“Every one of our hero’s first steps, for all he thought himself so cautious, were, like his choice of a confessor, careless blunders. Led astray by all the overweening confidence natural to a man with imagination, he took the will for the deed, and thought himself past master in hypocrisy.”
And so it is with pride. A confession of my own before delving into the missteps and frailties of Julien Sorel, the hero of Scarlet and Black by Stendhal: I feel a very strong kinship to Julien. It’s hard to really know if everyone is led by the rules of hypocrisy and pride in romance. Am I worse than most? Certainly I am not as foolish as young Julien. But then I remember my reasons for marriage long ago to a man I never loved. I had convinced myself that friendship was the same as love. A feminist professor (a new form of cleric) told us that romantic love was a social construct. This learned theory about human relations gave me the excuse I needed to blunder (cautiously) into a bondage that briefly looked like safety.
Wasn’t it cunning of me to accept the adoration of a man I was ambivalent about in order to avoid work outside the home? The bitterness of producing children with a man I little respected seemed a natural price to pay for that elusive thing called safety. In a cynical world of transactions it felt like a noble and practical thing to brush off the feelings of passion I hid in my heart for my husband’s brother. Once this brother asked me how it felt to be married to someone not as intelligent as I was. This brother was always very competitive with the man I married. Hypocritically I denied this truth. I lied. I knew I had betrayed my heart.
“After several months of incessant application, Julien still continued to look as if he thought.”
Julien Sorel, a handsome, young Frenchman, is beaten at home by his father and brothers for having intellectual pretensions. Julien’s family sees his ambitious memorization of Scripture in Latin as a useless endeavor until a local priest obtains for him work as a tutor at the de Renal family estate.
Julien dreams of glory. He wishes he’d lived to be a soldier in Napoleon’s day, but understands that in this present era of hypocrisy his only chance at material success is through the church. He little believes in the actual faith of clerics and common folk and sees the practice of religion only as a vehicle for his successful escape from poverty and the derision of those lucky enough to be born into nobility.
I wonder if we imagine the university of our present age in the same way—as a sort of necessary conscription into the cult of societal norms. So many students (and some with far less ambition than our hero) trudge off to college because it’s what’s done. Even dim-witted students obsessed with video games and make-up routines travel to faraway locales to experience college life. Hypocritical and sometimes delusional professors are the cult leaders. They teach students to despise truth, to focus on ancestral sin and to expect monetary gain as a right.
Julien, like many college students, sees the hypocrisy of the cult but, instead of rebelling completely, he seeks to understand and use the hypocrisy of the age for his own gain. Julien’s superior intelligence is a curse. Mediocrity hates minds like his. Even in the best houses Julien is treated as a plebian necessity, a curiosity—certainly not equal to the men with illustrious genealogies and sprawling estates. Julien is too cunning to wear his beliefs on his sleeve. His grasping is done in secret. His misery is in knowing his true position in life despite his superior mind.
Students at college who are blind to the learning gaps of their youth sometimes seek courses in victimhood after they find they are unsuccessful on their first term papers. Their hearts, if not their minds, find an outlet in childish studies of blame. Julien succumbs to self-pity at times, but his real flaw is one so common to children of abuse: a destructive desire to be loved at any cost.
Passion has its place but so often it leads to derailment of a student’s worldly ambitions. Julien falls in love with the pretty wife of a powerful man. He uses his mind to consider the many ways he will rise above his station to be with her, but it’s an illusion. He is sent to seminary to avoid scandal and finds that his very mannerisms and his ability to think original thoughts make him hated among the other students. Julien briefly dumbs himself down in a vain attempt at fitting in but finds only more misery.
I remember deciding to become popular with the cheerleaders at the private school I attended. It was easy enough with the smallest amounts of cunning and hypocrisy to be invited to sit at the popular table, but after a week, I felt my soul dying. Vapid girls gossiped all the day long with smiles on their faces. How often that week did I nod with false enthusiasm as they discussed Snoopy merchandise? These girls, considered the most cultured and desirable in eighth grade, survived on unremarkable mediocrity and seemed happy! After a week I longed for the awkward silences of the nerd table.
In high school I determined to be popular again but only in order to get the best boys. I smiled and giggled, told outrageously stupid stories and pretended at compassionate friendship with the most popular girl in my grade. Whenever her boyfriend cheated on her, her popular friends froze her out of the group until she forgave the boy. During those times this girl sought me out for my listening skills. Little did she know I used her as much as she used me. There were many moments of hollow victory in high school. Every move I made was false. Each false move was rewarded.
Julien Sorel, after years of studying the society he despises yet yearns to be a part of, betrays himself. Early in the book we witness his father’s hatred and brutality against his bookish son. Yet the father knew better than the son that the tragedy of being too smart for his station would lead to misery. Julien rightly distrusts the hearts of others yet fatally falls in love when cunning and hypocrisy would have served him better. And that is the way of the human heart, isn’t it? Some of us think we have the skills to protect this vital organ, but it’s impossible to become a complete brute if you are not one.
Julien longs for heroic times and actions. He plays his heroism out, not on a battlefield but in the house of a proud girl who sees in Julien a vision of France’s heroic past. Do we do the same when we fall in love with followers and likes on our social media accounts? Do we convince ourselves that there is something more meaningful in re-blogs than there is? Or do we pretend not to care what people think at all? Do we all secretly wish we were Napoleon? How cunning are you in life? How self-seeking? How courageous are you in love?
