Doris Y. Kadish
University of Georgia


Contextualizing the Canon: New Perspectives on The Red and the Black

Reading canonical works such as Stendhal's The Red and the Black can and perhaps should be a different enterprise for today's students than for those of earlier generations; and this for two main reasons. First, today's students live in an increasingly complex and diverse society that requires a heightened consciousness of and sensitivity to issues of race, class, and gender. And second, today's students who want jobs outside of academia expect our courses to supply more of the kind of cultural information and contextualization of literature that may be useful to them in a variety of professional fields, including secondary education. Skills in analyzing literature still need to remain a predominant component of a literary education. But it is not enough to confine oneself to admiring the canonical author's creative genius and understanding the workings of his or her style, as is often the case in the French tradition of close, formalistic readings of literary works. Students also need to acquire skills in analyzing culture, including ways to deal intelligently with the traces of classism, Eurocentrism, or masculinism that arise in many texts, including canonical works. Rather than cultivating those skills only in separate "culture and civilization" or "women's studies" courses, I would urge that it is beneficial to integrate them into literature courses by contextualizing the canon: that is, combining canonical works with other, related texts that, together, provide an enhanced cultural and historical understanding of the past.

The way of reading that I wish to propose here can actually help with what I see as the major problem in teaching The Red and the Black, namely its length and complexity. Students find reading Stendhal, especially in French, to be a very long and demanding process, requiring several weeks or a month of reading time. When those weeks of reading are squeezed into a busy survey or nineteenth-century novel course, a certain degree of impatience may well occur. One solution, and the approach that I wish to describe, consists of using The Red and the Black as the highpoint of a cultural studies type of course in which, instead of trying to "get through" material consisting of a progression of works related primarily by genre or period, one strives to present a complex web of canonical, less-canonical, or non-canonical treatments of race, class, and gender that overlap and intersect. Instead of just moving on to the next text, students can then focus on a common set of issues throughout the course and work consistently on developing comparisons and contrasts among the works that are studied. The unifying component in the course that I am proposing is the period surrounding 1830 in France. Although I can envision various approaches to structuring assignments in such a course, I would recommend beginning with the non-canonical or less-canonical works because such works are typically easier, shorter, or more direct, and then devoting the second half or final third of the course to The Red and the Black. In the evaluations I received for a version of the course described here, one student summed up the advantage of such an approach, stating that one of the less-canonical texts "really got me to think about the society and helped me to know what I should be looking for while reading Le Rouge et le noir."

The choice of less canonical texts naturally depends on the particular themes one wishes to highlight. Two such themes that I shall discuss here are literacy and oppression. Although issues of class, race, or gender might be predominant in discussions of one or another theme, all three sets of issues would ultimately overlap: in the unit on literacy, for example, one would come to see that literacy was not only an important issue for peasants and workers but for women and persons of color as well. What texts can be used to bring out the intricately imbricated workings of class, race, and gender in the nineteenth century? Works by George Sand, notably Indiana, provide a rich source of material. In addition to being easy to obtain both in English and French, Indiana has the merit of dating from the same time as The Red and the Black and presenting a related but, in my opinion, a more woman-centered perspective. Another work from around the same time is the text edited by Michel Foucault, I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother . . ., a first-person account by a peasant subject, which is also available in both English and French. Moreover, there exists a film version in French that provides a wealth of cultural and linguistic material. Placing a presumably authentic subaltern example such as Pierre Rivière alongside The Red and the Black invites a host of observations and insights regarding the class issues that play such a crucial role in Stendhal's novel.

A good place to begin to contextualize The Red and the Black is with Julien Sorel's ability to read, which is revealed near the beginning of the novel in the often quoted passage in which Julien's father finds him reading a book instead of tending to the machinery at the family sawmill: "Il l'aperçut à cinq ou six pieds plus haut, à cheval sur l'une des pièces de la toiture" 'At last he saw him, five or six feet higher, astraddle one of the roof beams' (46; 13). Having drawn attention to Julien's intellectual superiority through his elevated physical position, the text then stresses his uniqueness: his unique ability to read, in contrast with his father's illiteracy; his unique romantic appearance ("sa taille mince, peu propre aux travaux de la force, et si différente de celle de ses aînés" 'his slender figure, unsuited to hard labor and unlike his elder brothers'); his unique sensitivity and passion for literature ("Il avait les larmes aux yeux, moins à cause de la douleur physique, que pour la perte de son livre qu'il adorait" 'His eyes were full of tears, less from physical pain than for the loss of his book, which he worshipped'). In addition to illustrating Stendhal's use of the romantic theme of exceptional characters, this celebrated passage can lead to a discussion of the Christian symbolism that pervades the novel (Talbot 66-67) and is apparent here in such details as Julien's carpenter-related activities, his suffering at the hands of his father, his transcendent pose, etc.

