Source: Gallica (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

STENDHAL (Henri Beyle), Scarlet and Black: A Chronicle of the Nineteenth century. Translated by Margaret R.B. Shaw. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1983; 1953.  

Original citation: Le Rouge et le noir. Paris:  A. Levasseur, 1831.

Condemned: June 20, 1864 to 1900.

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals.

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

He was in that state of amazement and tumultuous agitation into which man’s spirit sinks on obtaining what it has so long desired. The heart, grown used to desiring, finds nothing more to desire, but as yet has no memories. (1983: 104)

Henri Beyle (1783-1842), better known by his nom-de-plume Stendhal, was a man of his time. In the early years of the 19th century he served under Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy, Germany, Russia, and Austria. After the Napoleonic Wars he was an outspoken Liberal — against the return of the French monarchy. But moreover, he was a freethinker. It’s not surprising, then, that Stendhal wished to capture the zeitgeist of his era with “A Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century,” the subtitle to his 1831 novel Scarlet and Black [Le Rouge et le Noir].

Scarlet and Black is the story of a young man, Julien Sorel, restricted by the social hierarchy of the time. Though “only a workman’s son” (1983: 145), he excels in Latin and is hired as the tutor to the young sons of the wealthy mayor of the fictional village of Verrières, Monsieur de Rênal. After a time, Julien pursues an affair with Rênal’s wife, ten years his senior, who indeed reciprocates his passionate feelings. However, the earnest yet naive Julien is no match for the scheming and politicking of both the local aristocracy (his mistress included) and the Catholic clergy who hold sway in the region.

The title’s “scarlet and black” (simply “red” in the original French title) refer to the scarlet uniform of a French soldier and the black cassock of a Catholic priest. This is the dilemma of Julien’s life: Whether to devote his life and career to the military or to the church. For someone with high intelligence and ambitions but low birth, Stendhal shows, these were virtually the only options. In this sense, the novel is a psychological and social tragedy in the context of such social immobility and conservatism.

So why the Index ban? Obviously with such high stakes for the book’s protagonist, much can and does go wrong. Without divulging any spoilers, Julien’s self-importance is no match for the status quo’s obsessions with propriety, reputation, honor, and moral authority. This in itself may have constituted an “attack on good morals” (Canon 1399, §3).  He is a man whose fate is dictated by the whims of his “superiors,” though indeed guilty of “impure and obscene” (§9) acts of adultery with his employer’s wife.  And as the French nation of this post-war era struggled to define itself as either a monarchy or a republic, Stendhal aptly personifies his homeland with Julien, stuck as it were between a rock and a hard place throughout his entire life and up until his tragic end.

But whatever the original rationale of the novel’s inclusion on the Index as of 1864 (over thirty years after its original publication), it was ultimately deemed innocuous enough to be removed from it in 1900.


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