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Julien Sorel, Saint or Apostate?

Written by: Julian Scutts

Julien Sorel, Saint or Apostate?

   A handbook directed to the needs of students of French literature brought to my attention the fact that Stendhal (original name: Marie-Henri Beyle) intended to give the one-word  title Julien to the novel that subsequently gained worldwide acclaim under the title Le Rouge et le Noir. [1]Why then this late-in-the-day switch of titles?  On mature reflection Stendhal may have considered that the isolated name Julien alone  was  too far detached from any grounding in a recognizable context, and yet, before proceeding with a reflection on the novel’s definitive title I enquire whether some benefit could be derived from a context-free contemplation of the name Julien or Julian. It conjures up favourable and unfavourable associations, either with a number of saints in the Church canon or with “Julian the Apostate,” the Roman emperor who vainly attempted to reinstate paganism and demote Christianity from its official pedestal. Along  with the Vandals, he was given a bad name for challenging the authority of  Catholic orthodoxy. Be that as it may, his name recalled the former slendour of Roman civilization and its cultural heritage, which to a high degree was consolidated by the preservation of the Latin language. It was Julien Sorel’s mastery of Latin, displayed most eminently is his ability to cite the Vulgate version of the entire New Testament by heart, that provided him with the bread ticket that he, a poor carpenter’s son living way out in the provinces, required to enter the world of genteel society and climb the Jacob’s Ladder of advancement in the service of the Church.  Like Joseph in his youth, that archetype of Jesus Christ,  he was despised and roughly treated by his brothers for being different, aloof, in short:  the antithesis of a tough young farmer or labourer type of their own ilk. It was almost as though he had been transported via some time warp from ancient Rome to the time of the Bourbon Restoration in France, a period of extreme political and cultural reaction against all that the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire had stood for, retaining from that time only the guillotine, and Julien was a thoroughgoing admirer of Napoleon to boot, though unlike his idol he, when  a young lad at least, was debarred from preferment in the service of the army.

It is generally accepted that the main (but not the exclusive) import of the actual title of Le Rouge  et le Noir lies in the contrast of the two domains which Julien traversed in his life both inwardly and outwardly, the Army and the Church. The full title of the novel includes its designation as a chronicle of the nineteenth century and as such it derived a central event and turning point in the sequence of its story from a real incident, “l’Affaire Berthet.” In 1827 a young man entered a church, l’Eglise de Brangues by name, and in the wake of a love relationship that had gone sour fired a pistol wounding a married woman, the wife of his former employer. He was executed by the guillotine not only on the charge of attempted murder but also, and perhaps more pointedly, on that of sacrilege. Thus Stendhal gained a blueprint for narrating the very similar events that led to Julien’s tragic end.

 A further prompt to thoughts about that classless instrument of execution springs from  the leading epigram attached to the novel’s introduction, namely: La vérité, l'âpre vérité (“the truth, the bitter truth”) for its pronouncement was attributed to Danton, the revolutionary leader who fell foul of Robespierre’s reign of terror. Here we might return to the old question raised by Pontius Pilot: “What is truth?” Without taking recourse to biblical precedents we might also introduce the thought of les deux vérités, the title of a film the main interest of which focused on the dilemma facing a jury in court when two conclusions could be construed from the same body of evidence, one pointing to the innocent character of a young female murder victim or to the evil character of a manipulative seductress.[2] With reference to Le Rouge et le Noir, a question arises: was Julien Sorel inherently good and noble or bad and perverse, a bounder, a heartless cad who left behind him a trail of broken hearts and who justly came a cropper as a result.

Those who wish to arrive at a predominantly  positive assessment of Julien will have no easy task excusing his callous treatment of Mme Louise de Rênal  and the other women he abandoned, his ruthless and opportunistic  pursuit of upward advancement in the ecclesiastical hierarchy without at the same time following a true religious vocation,  then of course, his attempted murder of his former lover as she prayed in  church during the celebration of  Mass and, not least, his air of  self-righteousness defiance even as he claims the martyr’s crown for being  a persecuted representative of the downtrodden poor.  True, he faces death with courage and dignity, but so have others who left this world without that much fuss.  One result of the change of the novel’s title from Julien to Le Rouge et le Noir is a clarification that the novel is not just about Julien. Mme. de Rênal  must share some of limelight too. At this juncture  I venture to bring Goethe into the picture and moot and the possibility of his influence on Stendhal’s writings. During the time he followed Napoleon on his German and Russian campaigns he made Goethe’s personal acquaintance after which meeting both held each other in mutual respect. During a time of resience in the north of Italy he met another international literary star, Lord Byron. Traces of on Juan in the mirror of Byron's and perhaps Molière's treatment of that character seem to reemerge in Julien.