Students also need, however, to place Julien's "uniqueness" in its proper cultural context. To pursue the issue of reading, it is worth noting that other figures such as Pierre Rivière--or, to cite an example from Sand's corpus, François le champi--also read; all three, what is more, are endowed with the same exceptional memory and suffer from a similar sense of social alienation because of their ability to read as Julien. In Pierre's case, the similarities are especially striking. Like Julien, he reads about Napoleon, who inspires in him dreams of glory and upward mobility:

 

je travaillai a la terre avec mon pére; mais ce n'etait pas là bien mon penchant, j'avais des idées de gloire, je me plaisais beaucoup à lire . . . j'étois devoré des idées de grandeur et d'immortalité, je m'estimai bien plus que les autres, et j'ai eu honte de le dire jusque ici, je pensais que je me eleverais au dessus de mon etat (124-125).

 

I worked the land with my father; but that did not suit my inclination at all, I had ideas of glory, I took great pleasure in reading . . . I was consumed by ideas of greatness and immortality, I esteemed myself far better than others, and I have been ashamed to say so until now, I thought I would raise myself above my condition (101-102).

 

Noting such similarities between Julien and Pierre enables students to question Julien's unique intellectual ability or personal superiority, as a canonical reading of Stendhal's novel would lead one to interpret him, and to view him in relation to predictable patterns of class mobility at the time. They can also observe the extent to which history and literature overlap and intersect. Julien and Pierre turn to texts to discover models of class ascent, and they in turn become literary and historical models for a romantic culture that was fascinated with exceptional, aberrant figures on the margins of society.

Insights into the nature of subaltern language in the nineteenth century can also be discovered in The Red and the Black by reading that work in relation to Pierre Rivière. Consider for example such small details as Mme de Rênal's letter written "sans la moindre orthographe" 'full of misspellings' (136; 95) or Julien's misspelling of "cela" as "cella" when he begins to work for M. de la Môle (256; 195). Having had the opportunity in studying the textual and filmic versions of Pierre's story to see the nature of his limited mastery of standard French, students can see these details from The Red and the Black in the context of the varying degrees of literacy at the time that women, workers, slaves, and other subaltern groups were able to acquire. Mme de Rênal thus ceases to be viewed only as a privileged member of the provincial upper class and comes also to exemplify the limitations of women's education in the nineteenth century. We learn in this regard, for example, that having forgotten all the ridiculous things she learned in the convent, Mme de Rênal "finit par rien savoir" 'ended by knowing nothing' (64; 29); that, married at sixteen, she is "une femme extrêmement ignorante" 'an extremely ignorant woman' (118; 75); and that, not surprisingly in light of this ignorance, if her husband were to stop giving her money, she like other women of her class would fall into "l'état d'ouvrière à quinze sols par journée" 'the condition of a workingwoman at fifteen sous a day'(154; 106).

The Red and the Black can thus serve as an occasion for studying both literature and literacy in the early nineteenth century, and thereby for combining an emphasis on the individual, psychological plane with an emphasis on the collective, social features of the text. Going beyond the text itself, I would recommend in this regard incorporating material from works such as Roger Chartier's L'Education en France, in which we learn, for example, that reading represented a lower level of literacy than writing, which was taught separately; and that some historians consider that reading was considered inferior at the time to signing one's name, the standard measure of literacy in historical records of the past (Chartier 88-91). That there were negative social implications of writing that did not apply to reading is apparent in the following scene in The Red and the Black, in which the abbé Pirard warns Julien,

 

Le marquis n'aime pas les écrivalleurs, je vous en avertis; c'est sa seule antipathie. Sachez le latin, le grec si vous pouvez, l'histoire des Égyptiens, des Perses, etc., il vous honorera et vous protégera comme un savant. Mais n'allez pas écrire une page en français, et surtout sur des matières graves et au-dessus de votre position dans le monde . . . (272)

 

The marquis doesn't like scribblers, let me warn you; it is his only antipathy. Know Latin and Greek if you can, the history of the Egyptians, the Persians, and so on, he will honor you and protect you as a man of learning. But don't venture to write a single page in French, and above all on serious matters above your station in life . . . (209)

 

Chartier's work also contextualizes literacy with respect to geographical location, enabling us to situate Julien and Pierre in relation to the higher pattern of literacy that existed among men in the north of France (Chartier 107-108). These kinds of information will enrich students' understanding of the past and will encourage them to see literature as a rich repository of historical and cultural as well as aesthetic material.

