why Stendhal's classic book deserves a decent modern translation and why it remains so relevant today. He's quick to admit, though, that you don't want to take any history lessons from Stendhal.

Through Stendhal's Eyes
This article walks us through Stendhal's impressions of Italy, where he lived for a chunk of his life.

How Love Works
Turns out that Stendhal wrote a pretty important book about love. Since love is a pretty big theme in The Red and the Black, this article is definitely worth a look.

Video

Le Rouge et le Noir (1997)
Here's a clip from the 1997 movie. It's in French with no translation, but it should give you an idea of what the visuals looked like. And if you can understand French, all the better.

Le Rouge et le Noir: Part 2
Why not keep a good thing going? Here's part 2 of the 1997 film.

Le Rouge et le Noir: Part 3
Now we finally get to see Julien flash some of that famous charm.

Audio

The Red and the Black Audiobook
Follow this link if your eyes get tired and you'd like for someone to read the book to you.

Another Audiobook
This one you'll actually have to pay for. But you can listen to a free audio sample and decide for yourself whether it's worth it.

Images

Stendhal Adult Portrait
This is probably the most well known image of Stendhal we have today.

Did I Leave the Stove On?
Stendhal seems to have something on his mind in this one.

Stendhal Caricature
Here's one cartoonist's take on how this guy would have come across.