In a world where people size one another up in seconds, appearances are everything. The clothes you wear, you body language, even the way you laugh: these are all things that tell the characters in The Red and the Black (and the real people of 19th-century France) how they should treat you.
This is exactly the kind of superficial world that Julien Sorel hates, but he's willing to play the game if it means advancing himself in society. The main problem is that he makes so many compromises on this stuff that he sometimes forgets his core values. And as bad as being a failure might be, Stendhal suggests that being a hypocrite or a phony is even worse.
Questions About Appearances
Why does Mr. Sorel argue so much with Monsieur de Rênal about buying a new set of clothes for Julien if he's going to work as a tutor? Try to support your answer with evidence from the text.
How would you describe Julien's physical appearance? What makes it distinct?
How do women tend to react to Julien's appearance? How does it influence his social interactions?
How does the Marquis know when to treat Julien as an employee and as a fictional relative? What does this tell us about the importance of appearances in Paris society?
Chew on This
In The Red and the Black, we learn that whether we like it or not, the world runs on appearances and we need to do everything we can to project the right kind of image.
In The Red and the Black, Stendhal shows us that worrying about appearances is just a short step from total phoniness and hypocrisy.