Stendhal was a late developer and forty-seven years old when Le Rouge et le Noir was published. Although he had written a number of different works, all infused with personal political polemic and aesthetic theory, ranging from art history to biography, the only novel he had published was the obscure Armance, little read now and less so then. However, while Stendhal was slow to begin his career as a novelist, the general public was slow in turn to read him, and it was not until after his death that he received a wide readership.

Press reviews of Le Rouge et le Noir at the time were mostly critical and expressed shock at the damning depiction of French society and what they saw as the ‘moral atrocity’ of Julien Sorel.[1]  However, many of his contemporaries congratulated Stendhal for the honesty of his revelatory portrayals of France’s hypocrisy and double standards, and in Julien recognized the creation of one of literature’s most distinctive heroes. In a letter to Stendhal, his friend Merimée wrote:

‘Il y a dans le caractère de Julien des traits atroces dont tout le monde sent la vérité, mais qui font horreur.’[2] 

[‘There are in Julien’s character monstrous traits that everyone recognises as being true, but which also repulse.’]  [3]

[1] Revue de Paris, November, 1831.
[2] Letter from Prosper Merimée dated December 29 1830.
Stendhal, Correspondance Générale, 6. Vols. Ed. V. Del Litto with Elaine Williamson, Jacques Houbert and Michel-E. Slatkine (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2003) Vol. 3, p. 810.
[3] Translation mine.