Le Rouge et le Noir
is comprised of two books, one set in a fictional small town in the provincial Jura region if France, and the other mainly in Paris. Book one opens with one of the most celebrated and recognisable passages in literature, which at first seems an idealistic and romanticised image of rural France:

    La petite ville de Verrières peut passer pour l’une des plus jolies de la Franche-Comté. Ses maisons blanches avec leurs toits pointus de tuiles rouges s’étendent sur la pente d’une colline, dont les touffes de vigoureux châtaigniers marquent les moindres sinuosités. Le Doubs coule à quelques centaines de pieds au-dessus de ses fortifications bâties jadis par les Espagnols, et maintenant ruinées. [1]
   [The little town of Verrières is one of the prettiest in Franche-Comté. Its white houses, with their red-tiled, pointed roofs stretch out along the side of a hill where clumps of chestnut trees thrust sturdily upwards at each little bend. Down in the valley the river Doubs flows by, some hundreds of feet below fortifications which were built centuries ago by the Spaniards, but have long since fallen into decay.] [2]

This gentle touristy scene is soon interrupted by the dissonant and unromantic introduction to the text of industry and money. For Verrières is a town whose small-minded population is obsessed with money and whose mayor is a local businessman, Monsieur de Rênal. He, along with two others, Monsieur Valenod, the unscrupulous director of a beggar’s workhouse, and the Reverend Maslon, the Congregationalist local priest, form a powerful triumvirate. Julien Sorel, the key protagonist, is a young man from the working classes who hates his father, a rough and cruel carpenter, as well as his brothers and background. Julien is different from his father and his brothers and this difference is his intelligence and aptitude for study as well as his disinclination to manual labour, which only serves to encourage the enmity. His love of books encourages the scorn of his father but here they serve first as a figurative means of escapism (he reads Napoleon’s Saint Helen Memoirs and dreams of a military career) and then subsequently as his ticket to freedom through study. There were two possible routes of social advancement but one, the military, had, so to speak, closed its ranks since the time of Napoleon and meritocratic advancement was far less possible under Louis Philippe. It is then that Julien decides that he will be best served by joining the priesthood and does so without any sort of religious calling.    

The local priest takes to the precocious and talented Julien and teaches him Latin, which Julien consolidates by learning the entire bible by heart, and recommends him for the post of governor to the ultra (rightwing) mayor of Verrières, Monsieur de Rênal. Julien moves in with the de Rênal family and is happy to be away from his father and brothers and in the company of the gentle and beautiful Mme de Rênal, as they both share a similarly sensitive personality and it is not long before they become lovers. However, their happiness is shattered when Monsieur de Rênal receives an anonymous letter denouncing the affair. The lovers convince him that the letter is nothing other than a ruse sent by one of his rivals but the mayor nonetheless fears a scandal will damage his political career and asks Julien to leave.  The first book ends as Julien prepares to leave Verrières so as to join the seminary at Besançon.

After one unhappy year spent at the seminary, where Julien is unpopular with all but its head, the Abbey Pirard, who acts as his protector, and recommends him for the post of private secretary to a Parisian aristocrat, the Marquis de La Mole.

On taking the post he observes the splendours of the aristocratic world for the first time with suspicion and contempt, but he also meets the passionate and proud Mathilde, daughter of the Marquis, who falls for the rough and quirky charms of Julien after a series of romantic games. They become lovers and eventually she falls pregnant. Mathilde insists on marrying him, despite her engagement at the time to another suitor who is in line to inherit a dukedom. Her father is initially livid at the prospect of her marrying Sorel but relents in the face of her daughter’s clear determination and his genuine respect and affection for his private secretary. Mathilde is granted land and her father ennobles Julien and bestows the military title of lieutenant of the elite hussars.

Julien’s capricious pride is satisfied by the state of affairs, as his social rise is complete. From the rural working class, via the provincial bourgeois world of the de Rênal, Julien has managed to assimilate into the highest society of the capital and marry into an aristocratic line. This bildungsroman is in many ways complete, as Julien’s choices have been vindicated. The adhesion to the clergy has facilitated his rise and, now at the top, his boyhood dreaming of military glory is realised by the military rank and title. It has been suggested that there are two endings to the Red and the Black, and the first is at this point, where a happily-ever-after scenario might be imagined. However, Stendhal continues writing and Julien’s rise is tempered by a quick and dramatic fall.

Under the influence of her confessor, Mme de Rênal dictates a letter which she sends to Mathilde, denouncing Julien as an arriviste who seduces women so as to secure social advancement. Julien is furious and so travels back to Verrières to confront Mme de Rênal. On arrival he buys a pair of pistols and sets out to find her. He locates her knelt in prayer in the church and shoots her in the shoulder, after which he is arrested and imprisoned.

Far from trying to defend himself he instead pleads guilty and during the trial expounds in suicidal fashion why he deserves to be convicted. He is condemned to death. As for Mme de Rênal, she forgives him and just three days after Julien is guillotined, in closing lines now as well known as those opening Le Rouge et le Noir, dies mysteriously while embracing her children:

Elle ne chercha en aucune manière à attenter à sa vie; mais trois jours après Julien, elle mourut en embrassant ses enfants.’  [3]

[‘She did not attempt in any way to take her own life; but three days after Julien’s death, she gave her children a last embrace, and died.’] [4]

[1] Stendhal, Le Rouge et le Noir (1830; rpt. Paris: Gallimard, 1972), p. 19.
[2] Stendhal, Scarlet and Black, translated and with an introduction by Margaret R. B. Shaw (London: Penguin Books, 1953), p. 23.
[3] Stendhal, Le Rouge et le Noir, p. 499.
[4] Stendhal, Scarlet and Black, p. 511.