One of Nietzsche’s favorite novels, Le Rouge et le Noir contains some of the most profound psychological analysis in all of fiction. The novel tells the story about a young man from a modest background who seeks a glorious career, but ends up in enormous trouble as a result of his love affairs. The novel is divided into halves, with the first half being about a job where he ended up having affair with his boss’s wife, and the second half being about another job where he has a passionate romance with his boss’s daughter (all hell breaks loose at the end). The setting is France in 1830 right as the restoration monarchy is losing its grip on power to the rising bourgeoisie, and the writing seethes with pent-up energy.
Fabrice, Nina, Rob, and myself, Daniel, investigate what this novel has to say to us today with a focus on how Stendhal’s ethical beliefs are similar to and yet quite different from Nietzsche’s. Though written before Nietzsche’s works, in some ways the novel seems to present a sort of deconstruction of Nietzsche’s binaries of weak vs. strong, master vs. slave, etc. – to the point where one wonders what Nietzsche thought of all of this (his own remarks on the novel are incredibly cryptic).
Though the title is usually translated as The Red and the Black, we read a new translation of the novel that renders the title more simply as Red and Black. In this episode, we took the opportunity to have an interview with the translator, Raymond MacKenzie. Having sampled just about every major translation of the novel written in the last hundred years or so, I believe that MacKenzie's translation does the best job at balancing fidelity to the original French with maintaining a strong sense of style in English.
Below are the start times for the show’s three segments. While a synopsis is provided in the audio, the synopsis also appears in the text below in case that is more convenient.
Start times of segments:
0:49 – Synopsis and historical background
8:48 – Interview with the translator Raymond MacKenzie
42:15 – Discussion among Fabrice, Nina, Rob, and myself (Daniel)
The novel is divided into halves that are referred to as different “books.” Book One opens in the fictional town of Verrières in eastern France. This is the home of our protagonist, Julien Sorel, who’s a sensitive intellectual young man in his late teens. Julien’s father looks down on him because he’s not very good at physical work, and his brothers beat him up, so he is looking to get away somehow.
Julien starts studying to join the clergy under the instruction of a local priest named Father Chelan. Even though Julien is studying to become a priest, he’s actually a hypocrite who’s joining the clergy just to advance his place in the world. In fact, Julien isn’t really religious at all, and instead believes in the ideals of the French revolution and views Napoleon as his hero.
Julien finally manages to get away from his family when he gets hired by a local aristocrat named Monsieur de Rênal, who’s the mayor of the town of Verrières. The job is tutoring the mayor’s children, and it requires Julien to live with the de Rênal family at their house. Once Julien is living with the de Rênals, the mayor’s wife, Madame de Rênal, immediately takes a liking to him. Even though she’s about 30 years old, she has never really experienced love and doesn’t understand what it is. Julien eventually begins to make advances on her, but initially it’s not even because he really likes her; it’s because he feels like it’s somehow his quote “duty” as a lower class person to seduce an aristocratic lady like her. After he sees how much she loves him, though, he eventually falls in love with her for real.
The de Rênal family end up taking a trip to their country home for the spring where Julien and Madame de Rênal spend the season together in idyllic surroundings. Unfortunately, though, their happiness doesn’t last. The maid of the de Rênal family ends up falling in love with Julien as well, but Julien rejects her, and eventually the maid learns about the affair between Julien and Madame de Rênal. This maid is a schemer and carries out a few plots to try to bring an end to the love affair between Julien and Madame de Rênal. Eventually, the maid tattles on Julien to his mentor, Father Chelan, who commands him to end the affair, leave the family, and join a seminary in a nearby provincial capital.
Once Julien is at the seminary, it seems to him that nearly everyone there is very smallminded and conformist, except for the director of the seminary, who takes Julien under his wing and becomes a mentor to him. This seminary director has an aristocratic friend, the Marquis de La Mole, who eventually makes a job offer to Julien to be his personal secretary in Paris. Julien accepts the offer, but before going to Paris, he visits Madame de Rênal to have one night with her, which is how Book One ends.
Book Two begins with Julien moving in with the family of the Marquis De La Mole in Paris, which includes a daughter named Mathilde. As the personal secretary of the Marquis, Julien attends many of the family’s parties, but everyone seems fake, and he starts to get bored by them. He notices that Mathilde is bored too, and the two start to become attracted to each other. Julien and Mathilde soon discover their shared love of Napoleon, and Julien is really impressed by Mathilde’s passion for life in general.
Julien and Mathilde eventually sleep together and start a relationship, but after an initial period of romance, they then go through a period of violent mood swings, and it’s really like a power struggle between the two of them. She eventually gets pregnant, which leads her to asking her father for permission to marry to Julien. The father initially consents to the marriage after making Julien a noble and getting him a position in the army, but the father eventually withdraws his consent after receiving a tell-all letter from Madam de Rênal, Julien’s first lover.
In the letter, Madam de Rênal claims that Julien seduced her and that he’s a gold digger. After the father withdraws his consent, Julien learns about the letter and goes back to Verrières where he finds Madame de Rênal in a church and shoots her in the back. Luckily, she survives, and Julien immediately begins to regret what he’s done. He’s taken to jail to await his execution, and while there, Madam de Rênal comes to visit him. She says she’s sorry for sending the letter, and that she sent it only at the behest of the priest who she was going to for confession. Despite Julien shooting her, he and Madam de Rênal love each other even more at this point.
In jail, Julien is visited by Mathilde and a friend of his from earlier in the novel named Fouque. Mathilde is still in love with Julien as well and tries various ways to free him, but they all eventually fail, and Julien is finally sentenced for execution. In his last days, Julien regrets having been so ambitious and hypocritical, and wishes he could have just gone on loving Madam de Rênal somehow. Julien is eventually executed by guillotine, and Mathilde ends up burying Julien’s severed head in a private ceremony. Three days after Julien’s death, Madam de Rênal herself dies because of her despair. Book Two then ends with the dedicatory words that Nietzsche liked to quote in his own works: “To the happy few.” So ends the novel.