Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Red, The Black, The End (Spoiler Alert!!)

I finished "The Red and the Black" tonight.  If you haven't read the book, and don't want to know how it ends, then stop reading now.

OK, you're still here, and don't mind me discussing the end of the book?  Great, here we go then.  HOLY F*#$&*#%!!  Man, I did NOT see any of that coming!  Wow!  The last 100 pages or so of this book were really awesome.  I said before that this book didn't get to me the way some of the others had.  Well, screw that...Stendhal really came through in the homestretch.  Way to go, dude!

Julien's plan to make Mathilde jealous by pretending to be falling for another woman worked like a charm.  She goes completely nuts for him.  He holds out, keeping her at arms length, and it drives her even more wild.  Finally he gives in and they go for it.  But then, oops, she's pregnant.  (And as an aside, Stendhal just sort of mentions this abruptly, in an off-hand way, which cracked me up).  Mathilde decides to tell her father, which freaks Julien out, but he agrees there's not much choice.  He could easily ruin both of them.  Well, of course, dad freaks out bigtime, but calms down after awhile, and decides to get Julien a title and an army officer post.  Julien goes to his unit, and expects to marry Mathilde, and get lots of money from Monsieur de la Mole...all will be awesome, and his ambitions will be filled.  But meanwhile, dad wants to check to be sure Julien isn't just a golddigger, so he makes some inquiries into Julien's past, and gets a letter from Madame de Renal, saying Julien is indeed a seducer and corruptor of women, and is only in it for money and power.  So naturally, Monsieur de la Mole calls off the wedding and vows Julien will get nothing.  Mathilde tells Julien what happened, and Julien rides off on his horse.  Two pages later, he shoots Madame de Renal while she's in church.  That was a shocker.  I think it's interesting that he shoots her in church...the whole military vs. church thing (red vs. black) is a constant theme in the book, and this fits right in with that.

Anyway, Julien turns himself in, says he's guilty and it was all premeditated and they should kill him.  He keeps saying this even after he learns Madame de Renal is OK, just wounded a bit in the shoulder.  He goes to trial, is found guilty, and awaits his execution in prison.  But lots is going on while all this is happening.  Both Mathilde and Madame de Renal visit him frequently in prison.  Mathilde is crazier than ever about him, especially because this whole thing fits into her romantic fantasies of an ancestor of hers whose lover was beheaded.  She's eating this up.  And Julien, suddenly sobered up, realizes he does not care for Mathilde.  In fact, he realizes he's been an ambitious, hypocritic fool, and that he's loved Madame de Renal all along.  They have some scenes together, and are reconciled.  Then he's executed, and Mathilde buries him.  Madame de Renal dies a few days later of heartbreak.  Heady stuff (no pun intended).

So much happens in the last few chapters, it's hard to catch my breath.  But here are a few observations and thoughts:

1.  Stendhal really rips into the church.  A priest is the one who told Madame de Renal that she must write the letter to Julien that leads to his downfall.  Indeed, the priest actually writes the letter, and Madame de Renal has to cut out some of it because it's too much.  Another priest camps out by the prison until Julien will let him take his confession, and it's shown that the priest is only out for fame and money.  There is a concerted effort to bribe officials into releasing Julien, by both Madame de Renal and Mathilde, and much of the bribery and political machinations have to do with getting people positions as bishops and other high posts in the church.  And on it goes.

2.  Julien goes through a lot in the last 30 pages or so.  In fact, I need to read these pages again to try to make sense of it all.  But Julien really seems to come clean...he admits he's been hypocritical, he renounces his ambition, and he realizes his true love was for Madame de Renal.  He'd done some pretty crazy stuff, especially at court in Paris, and I started to hate him...but he changes at the end.  He even puts down Napoleon, saying he resorted to "charlatanism" at Saint-Helena...I'm not sure what he means here, but for Julien to be putting down Napoleon is a big deal.  And Julien is resigned and accepting of his fate.  Indeed, he does nothing to try to appeal, or to escape (which Stendhal hints was possible).  I'm not completely sure why, but I'm guessing he sees this as some kind of nobility...one based on personal character, not on class.

3.  A commentor on one of my previous posts notes that Julien has a certain charisma.  I wholeheartedly agree, and this again comes out in full force at the end.  Previously, he shows his charisma by attracting the attentions of Madame de Renal and Mathilde (even though he really doesn't know what he's doing with them, and succeeds in seducing them almost in spite of himself), and with devotion from the priests who are his mentors, as well as from Monsieur de la Mole.  At the trial, hordes of young women come to watch and weep over him in the courtroom.  One feels like it's the 1830 version of a modern media event, like the OJ trial or the Lacy Peterson case.  Napoleon supposedly had a great personal charisma as well.  But his gave him a better ride than Julien's.

Well, I need mull this all over some more.  But what a great ending.  I think I'll go have some fine rye whiskey to calm me down.  And think about which book to read next...

No comments: