The original French epigraph of the novel translates, “The truth, the harsh truth,” and its stark reality might have served its hero early on—if only he’d embraced it.
Instead, Julien Sorel, the romantic protagonist of Stendhal’s 1830 classic, engages in embraces of another variety. The portrait of class and ambition in the French Bourbon Restoration centers on the lower born Sorel, his social-political ascent and his fall. Julien comes of age preferring to read and daydream about the Napoleanic glory days rather than work in the family timber mill. Until his first upward move comes as acolyte of the local prelate. Soon after, he lands a job tutoring the children of the town mayor. And though Julien appears pious, he’s far more interested reciting biblical verses in Latin as a means to impress the mayor’s wife, and she becomes the first in a series of love affairs that propel Julien up the social ladder.
Part psychological portrait, part social satire of the French era’s social order, this classic bildungsroman is full of contemporary intrigue: misguided love affairs, extortion between paramours, and the corrupt machinations of politicians and clergy who possess little social conscience:
“After moral poisoning, one requires physical remedies and a bottle of champagne.”
The novel’s psychological portrait was considered ground-breaking given the era’s prevailing omniscient style, and its take-down of corrupt clergy caused the book to burned in Brazil in 1964. Stories of corruption and its susceptible victims have of course become a staple of popular fiction, and we have Stendhal to thank for all those engrossing beach thrillers—along with the fact that as a diversion, tales of blind ambition never go out of style.