Turning now to the theme of oppression, I will begin with Julien's presentation in Stendhal's novel as a representative of the lower classes and a victim of social and economic persecution, for example in the celebrated passage at the end of the novel, in which Julien addresses the jury that has just condemned him: "Messieurs, je n'ai point l'honneur d'appartenir à votre classe, vous voyez en moi un paysan qui s'est révolté contre la bassesse de sa fortune" 'Gentlemen, I have not the honor to belong to your social class, you see in me a peasant in open revolt against his humble station' (476; 387). Admitting his guilt in attempting to kill a woman who was like a mother to him, Julien claims nonetheless to be the victim of a society that seeks to punish and discourage "cette classe de jeunes gens qui, nés dans un ordre inférieur, et en quelque sorte opprimés par la pauvreté, ont le bonheur de se procurer une bonne éducation, et l'audace de se mêler à ce que l'orgueil des gens riches appelle la société" 'a certain class of young men--those who, born to a lower social order, and buried by poverty, are lucky enough to get a good education and bold enough to mingle with what the arrogant rich call good society' (476; 387-388). In point of fact, the text makes clear that Julien's father is the wealthy owner of a sawmill, and thus that Julien is hardly a member of a "lower social order . . . buried by poverty." Indeed, he is acutely aware of the difference between himself and the true members of the lower class, for example the young men in the seminary, accustomed to living on curdled milk and black bread, eating meat only five or six times a year, and lacking adequate food or clothing in the winter. Yet Julien seems to relish opportunities to call attention to his inferior position through references to himself as a peasant, worker, subordinate, plebeian, or other indications of social inferiority. What is at issue, clearly, is his sensitivity to the issue of equality and his own sense of social inferiority. The speech to the jury and the references to social oppression elsewhere in the novel serve to give us the psychology of oppression--the feeling of being an outsider and an inferior--rather than any genuine material, economic deprivation.

Thus although students can learn much about oppression, inequality, and alienation by analyzing those themes in The Red and the Black, they ultimately learn more about the provincial and Parisian elites who inspire Julien's feelings of inferiority than about the precise conditions of the downtrodden or subalternity in early nineteenth-century France. Pierre Rivière's account, in contrast, enables us to see what the actual material features of daily life were at the time. As Pierre dwells on the sordid succession of quarrels between his parents, we come to comprehend the importance both for the lower classes and for women of such actions as signing contracts, acquiring property, exercising conjugal rights, ploughing a field, buying a mattress, incurring debts, passing on property, signing contracts, and hundreds of other aspects of everyday life. Clothes, furniture, animals, food, illness, taxes, conscription, religion, education, and the workings of the judicial system all figure prominently, as do the ways in which peasant women like Victoire Rivière, Pierre's mother, exercised active resistance to patriarchal society: for example, refusing to sleep or live with her husband, denying him control of her property, insisting on her legal rights, and involving herself in all financial matters. This historical description of resistance provides an enlightening backdrop against which we can measure and assess the description of resistance in The Red and the Black, notably Mathilde's recourse to such measures as controlling her love affair with Julien, defying her father's social expectations, manipulating male figures of power, etc. Although I do not mean to imply that Pierre is more interesting or important than Julien, or that Victoire is necessarily more emancipated than Mathilde, I would argue that comparing the forms of oppression of these various historical and literary figures provides for an enriched understanding of the culture and the literature of the nineteenth century.