Julien Sorel will not be mourned by me in the same way I still mourn Prince Andrei in War and Peace. Andrei met God on the battlefield only to realize the glory of God and the emptiness of his own glory seeking. Poor Julien, so abused and misled by his own mind, finds only himself. As he waits to die in prison Madame de Renal reassures him of her love but given the social constructs of class and reputation her love is less than satisfactory.
Brutish allegiance to mediocrity and hypocrisy is only easy for people who hate thought. Their passions play out with little self-reflection. Life is just a series of days preserved in mass produced scrapbooks. Misery comes with intelligence and ambition. David Foster Wallace worried about what his signature bandana said to the world even as he pretended not to care what the world thought of him.
David Foster Wallace killed himself and in a way, Julien Sorel does the same.
***Featured image The Passion of Creation by Leonid Pasternak
7 responses to “Scarlet and Black: Classics Club Review”
Your review is interesting, Adrienne, as you bring your own experiences in sight of the book. I think most of us do this when reading, but few reveal as much when writing a review. I haven’t read this book, BTW, so can’t comment on your review of it.
I’m sorry your college years were so awful for you. I loved being in college and would like to go back, do it again, take more diverse courses, pay better attention. Some of my professors were downright awful, but many were brilliant, compassionate, knowledgeable, and encouraged us to delve deeply and see history, value, and truth in our studies. I’m not convinced that it was college that motivated you to marry the wrong man as much as culture, family expectations, your youthful inexperience, and social pressure – the kinds of situations all of us are prey to. We all make mistakes. Some are silly and fleeting, others bitter and enduring. I accept blame for mine and don’t attribute them to attending college. Learning to recognize our strengths and weaknesses is a huge part of growing up. I believe that we grow all our lives, and I keep hoping to improve.
I’m curious why you mentioned David Foster Wallace – was he one of your professors?
Shari, you always keep me on my toes! i actually enjoyed parts of college and had some good professors, but while I don’t blame the bad professors for ruining my life (or a part of it) I do think teachers who have agendas do have a responsibility for the ways in which they shape young minds. Of course my family, experiences and culture (attending college is part of that culture) shaped me. My own frailties led to some bad decisions. My more feminist and socialist professors just gave me ready excuses for much of what was actually my responsibility. They also gave me faulty theories to help my immature mind blame others. If a professor feels compassion for some people it doesn’t always follow that they have compassion for all of humanity. I attended college just when the cultural deserts of identity studies were becoming popular. I feel all they’ve done is keep people ignorant of history and angry at everyone “out there” for mistakes that are usually more a personal responsibility thing.
My brain is all over the place. I was just thinking about a movie I watched about DF Wallace and was struck by how difficult it is to process success. The fictionalized version of Wallace seemed so ill at ease with public opinion. I wondered what Julien Sorel would have to say about modern American culture, class distinctions, etc. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
“I wonder if we imagine the university of our present age in the same way—as a sort of necessary conscription into the cult of societal norms”- in a nutshell, I’d say it’s a conscription into a cult, but most people are not aware of it. The clever thing about universities is that it makes people think that they’ve reached the conclusion on their own, whilst giving people a very biased view of the world. For instance, someone the other day told me that they came to the conclusion that Communism was well meaning while at university (whilst coincidentally admitting that they had left leaning professors). It’s clear to me that they didn’t reach this conclusion on their own at all, but were led halfway up the garden path. Honestly reminds me of the famous Monty Python quote “we are all individuals!”- because honestly, they say things like “we’re all learning to think for ourselves” whilst parroting the same ideas. Sorry if I went a bit off topic, but this was a very thought provoking and great review- I need to read this book!
You are welcome to go off topic any time you like here. i love people sharing what they’re passionate about. I 100% agree that the indoctrination is intense–even in the elementary schools over here. My kids were told that if someone at another table in the cafeteria says something about religion that makes them “uncomfortable” they should turn the student in at the office! Another time I witnessed a teacher yell at a student (7 year old) for saying God when they were supposed to say Mother Nature.
I remember watching Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting recommend a Howard Zinn book about US History. Basically your typical all white men have always been scum (no reference to the violent, self-serving behavior of all other people). A few years later this book was required reading for my son. Luckily he’s always loved history so he saw through the brainwashing.
I do think most people are hoodwinked into thinking communism is sweet–but that’s because in the States balanced, nuanced history is no longer taught. I could go on and on.
One day we’ll meet and discuss… 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you! I’m glad you don’t mind! 🙂 Gosh that’s shocking! What?! That’s crazy!! I’m actually genuinely annoyed- because I don’t get where they get off telling people what their personal beliefs are supposed to be- it just seems so wrong.
Oh yeah, that’s very typical. What’s weird is that, even when I was in school, it wasn’t so strange to basically talk about all of history as being messy- the good the bad and the ugly sort of thing. I don’t know when things got all black and white in terms of analysis (no pun intended 😉 ) Maybe I’m just remembering things wrong.
Yes- that’s too true. The majority of people have been convinced “it’s a nice idea that went wrong”, haven’t they? I wonder, if they taught communism the same way they teach Nazism (aka starting with the death toll) whether people would be so sympathetic.
Oh that would be fantastic 🙂
And what about teaching the history of eugenics? I think that would be useful, too. But since many people today seem to love the idea of getting rid of problematic populations I guess it hits too close to home. 😦
It is amazing how quickly culture changes. Or is it that on a spiritual level there are powers that always hate life and light?
Have a great week, my friend.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yeah definitely- I think all ideas need to be confronted. I try to go out of my way to watch and listen to ideas I absolutely disagree with, just so that I can challenge them. I think it’s *because* people have these ideas that we need to take a long, hard look at them- not pretend they don’t exist.
It really is. I think you’re probably right.
Have a great week!