Scarlet and Black: Classics Club Review


“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