Originally Appeared in: Venue 2 | Published: 1998

Fouque succeeded in this mournful transaction. He was spending the night alone in his room with his friend’s body when, to his great surprise, he saw Mathilde enter. A few hours earlier he had left her ten leagues out of Besangon. Her look and her eyes were wild.

“I want to see him,” she said.

Fouque hadn’t the heart to speak or to rise. He pointed to a big blue cloak on the floor; what remained of Julien was wrapped up in it.

She dropped to her knees. The memory of Boniface de La Mole and Marguerite de Navarre gave her, no doubt, a superhuman courage. Her trembling hands undid the cloak. Fouque turned his head. 

He heard Mathilde walk hurriedly about the room. She lit several candles. By the time Fouque had the strength to look at her, she had set Julien’s head on a little marble table and was kissing it on the brow Mathilde followed her lover to the tomb he had chosen for himself. A great number of priests escorted the coffin, and unbeknownst to everyone, alone in her carriage draped with black, she bore on her lap the head of the man she had loved so dearly….

Having stayed behind with Fouque, she insisted on burying her lover’s head with her own hands. Fouque nearly went mad with grief over this. Through Mathilde’s good offices, the rough cave was ornamented at great expense with marbles carved in Italy. Mme de Renal kept her promise. She made no attempt whatsoever on her life; but three days after Julien, she died while embracing her children.
                                                                                                 — STENDHAL, The Red and the Black
                                                                                                                      trans. Lloyd C. Parks

So ends The Red and the Black. Julien Sorel is executed for having tried to kill his former lover, Mme de Renal, after she denounces him in a letter dictated by her priest to purify her adulterous soul. When the father of Mathilde de La Mole receives the letter, Julien’s ambitions are shattered. Mathilde, who is pregnant, has only just persuaded her father to accept her marriage to his brilliant young secretary and launch him on a military and political career. Julien flees Paris to Verrieres and enters the church where Mme de Renal is praying. “He fired a shot and missed; he fired a second shot; she fell.” Mme de Renal recovers from her wounds and is filled with remorse for writing the letter; Julien seals his fate at the trial by confessing, “My crime is abominable, and it was premeditated.”

I generally hate endings and easily forget them. My memory usually stays stuck on some twisted moment or dangling sequence out in the middle of the story somewhere, something the ending fails to answer to. I have to go back after even just a few months and reread a novel’s last ten or twenty pages to recall how it all came out. Happy, neat, symbolic, perfectly ironic endings — there are so many ways to ruin a novel.

The spectacular endings of movies are worse yet. Even daring films have this problem. Godard’s contempt had a revival recently in a luscious color print that made its heart-stopping cruelties all the more unbearable. Fascinated with car crashes, which he elevated to a poetic indictment of contemporary life, Godard ends Contempt with one. But nothing “ends” the story more powerfully than the moment much earlier when the hero insists that his lover, Brigitte Bardot, ride alone in the car with a leering Jack Palance. His nonchalant and indifferent gesture means nothing less than rejection to her, and her love dies on the spot. Godard has made great films because he does not confuse the art of the cinema with that of the novel; he keeps the storyline thin and lets a gesture or look, an image or the exchange of a few words, do the work.

The Red and the Black is as intricate as a novel gets, and its ending pulls all the threads of its characters and settings, romance and social commentary, back together in a dense weave of aftermath. Stendhal’s work has inspired far-reaching reflections by Lukacs, Auerbach, Irving Howe, Rene Girard, Fredric Jameson and Franco Moretti. It is a linchpin of the 20th-century understanding of 19th-century European fiction. My earliest reading of the novel piqued my first interest in that critical tradition, and the novel and the criticism have nourished each other ever since. I’ve recently read it again, by chance around the time I saw Contempt, but the interpretive perspectives I’ve relied on before haven’t quite worked. The obvious problems with the male-centered perspective of the Bildungsroman and with the established approaches to class and politics do not adequately explain why the novel seems to have changed. The problem lies elsewhere I’ve realized. I don’t identify with Julien, I identify with Mathilde. But what can it mean to identify with a haughty, capricious, aristocratic heiress who loves her doting father and ends up carrying her lover’s severed head cradled against her pregnant belly?