In a chapter  contributed to a Festschrift occasioned by an academic symposium on Goethe held in Dallas in 2016,  Prisilla Sanchez, a specialist in the Comparative Studies field,  wrote: “Although Stendhal rather blatantly adapted a number of Goethe’s works and ideas in his own writings, he rarely acknowledged Goethe as a source or an inspiration.” [3]

Though I am unable to ascertain the grounds for this assumption, I suggest that it could be supported by evidence drawn from Le Rouge et le Noir at the critical point when Mme de de Rênal visits Julien in prison shortly before his execution and in a spirit of complete forgiveness and unconditional love brings him solace and, if not quite absolution in the strictest sense, a form of psychological and spiritual release and closure. She herself dies three days after Julien’s execution, with ‘three days’ posing an obvious allusion to the Resurrection. If Julien, a carpenter's son,  is not to be flatly  identified with Jesus then she at least might claim an affinity with Mary Magdalene. In a similar vein Gretchen, transfigured as the divine intercessor with aspects of the penitent Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, prepares the way for Faust’s entry into Paradise. Similarly,  in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers the protagonist suffers in a manner that implicitly aligns him with Jesus Christ as the very title of the novella intimates by the inclusion of the word ‘Leiden,’ which can denote the Passion as well as suffering in general. Lotte hands Werther the instruments whereby he takes his own life while Julien’s death results from  Mme de Rênal  ’s decision to denounce him as an adulterer, albeit without her knowing  where her denouncement would lead.

The novel approaches its conclusion on a macabre note. Mathilde de La Mole, the last love in Julien’s life, claims possession of his head, which she then has placed at the head of his gravestone. In her act of devotion  Mathilde maintained a family tradition going back to the end of the sixteenth century when Queen Marguerite of Navarre  encased the head of her lover (and Mathilde’s ancestor),  Boniface de La Môle,, likewise the victim of an execution . Mme  de Rênal’s death in sympathy with the passing of Julien marks a point of closure while Mathilde’s pregnancy and the prospect of bearing Julien’s child suggests that Julien’s spirit would live on in a more rough-and-tumble world stripped of the frippery of the Bourbon Restoration that ended in1830, the year of the publication of Le Rouge et le Noir. After a relatively quiet interval under the July Monarchy another Napoleon came into his own, though I doubt his character would have appealed to Julien.

Oddly enough, the symbolism of a decapitated head reemerges in literature in  Herodias, one of the three short stories published by Gustave Flaubert in 1877 under the heading Trois Contes. This tells the tale of the successful plot to do away with John the Baptist that Herodias, the wife of King Herod Antipas, hatches in collaboration with her daughter Salomé. The grisly image of John’s head on a platter is unlikely to be lost on any reader.  In the second story in this trio, La légende de Saint-Julien l'hospitalier, (The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier),  the name Julien comes to the fore again but this time  the sainthood of its bearer is beyond dispute for he appears in the guise of the saintly Julien le  Hospitalier, who after many a contretemps, one involving him in involuntarily causing the death of his parents, does all in his power to serve the needs of a leper he encounters, but no ordinary leper, for it transpires that he is Jesus Christ traveling incognito. Julian is suitably rewarded by a place in heaven. I feel Flaubert had Le Rouge et le Noir in mind when composing the three stories. The first story is about a nice simple good-hearted girl that would probably have made a good wife for Julien Sorel and spared him a lot of trouble, but then, I suppose, he would not have been the protagonist of what Somerset Maugham considered to be one  of the ten  best novels even written.

 

[1] The Red and the Black Reader’s Guide by Stendhal, © 2020 Penguin Random House.

Les Deux Vérités (original title Le due vérita) is a  Franco-Italian film directed by par Antonio Leonviola  and distributed in 1952.

