This novel is much more than a bildungsroman. Set in the Restoration Period (1814 – 1830) in France (i.e. the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy to power after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte), it is a story of the social-climbing feats and two separate love pursuits of the lowborn protagonist Julien Sorel from a keen psycho-analytical perspective, threaded through a richly textured social and political fabric with a satirical undertone. This fabric, unique in a historical sense, reflects the then ongoing contentions for wealth and power, often tainted by hypocrisy, greed, corruption, sycophancy and chicanery, among the chief stakeholders in society, namely: the clergy, the pro-Bourbon aristocrats (called “legitimists”), the ministers and the provincial parvenus. Such was the order of the day for the constitutional monarchy in the Restoration Period. The embedded message of the novel is to say that there was no place in the circle of stakeholders for the plebeian class in that era. In this grain, the novel almost hints at great social discontent that was brewing and that, in reality, led to the final breakup of the Bourbon monarchy.
As for the protagonist, Stendhal seems to have made him out to be more human than heroic. Like all humans, Julien Sorel naturally has his strengths and weaknesses and makes mistakes. It should not be surprising for readers to learn that he, as a person born into poverty, desires but at the same time despises the high society of his times. His incessant inner struggles with his own moral principles during his social ascent and his final choice of lover are perhaps enough to tell readers that he is ultimately a man of conscience.
Stendhal is considered the creator of the psychological novel. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to him as “France’s last great psychologist” in his 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil. Regarding The Red and the Black, given the meticulous way Stendhal describes paradoxes and tensions between rational deliberations and emotional sentiments that go on in his principal characters’ hearts and minds, especially where courtship and love relationship are concerned, I would tend to agree with Nietzsche.
The version that I read is a Kindle edition which was translated by C. K. Scott Montcrieff from the 1925 Bossard Editions of the text of Le Rouge et Le Noir, Chronique du XIXe Siecle.