I should probably start with the obligatory note about this works importance in literary history: many scholars consider this to be the first realist novel. It’s a novel intensely interested in describing the psychological drama of its characters, especially Julien, our lower class educated protagonist.
After receiving an education in Latin, Julien is hired by the mayor of his town, Monsieur de Renal, to tutor his children. Feeling a mixture of disdain and jealousy for his upper middle-class employers, Julien finds himself in love with the mayor’s wife, Madame de Renal. A jealous chambermaid soon makes the love affair public, forcing Julien to leave town on the advise of a friend and join the local seminary to further his education in the clergy. He finds his rebellious attitude and studious ways only brings him the ire of his classmates who value obedience to dogma more than actual erudition. The seminary director, Pirard, takes him under his wing, but soon finds himself ousted from his position. He recommends Julien as private secretary to the Marquis de la Mole. Julien soon finds himself hobnobbing with the highest ranking peers in the nation.
The Marquis’s bored, spoiled, and jaded daughter, Mathilde de Mole, falls in love with Julien. They have an on again off again relationship for multiple chapters as they play flirtatious mind-games with each other similar to modern day high school relationships. She finally falls deeply in love with Julien and wants to marry him. Now that she wants to marry him she decides to reveal their relationship to her father. Due to his high position in the peerage, his dreams that his daughter would one day rise in rank and be a duchess, and Julien’s extremely low social position, Marquis de la Mole freaks out and won’t accept the relationship at first. Just when it seems like he is warming up to the idea, a letter from Madame de Renal disparaging Julien’s character destroys any chances of winning the Marquis de la Mole’s favor forever.
An enraged Julien returns back to his home town and attempts to kill Madame de Renal. He fails to murder her and is arrested. Mathilde visits him in jail. So does Madame de Renal. He realizes he truly loves Madame de Renal, and not Mathilde, and has always loved her. She testifies in his defense as do many others, but due to pissing off the wrong people socially and politically earlier in his life (particularly, M. Valenod who also attempted to seduce Madame de Renal, but failed) they convict him anyway and sentence him to death.
The ending I think reveals quite well one of the book’s major points: if you piss off the people in power it will work against you later. Julien constantly must skirt the line between his own resentment of the upper-classes and how they treat him, and holding his tongue so he can make his living. At one point, Julien engages in hypocrisy when he imagines he might rise the social ladder with the help of the Marquise de La Mole. Napoleon’s life and rise to power serves as his touchstone. Although intelligent and resourceful, Julien finds himself stifled by his society, which thinks only of money and social status. His society fails to value what is really important.
Stendhal has a lot of fun mocking the upper class frequenting his drawing rooms who are shown as vapid, insincere, and suffering from meaninglessness in their lives. Stendhal illustrates this meaninglessness with Mathilde celebrating the past glories of one of her noble ancestors who lived during the Middle Ages; she romanticizes the past because she and the rest of the nobility find the present life unfulfilling and meaningless. The point is clear: gone are the days when the nobility had a purpose and practical function. The nobility are relics of the past that linger on in the present.
On the other hand, Stendhal reveals a rising middle-class that is boorish and outright cruel and petty in their gambles for power, showing little or no loyalty to their friends or benefactors, illustrated especially with M. Valenod who becomes mayor at the expense of his mentor, M. de Renal, and condemns Julien to death, despite the evidence, because of his personal grievances at the boy’s success in seducing the woman he desired. In some ways, Stendhal hints that the middle-class is a worse monster in the making. It’s important to remember the historical backdrop of the story. Stendhal was writing after the first French Revolution and the Revolution of 1830. The book takes place right on the brink of the Revolution of 183o; this impending revolution features prominently in the background of the second half of book, as does the first French Revolution, which still haunts the memories of the nobility, with the persecution of their class and dissolution of their power and property. A major element of these historical revolutions was the rise of the middle class to power. Stendhal’s book documents a period in which the nobility are still in power, but the middle-class are rising to assume power, have already tasted power and want it back.
Overall, I found myself bored a lot with the narrative. I’ll probably give this another chance sometime in the far future, but unless you’re a serious student of literature who feels some inexplicable urge to read every canonical work, you might consider skipping this one. I just found a lot of it dragged.