 

[3] Chapter Four, Goethe’s “Bildung” ed. Jacob-Ivan Eidt and Christoph Daniel Weber, USA, 2018.

 

Julien Sorel, Saint or Apostate?

   A handbook directed to the needs of students of French literature brought to my attention the fact that Stendhal (original name: Marie-Henri Beyle) intended to give the one-word  title Julien to the novel that subsequently gained worldwide acclaim under the title Le Rouge et le Noir. [1]Why then this late-in-the-day switch of titles?  On mature reflection Stendhal may have considered that the isolated name Julien alone  was  too far detached from any grounding in a recognizable context, and yet, before proceeding with a reflection on the novel’s definitive title I enquire whether some benefit could be derived from a context-free contemplation of the name Julien or Julian. It conjures up favourable and unfavourable associations, either with a number of saints in the Church canon or with “Julian the Apostate,” the Roman emperor who vainly attempted to reinstate paganism and demote Christianity from its official pedestal. Along  with the Vandals, he was given a bad name for challenging the authority of  Catholic orthodoxy. Be that as it may, his name recalled the former slendour of Roman civilization and its cultural heritage, which to a high degree was consolidated by the preservation of the Latin language. It was Julien Sorel’s mastery of Latin, displayed most eminently is his ability to cite the Vulgate version of the entire New Testament by heart, that provided him with the bread ticket that he, a poor carpenter’s son living way out in the provinces, required to enter the world of genteel society and climb the Jacob’s Ladder of advancement in the service of the Church.  Like Joseph in his youth, that archetype of Jesus Christ,  he was despised and roughly treated by his brothers for being different, aloof, in short:  the antithesis of a tough young farmer or labourer type of their own ilk. It was almost as though he had been transported via some time warp from ancient Rome to the time of the Bourbon Restoration in France, a period of extreme political and cultural reaction against all that the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire had stood for, retaining from that time only the guillotine, and Julien was a thoroughgoing admirer of Napoleon to boot, though unlike his idol he, when  a young lad at least, was debarred from preferment in the service of the army.

It is generally accepted that the main (but not the exclusive) import of the actual title of Le Rouge  et le Noir lies in the contrast of the two domains which Julien traversed in his life both inwardly and outwardly, the Army and the Church. The full title of the novel includes its designation as a chronicle of the nineteenth century and as such it derived a central event and turning point in the sequence of its story from a real incident, “l’Affaire Berthet.” In 1827 a young man entered a church, l’Eglise de Brangues by name, and in the wake of a love relationship that had gone sour fired a pistol wounding a married woman, the wife of his former employer. He was executed by the guillotine not only on the charge of attempted murder but also, and perhaps more pointedly, on that of sacrilege. Thus Stendhal gained a blueprint for narrating the very similar events that led to Julien’s tragic end.

 A further prompt to thoughts about that classless instrument of execution springs from  the leading epigram attached to the novel’s introduction, namely: La vérité, l'âpre vérité (“the truth, the bitter truth”) for its pronouncement was attributed to Danton, the revolutionary leader who fell foul of Robespierre’s reign of terror. Here we might return to the old question raised by Pontius Pilot: “What is truth?” Without taking recourse to biblical precedents we might also introduce the thought of les deux vérités, the title of a film the main interest of which focused on the dilemma facing a jury in court when two conclusions could be construed from the same body of evidence, one pointing to the innocent character of a young female murder victim or to the evil character of a manipulative seductress.[2] With reference to Le Rouge et le Noir, a question arises: was Julien Sorel inherently good and noble or bad and perverse, a bounder, a heartless cad who left behind him a trail of broken hearts and who justly came a cropper as a result.

Those who wish to arrive at a predominantly  positive assessment of Julien will have no easy task excusing his callous treatment of Mme Louise de Rênal  and the other women he abandoned, his ruthless and opportunistic  pursuit of upward advancement in the ecclesiastical hierarchy without at the same time following a true religious vocation,  then of course, his attempted murder of his former lover as she prayed in  church during the celebration of  Mass and, not least, his air of  self-righteousness defiance even as he claims the martyr’s crown for being  a persecuted representative of the downtrodden poor.  True, he faces death with courage and dignity, but so have others who left this world without that much fuss.  One result of the change of the novel’s title from Julien to Le Rouge et le Noir is a clarification that the novel is not just about Julien. Mme. de Rênal  must share some of limelight too. At this juncture  I venture to bring Goethe into the picture and moot and the possibility of his influence on Stendhal’s writings. During the time he followed Napoleon on his German and Russian campaigns he made Goethe’s personal acquaintance after which meeting both held each other in mutual respect.