Identification is the weak link in modern criticism. Everyone knows that identifying with the hero or heroine is as basic to reading as fascination with plot or delight in language and ideas. Yet it remains relatively unexamined, relegated to a mix of personal associations and mechanical models that catalogue types of heroes. Personal associations stream off our responses to all manner of situations and characters, central or peripheral, but identification ultimately has to lock into the form of the novel as we read. Such identification is thus inevitably tied to the main character. The early Lukacs, unfettered by the now fixed idea that the “narrator” “observes” the hero or heroine as a separate individual, saw novelistic writing itself as an act of identification: the author projects his or her own subjectivity into story and language in the creation of the hero, but something of that subjectivity splits off, through irony typically, into an estranged awareness of the hero’s limits and of the powerlessness of this awareness to change the hero’s horizon of decision and action.

Stendhal writes himself into Julien and beyond to achieve that disjointed unity of action and understanding, desire and reflection, as fully as any novelist of his time. The Red and the Black gives form to what Lukacs thought of as the hero’s effort to realize himself and enact whatever value he holds supreme in a world arranged against supreme values and the individuals who pursue them.

On the face of it this leaves no room for identifying with Mathilde in the strong sense of a form-disclosing identification. But here is where Stendhal’s extraordinary ending comes into play. Julien’s project is stopped in its tracks the moment he shoots Mme de Renal, and Stendhal devotes the closing chapters of The Red and the Black to a different drama. As desire and action are lost to Julien, they are taken up by the three characters who attempt to save him, Mathilde, Mme de Renal and his friend Fouque. Julien himself is left to witness the sacrifices each of them is ready to make on his behalf. Fouque, a woodcutter, proposes to spend all the money he has to arrange for Julien’s escape. “‘What a sublime gesture for a provincial landowner!’ thought Julien. ‘How much saving, the result of how much petty haggling, that used to make me blush when I watched him do it, he is willing to sacrifice for me. None of those handsome young men I saw at the Hotel de La Mole who read Rene would ever do anything so ridiculous.'”

Mathilde leaves Paris and comes to Verrieres disguised as a peasant. She throws herself into trying to sway and bribe jailers and the powerful Abbe de Frilair to gain Julien’s freedom. On her arrival at the prison, Julien “abandoned himself joyously to his love for Mathilde. It was madness, greatness of soul, everything that is most uncommon.”

Mme de Renal, too, risks all. She writes to all thirty-six jurors pleading for an acquittal and then squanders her respectability altogether by defying her husband and going to see Julien after the verdict. When she enters his cell, thirty pages after his joyous reunion with Mathilde, Julien declares, “‘You know that I have always loved you, that I have never loved anyone but you.’… Never had he been so madly in love.” She wants to help him appeal his sentence and knows that her visits will turn her forever into “a heroine of anecdotes.” What she could not do when she and Julien were lovers she has now done in the hopes of saving him:

“The limits of strict modesty have been crossed…. I am a woman without honor. True, it was for you….”

Her voice was so sad that Julien embraced her, with a happiness entirely new to him. It was no longer the intoxication of love; it was utmost gratitude he felt. He had just become aware, for the first time, of the full extent of the sacrifice she had made for him.

The trajectory that would make this Mme de Renal’s novel or Mathilde’s is there in outline throughout, invisible until you look back across the story from these final chapters in which their desires and efforts become manifest. The conflicting lines of identification with Julien, Mme de Renal, Mathilde — give the novel a complexity that is not easily rounded off.
The drama of sacrifices, it seems to me, shows the faultlines. Certainly, as Stendhal signals more than once, Julien grows during his last months in prison. In recognizing Fouque’s nobility, Mathilde’s heroism and Mme de Renal’s self-sacrifice, he discovers the capacity for gratitude missing from the ambition, “softheartedness” and “wiliness” that have always guided him. But something is awry when he lets go of Mathilde and reaffirms his lost love for Mme de Renal. This true love is suspect, for Julien finds himself and his desire only in the other’s willingness to sacrifice herself for him.

