Julien is the classic anti-hero in so far as there is very little heroic about this physically weak, easily offended, capricious individual with a cold, calculating and determined streak. But to truly understand the nature of ‘our hero’, as Stendhal refers to him throughout the book, the short initial description of Julien is revelatory as a slender childlike bookworm, who cowers from his father in the eaves, bloodied, tearstained and covered in bruises as his father delivers yet another beating, without protector since the untimely death of his mother. This harsh reality explains much of both Julien’s character and his subsequent and ultimately disastrous progression through the novel. For Julien is far less the master of his destiny than a victim who struggles to defend himself, as he is humiliated and ill-treated from the moment he flees his father’s workshop. In Verrières, M. de Rênal treats him like one of the servants, in Besançon he is ostracised by his fellow seminarians and looked upon with disdain, and while in Paris the Marquis de la Mole treats him well, those who frequent his salons, particularly young aristocrats of Julien’s age, flaunt their wealth and titles, and do not let him forget his own social and financial shortcomings. He is an outsider, after all, not belonging to the working classes to which he was born, nor being equipped with the necessary hypocrisy to assimilate into the bourgeois or noble worlds to which he successively tries to escape.
But while he is doubtless a victim of his time and circumstances, he is nevertheless graced with quite extraordinary qualities that make him the quintessential Stendhalian hero and exemplar of the ‘Happy Few’. Sorel is very intelligent and has a fantastic memory (it was his ability to memorize the entire bible and recall passages at will that so impressed Monsieur de Rênal in Verrières), brave, free-willed, lucid, and, unlike Stendhal, but like all his other fictional heroes, Julien is handsome. The ambiguity at the heart of Julien’s character derives from the central and indefensible injustice inherent in the lack of societal recognition of those qualities that he does possess. To read Sorel’s exploitation of these qualities as calculated ambition for social ascension is to miss the point; they are after all his only means of self-preservation and any hypocrisy can arguably be legitimated on the grounds of self-defence. Were he a social climber in the mould of Balzac’s Rastignac, then he would not have risked his life in Paris to return to Verrières in search of Mme de Rênal, and certainly not have brazenly invited death at the following trial. Hurt feelings and wounded pride provide the only motives for this hypersensitive personality and his social climb is motivated not by a desire for wealth and power but instead for a place that will afford him tranquillity and keep him from harm, where he will be afforded respect and where he will be able to develop a sense of self-respect and esteem. For Julien death is a better option than a compromised life and arguably then a more fitting denouement to his social ascension than the ‘happily-ever-after’ scenario this book could have taken. For Stendhal, approximate speaker of English, and lover of anagrams, perhaps ‘Sorel’ was a ‘loser’, but a heroic one.