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Red and Black by Stendhal Summary

 

About this book Le Rouge et le Noir is a historical psychological novel in two volumes by Stendhal, published in 1830.

Short summary

Julien Sorel is just a poor carpenter’s son. His love of reading has given him all kinds of grand ideas about becoming a great man. The only problem is that Julien is living in early 19th-century France following the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. The country is basically run by an unquestioned king and a bunch of superficial elites who wouldn’t know honor if it slapped them in the face.Julien catches a break when he’s hired to be a tutor for the children of the wealthy Monsieur de Rênal, mayor of Verrières. Julien has an affair with de Rênal’s wife and has to leave town to go to priest’s school to avoid the scandal. While at the seminary, he gets another new job as a personal secretary for the Marquis de La Mole, one of the most influential men in Paris.Julien goes to live with the Marquis, but is quickly disillusioned by how superficial and boring life in the upper-class parts of Paris can be. No one says anything with any conviction and the world is just filled with a bunch of snarky social climbers. Julien forms a romantic relationship with the Marquis’ beautiful daughter Mathilde. The problem is that both he and Mathilde only want what they can’t have, and this creates a certain love-hate dance between them.

Acting on the advice of a Russian friend, Julien beats Mathilde at her own love games and secures her affection. She also reveals to him that she’s pregnant with his child. The two decide to get married. Mathilde’s dad is furious that Mathilde wants to marry a peasant, but he eventually agrees and gives Julien everything he’ll need to live as a wealthy man.Unfortunately, the Marquis withdraws his support for the wedding when he receives a letter from Julien’s old flame, Madame de Rênal. Madame’s letter says that Julien is a dastardly opportunist who only seduced Mathilde to climb the social ladder. After losing his father-in-law’s trust and respect, Julien travels back to his hometown of Verrières and shoots Madame de Rênal. She lives, but he’s imprisoned and sentenced to death anyway.Julien makes sure to use his last days in the limelight to criticize France and all of its hypocrisy. He is then beheaded and everyone in France goes back to their insincere, superficial lives.

Plot Summary

M. de Rênal, ultra mayor of the small provincial town of Verrières, hires Julien Sorel, a young peasant who aspires to the priesthood, as tutor for his children. The hiring of Julien is calculated to enhance Rênal’s prestige among the wealthy liberals. Julien, ambitious and amoral, had hoped to pursue a military career but has decided to enter the priesthood as the most likely means to success. He chooses hypocrisy as his weapon in his encounter with society. He sees his position as tutor as the first step in his ascension, which will culminate, he hopes, in Parisian aristocracy.Mme. de Rênal innocently falls in love with Julien after he has lived in the Rênal country home for some time. When Julien discovers that he is loved, he decides that he will seduce Mme. de Rênal as an expression of the scorn he feels for her husband. His plan of seduction would have failed miserably, so awkwardly does he execute it, were Mme. de Rênal not hopelessly in love with him. Succumbing to Julien’s natural charm, which he displays in unguarded moments, Mme. de Rênal becomes, in fact, Julien’s mistress. She educates him socially and in the local political intrigues. She succeeds in having Julien awarded a much coveted place in the guard of honor on the occasion of a visit by Charles X.Their love affair is idyllic until one of the Rênals’ sons falls gravely ill, which Mme. de Rênal interprets as divine punishment for her adultery. Soon M. de Rênal receives an anonymous letter accusing Julien of having seduced his wife. Mme. de Rênal succeeds in duping her husband into believing that the accusation is false. She convinces him that the letter comes from Valenod, Rênal’s rival and assistant, who has attempted in the past to court Mme. de Rênal. Her husband believes her because he is comfortably established and is horrified at the thought of a scandal. In order to quiet the rumors, Julien moves into the Rênals’ townhouse in Verrières. Because of his brilliant reputation as a tutor, he is invited to dinner by Valenod, who would hope to hire Julien as the tutor for his own children.A servant girl from the Rênal household, also in love with Julien but spurned by him, denounces the lovers to the former village priest, Chélan, who insists that Julien leave Verrières to enter the seminary in Besançon. Through Chélan’s influence with Pirard, rector of the seminary, Julien is awarded a scholarship. Julien’s affair with Mme. de Rênal is temporarily ended, but he visits her room for a final rendezvous.