Comparing The Red and the Black and Indiana is especially enlightening because it expands the issue of oppression to include class, gender, and race. Consider the use of animal imagery at the beginning of the two works. Stendhal's novel starts with Julien's father calling him a "chien de lisard" 'you little hound' (48; 14) and referring to him on a number of other occasions as an animal. Indeed, the brutality with which the father brings his son down from the tree in which he was reading seems more like the way a master would treat a rebellious slave than a father would treat his son: "Descends, animal . . . Son père . . . alla chercher une longue perche pour abattre des noix, et l'en frappa sur l'épaule" 'Get down from there, animal . . . His father . . . took a long pole used for knocking down nuts and struck him across the shoulder with it' (46; 13). Not surprisingly, Julien is especially sensitive to being treated like a dog by the Rênal children: "Ces enfants me caressent comme ils caresseraient le jeune chien de chasse que l'on a acheté hier" 'These children are fond of me just as they're fond of that new puppy who was bought yesterday' (86; 48). For Julien, treatment by a master is tantamount to oppression and brutality. Indiana similarly experiences a sense of oppression in the opening scene in relation to the treatment of a dog, in this case by her brutal husband, "devant qui tout tremblait, femme, serviteurs, chevaux et chiens" 'who made everyone tremble, wife, servants, horses, and dogs' (49; 15). What is common to the two novels, then, is the role of the master under a patriarchal, inegalitarian system of family and society and the common oppression endured under this system by animals, women, slaves, and members of the lower classes. By focusing on animal images and the role of the master, one can emphasize, as Stendhal appears to want to do, other elements in The Red and the Black that call attention to inequality between classes or sexes. We learn, for example, that on the night before she was married Mme de Rênal was warned by her aunt against confiding in a husband, "qui après tout est un maître" 'who after all is a master' (93; 53); and repeatedly, in Mathilde's references to Julien as her master and herself as his slave, Stendhal foregrounds the issues of oppression and submission, perhaps calling our attention, ironically, to Mathilde's less than thoroughly feminist grasp of those issues.

Raising the topic of oppression in The Red and the Black can lead to fascinating class discussions in which students typically adopt markedly different positions. As an example of some of the varied and interesting interpretations that can result, one of my students argued that Mathilde was the least feminist of all the women studied in the course, stating that she is confined in her movements, condemned to repeating the past of her ancestors, a victim of obsessive love, and predictably the bearer of a masculine child to carry on male, patriarchal values. In contrast, others saw her in a very positive light, stressing the forms of resistance noted earlier, her role generally as a strong and educated woman, and her participation in the chiefly feminine opposition to Julien's execution at the hands of male, authoritarian figures at the end of the novel. Still others were ambivalent, seeing her emancipation from her father in choosing Julien as positive but her desire for him to be integrated into a patriarchal, aristocratic system as negative. To further spark the fire of debate, I recommend assigning or referring to Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of Stendhal, which supports a positive interpretation of Mathilde: "Et ces femmes qui ont su préserver à vide leur liberté, dès qu'elles rencontreront un objet digne d'elles s'élèveront par la passion jusqu'à l'héroïsme" 'And these women who have been able to maintain their liberty--empty as it has been--will rise through passion to heroism once they find an objective worthy of them' (380-381; 54-55). Whereas some students will agree with Beauvoir that Stendhal's women characters acquire heroic stature, others may consider that despite her feminist credentials Beauvoir is unwittingly endorsing women's subordination to men through love. Regardless of the final outcome of the discussion, its very existence helps make the point that ideological limitations affect male and female writers and that reading the canon critically is as appropriate for canonical feminist works as for canonical works of literature.

A discussion of the different ways in which Mathilde and Indiana compare themselves to slaves is especially enlightening. In The Red and the Black, the comparison is expressed in ambiguous terms that raise questions about Stendhal's ironic relation to his characters: "Punis-moi de mon orgueil atroce, lui disait-elle . . . tu es mon maître, je suis ton esclave, il faut que je demande pardon à genoux d'avoir voulu me révolter . . . règne à jamais sur moi, punis sévèrement ton esclave quand elle voudra se révolter" 'Punish me for my atrocious pride, she told him . . . you are my master, I am your slave, I must beg your pardon on bended knees for having tried to revolt . . . reign forever over me, punish savagely your slave whenever she tries to rebel' (363; 291) In contrast, in Indiana, the comparison between women and slaves is direct and carries with it a tone of strong recrimination: "Je sais que je suis l'esclave et vous le seigneur. La loi de ce pays vous a fait mon maître. Vous pouvez lier mon corps, garrotter mes mains, gouverner mes actions. Vous avez le droit du plus fort, et la société vous le confirme; mais sur ma volonté, monsieur, vous ne pouvez rien, Dieu seul peut la courber et la réduire" 'I know I'm the slave and you're the lord. The law of the land has made you my master. You can tie up my body, bind my hands, control my actions. You have the right of the stronger, and society confirms you in it. But over my will, Monsieur, you have no power. God alone can bend and subdue it' (232; 176). Whereas Stendhal's more ambiguous comparison between women and slaves lends itself to literary discussions of character and style, Sand's more direct comparison lends itself to theoretic discussions of the implications of comparing women and slaves, a comparison often drawn by writers and critics at the time and still today. Both kinds of discussions are fruitful and enlightening activities for undergraduate students, and both are easier to develop when comparisons can be drawn between several novels.

