The small town of Verrières may be regarded as one of the most attractive in the Franche-Comté. Its white houses with their high pitched roofs of red tiles are spread over the slope of a hill, the slightest contours of which are indicated by clumps of sturdy chestnuts. The Doubs runs some hundreds of feet below its fortifications, built in times past by the Spaniards, and now in ruins.
Summary: The novel takes place toward the end of the Bourbon Restoration, during which France still lives in the shadow of the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon. The aristocracy lives in fear of another Revolution, referring to it repeatedly; the specter of Napoleon lingers throughout the land, a source of fear for some and for dreams of glory for others. It is a society that cannot help but be rife with hypocrisy. Through this society we follow Julien Sorel, son of a carpenter, handsome, intelligent, with a prodigious memory. He is one of those inspired with dreams of glory by the figure of Napoleon, and would, were he able, go into the military as an officer; but it is not a military age, and it is very difficult to become an officer. So instead he goes the route that seems available to him: the Church. Of course, he is a complete unbeliever; he believes in the God of Voltaire, not that of the Bible. But obviously this does not get promotions in the Church, so he sets himself to fooling everyone, to the point that he memorizes the Bible in Latin, word for word. He becomes tutor to the children of M. de Renal, where he meets Madame de Rênal. Over time the two fall in love and have an affair; this ends up forcing a situation in which Julien has to leave and go to seminary. At seminary his hypocrisy is seen through almost immediately by his duller fellow students, who see clearly enough that even when he has the right answers it has too much of the book in it, and his fine future suddenly does not seem so assured. But it is in seminary that he finds the major protector in his life, M. Pirard, who manages, after leaving the seminary himself, to get Julien a position with the Marquis de la Mole, an important and wealthy government official. There he meets Mathilde de la Mole, the Marquis's daughter; like Julien she is caught up in dreams of glory, but hers are inspired not by Napoleon but by the heroic deeds of her ancestors. They have an affair, the result of which is a pregnancy, which touches off the crisis on which the novel ends.
A great deal happens in the novel beyond what this bare summary can suggest. The work is usually classified as a major example of realism, but although it's on only a first reading, I have to say that anyone who thinks this novel realistic has been duped. Not only are none of the characters entirely reliable, it becomes quite clear as we proceed through the story that the narrator himself is not reliable -- he keeps trying to pushing the reader into a particular point of view, and shows repeatedly that he is playing to, and sometimes with, what he assumes to be the reader's prejudices. The narrator, in short, is as much a hypocrite as the characters, as is, in fact, necessary given that he is bound up in the very same society they are. The psychological close-ups of the characters are brilliant, but they are also contradictory; for instance, the narrator in turns treats Julien as audacious and non-audacious, intelligent and non-intelligent, as it suits him. In context these assessments are always plausible; but another thing will happen and the narrator will give us a completely contradictory assessment. Even the epigraphs are often made-up or misleading. The narrative also makes rare but definite use of farce and melodrama -- these are some of the best parts of the book, in fact -- and the primary mechanisms of plot are not realistic but consist of chance and the unpredictable irrationality of various characters. (The hero, or anti-hero, Julien, is an extraordinarily passive character: his few plans go astray, and almost every success he achieves is because of luck or favor.) The detail, especially the psychological detail, is certainly rich, but it is a façade. The novel is not just about hypocritical characters; it is a hypocritical novel about hypocritical characters, told from a hypocritical point of view. This in itself would make the book a tour de force. Julien Sorel is not a very sympathetic character -- he is, of course, a hypocrite through and through, quite deliberately (one of his heroes is Tartuffe), to such an extent that were it not for some humanizing episodes he might come across as psychopathic -- but given his society and the sheer disparity between his dreams of glorious activity and the purely passive and ambiguous successes he does achieve, it is very difficult to have such a sour and smirking amusement at his life as the narrator does. Everything is ambiguous in this novel; one could miss this, because the narrator is very good at intruding and telling you the way it is -- but, again, the narrator repeatedly shows himself untrustworthy.
Quite a complexity; I doubt this book can be done justice on a single reading. At the same time, I confess, I don't have a huge urge to read it again.
Favorite Passage: The character I liked best in the book was Korasoff, the Russian prince. He's also the only character who is presented in a humorous light by the narrator who is genuinely funny.
In London he at last made acquaintance with the extremes of fatuity. He made friends with some young Russian gentlemen who initiated him.
'You are predestined, my dear Sorel,' they told him, 'you are endowed by nature with that cold expression a thousand leagues from the sensation of the moment, which we try so hard to assume.'
'You have not understood our age,' Prince Korasoff said to him; 'always do the opposite to what people expect of you. That, upon my honour, is the only religion of the day. Do not be either foolish or affected, for then people will expect foolishness and affectations, and you will not be obeying the rule.'
Recommendation: Probably for some people and not for others.