Julien’s first attempts to succeed as a student meet with failure because he excels as a scholar, and the Church’s reactionary influence that prevails in the seminary requires of its future priests docility and intellectual conformity in mediocrity. Julien’s superiority, however, is appreciated by Rector Pirard, who makes Julien his protégé. One day as Julien is assisting in the decoration of the Besançon cathedral, he encounters Mme. de Rênal, who promptly faints at the sight of him.Pirard obtains a position for Julien as secretary to a powerful aristocrat in Paris, the Marquis de La Mole, to whom Pirard has been of invaluable assistance in a lawsuit. Pirard also leaves Besançon for a comfortable parish in Paris.Before going to Paris, Julien pays a last visit to Mme. de Rênal, presenting himself at her window late at night. At first rebuffed by his mistress’ virtue, Julien artfully destroys her resistance by announcing that his departure for Paris is imminent and that they will never see each other again. Mme. de Rênal acquiesces and Julien remains hidden to spend the following day with her.Book II finds Julien in Paris as secretary to the Marquis de La Mole. Soon Julien makes his services indispensable to his employer, although his provincial manners and inexperience in high society cause him constant embarrassment. The marquis’ proud daughter, Mathilde, takes an interest in Julien when she overhears the latter denouncing the sterility of the Mole’s salon. Mathilde is bored with the convention and barrenness of the aristocracy of which she is a part. She is in need of diversion, and Julien will provide it for her. The marquis finds Julien’s intelligence and wit very refreshing, and ultimately Julien becomes almost a son to the marquis. The latter sends Julien to London on a diplomatic mission in order that he may gain experience and as a pretext to have Julien awarded a decoration.

At the behest of Mathilde, Julien attends a ball, where he makes the acquaintance of a liberal aristocrat condemned to die. Mathilde is the most sought-after beauty of the season, but Julien hardly notices her, so inspired is he by the hero he has met. Mathilde, on the other hand, sees in Julien a reincarnation of her illustrious ancestor, Boniface de La Mole, a queen’s lover who was beheaded. Mathilde falls in love with Julien.Julien is unable to decide if he is loved or if Mathilde and her brother and their friends are trying to make of him a dupe. Julien’s attempt to leave Paris on a business trip for the marquis moves Mathilde to a declaration of love. Julien, still distrustful, takes precautions to safeguard his reputation, sending Mathilde’s avowal to his friend, Fouqué. Alleging another business trip, Julien receives an invitation from Mathilde to visit her in her room late at night. Still convinced that he is being tricked, Julien nonetheless appears at the appointed hour, and after much mutual embarrassment, Mathilde becomes his mistress.Mathilde now fears that she has given herself a master, and she repents of having compromised herself. Julien discovers that he is desperately in love with Mathilde, but her ardor has cooled. Unfortunately for Julien, Mathilde is only capable of loving him when she thinks that she is not loved by him. When in a moment of anger Julien one day appears to threaten her life, she is in love again. Their second rendezvous occurs, but Mathilde again repents immediately after.Julien, tormented by passion, is called upon by the marquis to serve as secretary at a secret meeting of reactionary aristocrats and to deliver a secret message to London. Successfully fulfilling his mission, Julien then goes to Strasbourg, where he meets a former acquaintance from London, who advises him how to reawaken Mathilde’s love by jealousy. Julien returns to Paris to execute his plan, choosing a prude to court by means of love letters furnished to him by his friend.Mathilde responds to the stratagem, but Julien realizes that to keep her love alive he must love her at a distance. Mathilde is pregnant, and after the marquis’ rage has subsided at the announcement of this news, the latter finally agrees to obtain an army commission for Julien and to encourage his career. Julien occupies his new post in Strasbourg but receives word from Mathilde to return to Paris, that all is lost. In checking on Julien’s past, the marquis has learned from Mme. de Rênal, in a letter dictated by her confessor, that Julien is an opportunist who succeeds by seducing women.

