The works of the French author Stendhal (1783-1842) mark the transition in France from romanticism to realism. His masterpieces—The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma—provide incisive and ironic depictions of love and the will to power.

Stendhal was born Marie Henri Beyle on Jan. 23, 1783, in Grenoble. He was thus a child of the 18th century who lived well into the 19th. He early developed a dislike for his father and an undue attachment to his mother. She died when he was 7 years old. Stendhal soon displayed the customary pattern that develops from such emotional situations: a hatred for authority and a search for a surrogate mother.

Early Training and Career

Stendhal's schooling was under the Ideologues, a group of 18th-century investigators of psychology, a training that set him apart from the later romantic authors. From this schooling, as well as from an intensive study of Ideologue writings (especially those of Destutt de Tracy) that he began in 1804, Stendhal formed his world view. He sought to understand man by learning the workings of his mind and above all his emotions, the latter of which Stendhal believed were rooted in man's physiological nature. Stendhal hoped through this study to be able to dominate those about him. The principal keys were consciousness of self, awareness of the primal role of will, and excellence of memory in order to ensure recall of all relevant facts. In the happiness principle (la chasse au bonheur, the pursuit of happiness) Stendhal saw the central dynamic drive of man.

In 1800 Stendhal accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on his heroic crossing of the Alps into Italy, first coming at this time to know and love Italy. He rapidly became a functionary of some importance under the Napoleonic Empire and spent the years 1806-1810 in Germany, where, among other places, he stayed for a time in the town of Stendhal, from which he derived his pseudonym. In 1814, with the collapse of the Empire, Stendhal settled happily in Italy, renouncing forever his dreams of a major public career. He preferred Italy to his native land, for, probably erroneously, he believed it a more fertile soil for the cultivation of the passions.


Doctrine of "Beylism"

An elusive personality, the end product of a process of disillusionment, Stendhal showed a mocking exterior, ironic and skeptical, that masked his sensitive and wounded heart. He gradually elaborated a doctrine he called "egotism" or "Beylism." Stendhal later wrote of this doctrine in detail in a series of works not published until long after his death: his Journal (1888), his Life of Henri Brûlard (1890), and his Memoirs of Egotism (1892). The doctrine, the name of which is deceptive to speakers of English, urges a deliberate following of self-interest and views the external world solely as a theater for personal energies. The "will to glory" is no more than the doctrine's external manifestation. Its essence is inward, an intense study of the self in order to give to the fleeting moments of life all the density of which they are capable. Although this is an admittedly elitist doctrine, Stendhal excused and justified it by his total sincerity. It ultimately proposes self-knowledge, not self-interest, to enhance the cult of the will, and it proposes the energy to develop an ever present sense of what one owes to oneself. To Stendhal, Italy and Napoleon were the supreme models of his doctrine. He proposed them to the "Happy Few" as guides, for he believed that the elite alone possess sufficient independence of judgment and strength of will to dare to be themselves. They alone may seek the supreme goal— happiness and the complete conscious realization of self— through self-analysis leading to self-knowledge and an awareness of how all others also seek their own ends; through a conscious hypocrisy to conceal their own goals; and through an unabating honesty with self.


Early Writings

Stendhal's early works little suggest the sincerity of his approach. His History of Painting in Italy and Rome, Naples, and Florence, both written in 1817, contain interesting original elements among many plagiarized passages. In 1821 Stendhal was suspected as a spy and forced to leave Italy but not before completing much of the work on his first major publication, On Love (1822). This study of love, today highly prized, sold only 17 copies during his lifetime. It is a rationalist's account of the ultimate emotional experience. Through a witty analogy Stendhal suggested that the initial manifestation of love is no more than a "crystallization" about the loved one of qualities the lover wishes to find in him or her—a matter (to use a later terminology) of projection and ego-satisfaction little dependent upon the real qualities of the person who is loved. It is a form of self-love, then, and not real love. For Stendhal, if love is to be complete, it must become a discovery of the loved person and a loss of self in love of the other. This total absorption is the supreme manifestation of the ego, a transcendent state to which all art and nature then contribute.

Stendhal's Racine and Shakespeare, a minor foray into the developing battle of romanticism in France, appeared in 1823. In 1827 he published his first major novel, Armance, a psychological study marred by a lack of clarity (a fatal fault in such analyses).


The Red and the Black

In 1831, taking advantage of a momentary easing of the censorship, Stendhal published The Red and the Black. Although it is today acclaimed as a masterpiece, it had to wait 50 years and long after the death of its author to begin to achieve that status. It is the best single work in which to study Stendhal.

The plot of The Red and the Black (like those of many other French novels of the 19th century) is based on a widely reported criminal case of the day. Stendhal adopted its outline, changing the names of the characters and providing his own account of their motivations. His hero, Julien Sorel, of a peasant family, is placed as tutor in the minor noble family of the Rênals in a small village in Savoy, the region in which Stendhal had passed his childhood. Julien seduces Madame de Rênal, leaving her when scandal is about to break out in order to enter a seminary and pursue studies for the priesthood. He next becomes the secretary of the aristocratic Marquis de la Môle in Paris, where he seduces the marquis's daughter, Mathilde. As he is about to marry her, Madame de Rênal writes a damaging letter to the marquis. Julien, infuriated, makes an unsuccessful attempt to kill Madame de Rênal. For this crime he receives the sentence of execution.

The "Black" of the title represents the Roman Catholic Church; the "Red" is a broader symbol, suggesting the Revolution, the Republic, the Empire of Napoleon, and more generalized concepts of courage and daring. Julien, a fervent admirer of Napoleon, is born too late for the Red; but he "knows how to choose the uniform of his century" and opts for the priesthood, the Black. The novel is, in this regard, a satiric portrayal of France under the Restoration, the conservative reaction that followed the Empire and that depended for its continuance upon repressing young men like Julien. In his flaming speech at his trial Julien accuses his accusers of being no better than himself and of punishing him for being "a plebian in revolt."


