Book Reviews

Musing Stendhal's novel Le Rouge et le Noir

Stendhal reveals that his overriding aim in Le Rouge et le Noir had been to disengage as far as possible from the expectations and conventions liable to be imposed on him by the public. This is the story of a parvenu who succeeds in penetrating the "walls" which protect the privileged and in attaching himself to a class to which he does not belong. Stendhal uses a number of different methods of creating character, but one of the most important is the description of his chief character's effect on other people. The readers' reactions are almost identical with those of the other characters. We, too, find Julien "different" and "frightening".

"Silence" plays a pivotal role in the novel. In fact, Stendhal maintains a studied silence about the reasons for Julien's attempt to shoot Madame de Rênal. At any rate, Julien himself never offers an explanation, perhaps because any such explanation would lie beyond all rational and intelligible discourse. On his way to Verrières and the church where he shoots Madame de Rênal, Julien stops to write to Mathilde but finds that he cannot express himself in language. And indeed, after the shooting, the greater part of Julien's efforts seem devoted to trying to maintain and impose silence around himself and his actions, and to preventing any histoire d'amour from being narrated on his behalf. When he does eventually write to Mathilde from prison, it is only to ask for silence from her. It is Julien's refusal to trade or procure his release by recourse to the parôle première of public opinion that ensures him a death sentence.

Le Rouge et le Noir is a novel with many voices and it is not always possible to say with certainty which of them belong to the telling voice of the author. The authorial voice quite frequently falls silent and withdraws completely from the narrative of events, and, as I have already demonstrated, perhaps nowhere more crucially or more significantly than during the shooting episode. The chapter which follows immediately after the shooting itself begins in just such a purely impersonal mode. Here the sequence of events is given without comment, interpretation or evaluation. The same sort of effect is produced by Stendhal's adoption of a kind of style indirect libre narration where he endorses the characters' perspective without any hint as to whether the character in question is right or wrong, should be approved or disapproved by the reader.

Undoubtedly in Le Rouge et le Noir, it is the complicities of narrative in the rejected terms of specific social representations of subjectivity and desire which lead to a breakdown and a retreat (into "silence"). The elusiveness of Stendhal's characters tends to make them curiously unmemorable, a quality rarely remarked upon by critics, but one that is noted by Émile Zola in his essay on Stendhal. As far as Julien is concerned, Napoleon represents an inimitable type and a goal. It is thus his status as a role model which produces the ambition that is designed to bridge the gap between Julien's actual self and his ideal. The masks that he adopts during the course of his career (Don Juan, hypocrite et al.) are the means whereby this ambition can be fulfilled.

Given the above, Stendhal confounds and wages war on the expectation system of the reader by subverting the social and literary conventions. Indeed the characters reflect an uncertainty of values in an uncertain age.


More by :  Attreyee Roy Chowdhury

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