Berthet and Lafargue

Like all of Stendhal’s novels with the exception of Lamiel, the plot for Le Rouge et le Noir was not invented from his imagination but rather inspired by other written sources then appropriated and altered during the subsequent processes of composition and invention.[1] In an autograph note written in the manuscript of Lucien Leuwen comparing the two works, Stendhal later acknowledged that the plot of Le Rouge et le Noir was not of his invention and declared this a compositional advantage: ‘Je ne puis mettre de haute portée ou d’esprit dans le dialogue tant que je songe au fond. De là l’avantage de travailler sur un conte tout fait, comme Julien Sorel.’ [2]  [‘I cannot write a dialogue of substance or wit unless I feel it to be real. That is the advantage of working on an existent story like [that of] Julien Sorel.’] [3]

In the case of Stendhal’s realist chronicle, two trial accounts published in the Gazette des tribunaux had a particular influence on the composition. The story of Antoine Berthet, tried for murder in 1827, and executed in Stendhal’s hometown of Grenoble the following year, furnished much of the novel’s plot. The bright son of a blacksmith, Berthet spent four year’s in the city’s seminary before ill health forced him to interrupt his studies in 1822 (Julien’s weak physiognomy was also modelled on Berthet). On the recommendation of a local priest, who became his protector, he was appointed governor to the children of one of the city’s notables, Monsieur Michoud. The young précepteur had an affair with Mme Michoud, rumours of which soon spread, and Berthet was dismissed. Thereafter he tried and failed to continue his career as a student but, not being of the brilliance of Julien, was discharged from the Grenoble seminary and successively refused entry to others. As his career faltered he became increasingly bitter towards his former employer and began to harass Mme Michoud with a barrage of threatening and abusive letters. Berthet’s threats of violence transpired to be far from empty, and during Sunday Mass, he shot both Mme. Michoud and then himself. Both survived.

While the influence of the case is clear in the plot of Le Rouge et le Noir, and the sickly Berthet also provides a physical model, he has none of the nobler traits or brilliance that makes Julien more than a jealous stalker. For the personality of his ‘hero’ Stendhal looked to the case of Adrien Lafargue, a cabinet-maker from the Pyrenees who killed and then decapitated his mistress, Thérèse, in 1828. Like Berthet he tried and failed to commit suicide but justice was more lenient and he was sentenced to just five years imprisonment. In a perverse process of Stendhalian crystallisation, the author was able to forget the atrocity of Lafargue’s crime and depict him as an ‘Othello’, full of imagination and energy:
‘For Stendhal the killing of Thérèse represents energy and will-power. It is an act of authentic, full-blooded passion, a spontaneous yet voluntary expression of vengeful jealousy. While wealth dispenses from effort and hard work and leaves the individual free to cultivate the delicacy and elegance of refined living, it saps his life-force, destroys all that is natural and spontaneous and turns him into a mindless imitator of models appointed by custom and fashion. Men like Lafargue, on the other hand, are the only people left with that strength of purpose which is the source of greatness [.]’ 

Stendhal sees what he wishes in the character of Lafargue and it is this twisted interpretation that serves as a base for the creation of Julien as a character in diametrical opposition to those rich and vacuous Parisians, and the exploration of that juxtaposition in the second book is central to the recurring theme in Stendhal’s novels, energy: the possession of energy in his heroes, and the lack of it in society at large.

[1] This is what Jean-Jacques Hamm labels an ‘écriture palimpseste’. See Hamm, Jean-Jacques, Jean-Jacques Hamm commente le Rouge et le Noir, (Paris: Gallimard, 1992) p. 79.
[2] Grenoble Municipal Library, Fonds Stendhal, R. 301 (1), folio 43 verso.
[3] Translation J.J. Haldane.
[4] Pearson, Roger, Stendhal’s Violin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988) p. 72.