Julien Sorel's Character

Julien's character is complex but clearly delineated, so that The Red and the Blackis also, and more importantly, a study of love. Physically weak, Julien is scorned by his father and brothers; he early loses his mother. He uses his keen intelligence to serve his ambition and little understands how much he seeks a mother in all women. His need is to dominate, not only society but especially a woman. Madame de Rênal is a maternal type of woman; he plans her seduction coldly. But Stendhal wisely has Julien win her only when he lacks the strength to continue his foolish stratagems and bursts into tears in her bedroom. For almost the first time, Julien is honest with himself and with her. Julien thus also provides that moment of the unexpected (l'imprévu), which Stendhal deemed essential to love. For a brief time Julien passes from self-love to real love, but soon his wounded vanity drives him back to ambition. The two themes, love and the revolutionary spirit, blend in a terrifying spectacle as his sufferings make him an enemy dangerous to society and fatal to any woman who loves him. His chosen method, hypocrisy, gains him rapid success, but it denies him the possibility of full love.

In Julien's affair with Mathilde, on the one hand, Stendhal satirizes the decadent Parisian nobility of the Restoration and, on the other, with the rigor of a mathematical demonstration, he pushes Julien into the seduction. The relationship offers the occasion to contrast an ambitious and calculating love to Madame de Rênal's selfless devotion. Julien can control Mathilde only by keeping his emotions constantly in check; it is always a battle between them for domination, and the revolutionary theme returns.

After his attempted murder of Madame de Rênal, Julien, contrasting her devotion with the self-seeking vanity of Mathilde, discovers the real nature of love. Renouncing both ambition and hypocrisy, he gives himself wholly to Madame de Rênal, who forgives him and returns his love. She spends long hours in prison with him, thus allowing Stendhal to depict his concept of one person's fully developed love for another person. Julien is serenely happy despite his death sentence. His will to power has been set aside for higher goals; his pursuit of happiness has been successful.

In its acceptance of love as the supreme experience of life, The Red and the Black is romantic. In its sensitive and sympathetic analysis of motives and of feeling and response, it derives from the 18th century. It foreshadows the return of psychological analysis in the novel, a return that characterized France at the end of the 19th century, when The Red and the Black began first to be appreciated. In the delicate irony of its presentation (not always translatable into English) it is, however, Stendhal's work alone.


The Charterhouse of Parma

In 1831 Stendhal returned to Italy. In 1834 he began his novel Lucien Leuwen (not published until 1890), an attack on the July Monarchy. In 1839 he published his second great work, The Charterhouse of Parma. A complex novel set in Italy, it analyzes, even more delicately than does The Red and the Black, the variations and nuances of love. Again a prison serves as the paradoxical setting. The book is also important for its satiric portrayal of the Battle of Waterloo, at which the hero, Fabrice, is in fact present without ever being sure whether the action is really a battle or not.

More important is the detailed portrait of Fabrice's aunt, La Sansévérina, who is in love with him but whose love is not returned. Her quiet self-command, the fullness with which she lives a major role in the court at Parma, and her ease in handling her lover, the Prime Minister, and the ruler, who also loves her, make her one of Stendhal's most complex characters, perhaps his best delineation, and certainly one of the greatest female characters in French fiction. The ending of this novel is seriously truncated. Its last words are a dedication (in English): "To the Happy Few." The novel, little admired on its publication, did at least receive praise from Honoré de Balzac.

On March 22, 1842, Stendhal died in Paris. Almost a hundred years passed before he was understood as a major figure of world literature.

Further Reading on Stendhal

Autobiographical works by Stendhal are The Life of Henri Brûlard (trans. 1939), Memoirs of Egotism (trans. 1949), and The Private Diaries of Stendhal (trans. 1954). Jean Dutourd, The Man of Sensibility (trans. 1961), is a series of essays on various aspects of Stendhal's personality. Robert M. Adams, Stendhal: Notes on a Novelist (1959), contains a short biography and general criticism of the fiction. Introductions to Stendhal's work are Howard Clewes, Stendhal: An Introduction to the Novelist (1950), and Wallace Fowlie, Stendhal (1969), which emphasizes Stendhal's contributions to the evolution of the novel.

Useful studies include Frederick C. Green, Stendhal (1939);Matthew Josephson's excellent Stendhal: or, The Pursuit of Happiness (1946), which lays great weight on psychological factors; John Atherton, Stendhal (1965), an analysis of the concepts which motivate and form the personalities of Stendhal's characters; Armand Caraccio, Stendhal (trans. 1965), divided into a biography and a perceptive study of the novels; and Victor Brombert, Stendhal: Fiction and the Themes of Freedom (1968).

Varied critical opinion on Stendhal appears in Victor Brombert, ed., Stendhal: A Collection of Critical Essays (1962). Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists (1963), contains a penetrating chapter on Stendhal; and Stendhal figures prominently in Joseph Wood Krutch, Five Masters: A Study in the Mutations of the Novel (1930), and Raymond Giraud, The Unheroic Hero in the Novels of Stendhal, Balzac and Flaubert (1957). For background see Martin Turnell's two works, The Novel in France (1951) and The Art of French Fiction (1959).

Additional Biography Sources

Alter, Robert, A lion for love: a critical biography of Stendhal, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986, 1979.

Fineshriber, William H., Stendhal, the romantic rationalist, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977 c1932.

Jameson, Storm, Speaking of Stendhal, London: Gollancz, 1979. May, Gita, Stendhal and the Age of Napoleon, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Stendhal, Memoirs of an egotist, London: Chatto and Windus, 1975.