In a chapter  contributed to a Festschrift occasioned by an academic symposium on Goethe held in Dallas in 2016,  Prisilla Sanchez, a specialist in the Comparative Studies field,  wrote: “Although Stendhal rather blatantly adapted a number of Goethe’s works and ideas in his own writings, he rarely acknowledged Goethe as a source or an inspiration.” [3]

Though I am unable to ascertain the grounds for this assumption, I suggest that it could be supported by evidence drawn from Le Rouge et le Noir at the critical point when Mme de de Rênal visits Julien in prison shortly before his execution and in a spirit of complete forgiveness and unconditional love brings him solace and, if not quite absolution in the strictest sense, a form of psychological and spiritual release and closure. She herself dies three days after Julien’s execution, with ‘three days’ posing an obvious allusion to the Resurrection. If Julien is not to be flatly  identified with Jesus then she at least might claim an affinity with Mary Magdalene. In a similar vein Gretchen, transfigured as the divine intercessor with aspects of the penitent Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, prepares the way for Faust’s entry into Paradise. Similarly,  in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers the protagonist suffers in a manner that implicitly aligns him with Jesus Christ as the very title of the novella intimates by the inclusion of the word ‘Leiden,’ which can denote the Passion as well as suffering in general. Lotte hands Werther the instruments whereby he takes his own life while Julien’s death results from  Mme de Rênal  ’s decision to denounce him as an adulterer, albeit without her knowing  where her denouncement would lead.

The novel approaches its conclusion on a macabre note. Mathilde de La Mole, the last love in Julien’s life, claims possession of his head, which she then has placed at the head of his gravestone. In her act of devotion  Mathilde maintained a family tradition going back to the end of the sixteenth century when Queen Marguerite of Navarre  encased the head of her lover (and Mathilde’s ancestor),  Boniface de La Môle,, likewise the victim of an execution . Mme  de Rênal’s death in sympathy with the passing of Julien marks a point of closure while Mathilde’s pregnancy and the prospect of bearing Julien’s child suggests that Julien’s spirit would live on in a more rough-and-tumble world stripped of the frippery of the Bourbon Restoration that ended in1830, the year of the publication of Le Rouge et le Noir. After a relatively quiet interval under the July Monarchy another Napoleon came into his own, though I doubt his character would have appealed to Julien.

Oddly enough, the symbolism of a decapitated head reemerges in literature in  Herodias, one of the three short stories published by Gustave Flaubert in 1877 under the heading Trois Contes. This tells the tale of the successful plot to do away with John the Baptist that Herodias, the wife of King Herod Antipas, hatches in collaboration with her daughter Salomé. The grisly image of John’s head on a platter is unlikely to be lost on any reader.  In the second story in this trio, La légende de Saint-Julien l'hospitalier, (The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier),  the name Julien comes to the fore again but this time  the sainthood of its bearer is beyond dispute for he appears in the guise of the saintly Julien le  Hospitalier, who after many a contretemps, one involving him in involuntarily causing the death of his parents, does all in his power to serve the needs of a leper he encounters, but no ordinary leper, for it transpires that he is Jesus Christ traveling in cognito. Julian is suitably rewarded by a place in heaven. I feel Flaubert had Le Rouge et le Noir in mind when composing the three stories. The first story is about a nice simple good-hearted girl that would probably have made a good wife for Julien Sorel and spared him a lot of trouble, but then, I suppose, he would not have been the protagonist of what Somerset Maugham considered to be one  of the best novels even written.

 

[1] The Red and the Black Reader’s Guide by Stendhal, © 2020 Penguin Random House.

Les Deux Vérités (original title Le due vérita) is a  Franco-Italian film directed by par Antonio Leonviola  and distributed in 1952.

 

[3] Chapter Four, Goethe’s “Bildung” ed. Jacob-Ivan Eidt and Christoph Daniel Weber, USA, 2018.