Learning this, Julien hurries to Verrières, arms himself, and shoots Mme. de Rênal at church. Imprisoned and awaiting trial for attempted murder, Julien is visited by Mathilde, who attempts to negotiate his acquittal with the Jesuits. Julien is resigned to die and in the solitude of his prison cell discovers that he is still in love with Mme. de Rênal, whom he had only wounded, and that his love for Mathilde has disappeared.During the trial, in spite of his resolution not to speak in his own defense, Julien informs the court that he is not being tried for attempted murder but for having attempted to rise above his social class. The jury finds Julien guilty and he is sentenced to be guillotined.During his last days in prison, Julien finds peace and happiness in his reflections and through the reunion with Mme. de Rênal, who visits him daily. Julien faces death courageously, and after the execution, Mathilde, in a re-enactment of a scene from the Mole family history, furtively steals Julien’s severed head and lovingly buries it with her own hands. Mme. de Rênal follows Julien in death.

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The role of women theme in Home and World book

Throughout the novel, as stated earlier, a strong sense of devotion is seen in the relationship between Bimala and Nikhil. It is key to notice that an indirect evaluation of the role of women is seen in this novel also, in a very subtle manner. In the society described, Bimala, like most women, blindly worships her husband. This can be seen when Bimala is described, “taking the dust of my husband’s feet without waking him”. When she is caught doing this act of reverence, her reaction is, “That had nothing to do with merit. It was a woman’s heart, which must worship in order to love.. This scene shows the average woman in this society who believes love will happen and worship is a given in a marriage. She blindly respects her husband without understanding or having a grasp of who he is.

Another one of the many scenes that alludes to a woman’s place in this society is when Nikhil and Sandip argue and Bimala is asked her opinion, which she finds unusual, in addition to “Never before had I had an opportunity of being present at a discussion between my husband and his men friends. This line shows how there is a strong disconnect and there is no place, usually, for a woman in real world conversations. To further prove this, in Nikhil’s story, the role of a woman is seen clearly, “Up till now Bimala was my home-made Bimala, the product of the confined space and the daily routine of small duties. These indirect references and descriptions are quite frequent throughout the novel and clearly allows the reader to get a sense of what women were subject to and their overall role in the society.

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Love and union theme of home and world book

From the first page of the novel, the love and union between Nikhil and Bimala is illustrated as something sacred. Nikhil proved throughout the story that he was undeniably devoted to his wife. He proved this first by marrying a woman who hailed from a poor family, along with accepting her darker skin. He made great effort to not only educate her, but also for her to understand her place in the world and not just her place in the captivity of their house. He shows his love by giving her freedom. Bimala also adores her husband, but in a less material manner. This is demonstrated in Bimala’s daily ritual of “taking the dust”, an Indian ritual of reverence not usually performed by a wife to her husband.

Due to Bimala’s extreme devotion to Nikhil, in the beginning of the novel, the union between the two of them is seen as one that cannot be broken. However, as, the story progresses, Bimala is slowly overcome by her feelings for Sandip. She eventually realises that she has found in Sandip what she longed for in Nikhil, fierce ambition and even violent defence of one’s ideals. Her deep desire for Sandip led her to completely break her sacred union with Nikhil, going as far as to steal money from her household funds. Sandip shows his love for Bimala through idolisation. This idolisation comes about due to her freedom, though.

The tale clearly presents the theme of love and union time and time again, going from Nikhil and Bimala’s marriage, through the love triangle created by Sandip, and once again returning to Bimala’s love for Nikhil at the very end. This story tests the boundaries of the union of marriage. It stretches and twists it to the point where a 9-year marriage is nearly destroyed simply because of a raw temptation. In addition to the idea of romantic love, there is a sense of love of one’s own country depicted throughout the novel. Questions such as, is it best to love one’s country through action, perhaps even violence, or by passive tolerance, are posed in the arguments of Nikhil and Sandip. While love and worship seem parallel in marriage, Nikhil believes these feelings cannot apply to one’s country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.