Comparing Stendhal's and Sand's novels also has the advantage of bringing out issues related to race that might otherwise remain invisible in The Red and the Black; and if there is one important thing that literary theory has taught us and that we need to pass on to our students it is that the "non-dit" or 'unsaid' of a text often points to its most telling and significant subtexts. I would argue that for both novels, and for early nineteenth-century literature generally, that subtext is the violent events that occurred in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the 1790s and that haunted the political unconscious of Europeans and Americans well beyond the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848. Now, we only hear about Saint-Domingue directly in Stendhal's novel when mention is made of a maid from that island, a mention that coincides, interestingly, with Julien's facetious description in pseudo-creole of his plans to escape at night from Mathilde's room, like a runaway slave: "Et comment moi m'en aller? dit Julien d'un ton plaisant, et en affectant le langage créole" 'And how me gwine get way? said Julien, speaking playfully and assuming a Creole dialect' (345; 275). In Sand's work, race plays a more consistently significant role. The very fact of setting the novel in the West Indies and giving its ostensibly pure white heroine a name connoting the non-white race of Indians is significant as is the focus on Noun as a person of color whose fate in many way mirrors Indiana's and therefore points up the association between the oppression of women and persons of color (Kadish 22-30). But whether more explicit in Indiana or almost silent in The Red and the Black, I would urge that race is relevant to the study of both works and that it gives added meaning to the theme of Julien's class inferiority. Repeatedly the novel calls attention to the obsessive fear on the part of the upper classes of an uprising by the people: "nous payons vingt francs par domestique afin qu'un jour ils ne nous égorgent pas" 'We pay twenty francs for every servant, to prevent them from cutting our throats some day' (119; 76); "S'il y a une nouvelle révolution, tous les nobles seront égorgés" 'If there's a new revolution, the aristocrats will all have their throats cut' (176; 126). Now, it was in Saint-Domingue, not in France, that an uprising resulted in the masters having their throats cut by their servants; and it was the image of violence in Saint-Domingue that came to the minds of many at the time when social stability seemed threatened, as it did with Julien's crime. It is significant therefore, I would argue, to see him as an embodiment not only of the lower classes but more generally of the uprising masses, including slaves, and thereby to make race issues an integral part of a discussion of the culture of revolution in nineteenth-century France.

In closing, what I see as positive features of the type of course I have been proposing here and its advantages over more traditional approaches to teaching The Red and the Black are that it provides a great deal of detail about daily life and culture in the nineteenth century; that it raises controversial issues that lead to lively class discussions; that it deals directly with issues of class, race, and gender; that it brings students into current theoretical debates without actually requiring them to study theory as such; and that it teaches students how to approach canonical works critically. Student evaluations revealed that all of the students were enthusiastic about the focus on daily life and culture and the lively class discussions that resulted from the choice of texts. The other, more theoretical or critical features of the course were appreciated by some students whereas others did not mention them as either positive or negative. Now, I recognize that some of my colleagues may object that not enough attention has been paid in the course I describe here to teaching the aesthetic features of Stendhal's novel, to which I would respond that for many of us that part comes so naturally that we perhaps need to work against our own tendencies and training as formalistic readers. Indeed, my efforts to emphasize the cultural, linguistic, and theoretical side of The Red and the Black did not keep me from weaving into my teaching the full range of such distinctive literary features of that work as irony, symbolism, description, focalization, and the modalities of narrative voice. But unlike other times I taught it in the past, those were not the only matters that concerned me. Nor, lest we forget, are they the only matters that concern students in the 1990s.


Texts Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. Le Deuxième Sexe, II. Paris: Folio (Essais), 1976. "Women in Stendhal." In Modern Critical Views, Stendhal. Edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. 51-60.

Chartier, Roger. L'Education en France au XVIe au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Société d'édition d'enseignement supérieur, 1976.

Foucault, Michel. ed Moi. Pierre Rivière, avant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et mon frere.... Paris: Gallimard, 1973. I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother .... Lincoln, Ne.: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Kadish, Doris Y. "Representing Race in Indiana." George Sand Studies 11, 1-2 (1992): 22-30.

Sand, George. Indiana. Paris: Gallimard (Folio), 1984. Indiana. Translated by Sylvia Raphael. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.

Talbot, Emile. Stendhal Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993.


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