Study Guide

The Red and the Black Appearances

By Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle)


At first sight, one often feels that he blends the dignity of mayoral status with the sort of charm still often to be found in a man of forty-five or fifty. (1.1.3)

A first look at Monsieur de Rênal suggests that he's a pretty dignified and charming guy. Now we eventually learn that the guy has all kinds of flaws, but this is a guy who's made his living off of first impressions, so what does he care about what a jerk he is when no one's looking?

Nor should we hide the fact that, in the eyes of the town's ladies, she was an outright fool, since with not the slightest regard for proper management of her husband, she passed over the loveliest opportunities for buying beautiful hats from Paris or Besançon. (1.3.28)

The women of Verrières often make fun of Madame de Rênal for not caring enough about her appearance. While they're all out trying to look as young and beautiful as possible, Madame dresses conservatively and doesn't even nag her husband enough to get herself a new hat now and then. 

[Fouqé] was a tall young man, quite sufficiently ugly, with gross, hard features, a nose of infinite length, and a large store of goodwill hidden under his repulsive appearance. (1.12.20)

The narrator never misses a chance to describe characters in this book that are especially ugly. Julien's friend Fouqé is one of these characters, as you can see. But underneath those horrible looks is a really nice guy, so maybe it's best to give people a chance.

His eye movements, for example, caused him serious difficulty. There was good reason, in a place like this, to keep one's eyes lowered. (1.26.37)

Julien quickly realizes that in seminary school, he should keep his eyes lowered to show that he's humble. Looking priests in the eye suggests that he's cocky, and that's not the way you want to seem around a bunch of old conservative dudes.

In critically evaluating himself, and trying not to exaggerate his capacities, Julien did not aspire all at once […] to make every single thing he did significant. (1.26.39)

When he's at seminary school, Julien knows it's best to fly under the radar of his fellow students. If he succeeds too much in public, he knows that he'll make them jealous and he'll eventually have to pay a price. That's why it's just as important to downplay appearances as it is to play them up.

"I see something in you which offends coarse souls." (1.29.7)

Father Pirard knows just by looking at Julien Sorel that most people will never like him. The reason is because Julien has a sort of emotional honesty that shines through in his appearance and offends hypocrites. The problem is that according to Stendhal, most people in the world are hypocrites.

[The vicar-general's] face might have seemed a good deal more sober, had it not been for the sharp keenness notable in certain of its features, so marked that they would have been an indication of duplicity, if the possessor of so handsome an appearance had ever, even for an instant, stopped thinking of himself. (1.29.63)

In other words, the vicar-general is too self-absorbed to be a cheat. Scheming requires a person to think about how other people are going to act, but you can tell from one look at the vicar-general's face that he's got no time for this.

Afterward, he decided they simply expressed their boredom at everyone there, though they obviously never forgot how imposing they were supposed to appear. (2.2.38)

Julien knows that the rich and powerful men of Paris are supposed to look, well, rich and powerful. But behind their outward appearances is a deep dissatisfaction that keeps any of them from enjoying their power and wealth.

"Oh, had I looked like him, perhaps she wouldn't have taken such a dislike to me, after three days of loving me." (2.24.7)

Julien wishes that he looked more like his rich buddy, Prince Korasoff. He figures that Mathilde would have kept liking him if he looked like someone from her own social class. Notice how there's no emphasis at all on Julien's personality here, just his looks.

"As I've become less deceived by mere appearances […] I've learned that Paris drawing rooms are inhabited by respectable people just like my father, or by clever rogues like these old convicts." (2.44.38)

The more time he spends in the fancy drawing rooms of Paris, the more Julien realizes that the upper class people of France are no better than most crooks. They're just hidden behind fancy clothes and fake manners.

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