The death-tinged reconciliation of Julien and Mme de Renal dominates the last pages of the novel. Julien loses his feeling for Mathilde, except in the malaise moral which nags him for being bored by her even as she is ruining herself to save him. Because his own heroic striving has been annihilated, he is indifferent to hers. “In his heart ambition was dead; another passion had risen from its ashes. He called it remorse for having attacked Mme de Renal. He was, in fact, head over heals in love with her {11 en etait eperdument amoureux):’ Julien and Mme de Renal indeed complete each other: they have inflicted symmetrical wounds on one another and felt identical remorse and now exchange mutual pardons and forgiveness. They reunite seeking harmony out of their recognition that they have each irreversibly missed the moment to give their love to the other.

The ending offers completion for readers starved for meanings — as well as for those in the habit of killing their appetite with irony. Julien is ready for the guillotine because he believes he deserves death for shooting Mme de Renal, declaring before the court that “she had been like a mother to me.” Meanwhile, she finds in his love for her the forgiveness she seeks: Juhen’s raptures and his happiness proved to her how fully he pardoned her.” What looks like a love which transcends guilt in forgiveness is actually fed by permanent guilt. Neither Mme de Renal’s remorse for writing the letter that prompted Julien’s irreparable act nor Julien’s remorse for the act he committed – “whether out of ambition or out of love for Mathilde” he is not sure — is truly overcome.

Mme de Renal’s declaration of love is in the language of piety: I am nothing but love for you; or rather — the word ‘love’ is too feeble I feel for you what I ought to feel for God alone: a mixture of respect, love, obedience.” The happy couple is spared having to figure out what it would be like to live with that. What’s awry in the novel’s ending is this perfection itself. Julien and Mme de Renal discover the courage to love one another only in the unreal space where it cannot be lived, the otherworldly imaginary created by the grim reality of Julien’s impending execution. They inhabit a tableau full of symbols, Oedipus plus Christ: Julien walks to the scaffold filled with love for Mme de Renal, and she dies spontaneously three days after the carpenter’s son is buried in a cave.

Mme De Renal and Mathilde knew their own desire. Julien didn’t know his until it was too late, and Mme de Renal didn’t act on hers until it was too late. Only Mathilde acts on what she knows and desires. That’s why identification with her, playing against the identifications with Julien and Mme de Renal, alters the perspective on the novel’s tragedy, for Mathilde’s love, laden though it is with aristocratic legends and mythologies, does not attain any symbolic fullness.
Even as she knows and enacts her love, it needs the reciprocal love and recognition Julien does not give. She is therefore bereft at the end. She does not look away from grief, even in the knowledge that Julien turned to Mme de Renal, but returns to Fouque’s to see Julien’s body and hold his head. When she puts his head on the marble stand and kisses his brow the novel stirs up the grotesque. But in fact kissing a dead person you love is not grotesque, it’s a simple act of love and remembrance. Even Stendhal perhaps cannot overcome the voyeurism or the disgust that accompanies the separation of touch and sight. Yet Mathilde’s reality is decidedly not a tableau, symbolic or sensational; it is the reality of touch, which is why Stendhal makes her final act in the story burying “her lover’s head with her own hands.” She does not die into transcendence but lives on in mourning.

Before Julien died, he attempted to arrange Mathilde’s future for her in an act that had more to do with his guilt than her well-being. She, after all, was willing to flee with him to an unknown future, had he chosen life and uncertainty over death and harmony. He insisted she have the baby in secret in Verrieres, leave it behind in the care of Mme de Renal, return to Paris the revered widow of a madman and marry some ambitious young man whose career she could foster. Stendhal, however, gives no hint of Mathilde’s future in the closing pages or paragraphs. In declining to symbolize or even imagine her destiny — does she keep the baby or abandon it? does she return to Parisian society or flee it? does she pursue her happiness or withdraw from the world? — Stendhal gives his clearest affirmation to an identification with Mathilde. Unlike Julien and Mme de Renal, she keeps making her life her own.