Stendhal - World Literature

World Literature



BORN: 1783, Grenoble, France

DIED: 1842, Paris, France


GENRE: Nonfiction, fiction


On Love (1822)

Armance (1827)

The Red and the Black (1830)



Stendhal. Imagno / Getty Images



Among the four most important novelists of nineteenth- century France, Stendhal is noteworthy for the intensity of conscience and feeling in his characters and for beginning his publication of fictional works later in life than did Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Emile Zola. These two facts may have a common cause. Stendhal was usually preoccupied with self-image, and as a result he was by turns timid or brazen, sensitive or cynical, evasive or forthright, never sure of how he was being perceived by others. These aspects of his personality appear in the portraits of his heroes and in his narrative technique, but they may also account for his waiting until age forty-four to publish his first novel. Having filled hundreds of pages in his diaries, and with nonfiction works already in print, he finally had the confidence to risk public scrutiny of a totally creative work. His sense of the craft of fiction developed quickly after the appearance of his novel Armance (1827), and his later novels have an important place in the development of literary realism. Stendhal’s techniques of handling point of view and psychological portraiture are distinctive and have been much admired by critics and writers alike.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Turbulent Childhood and the Death of His Mother. Stendhal was born Marie-Henri Beyle on January 23, 1783, in Grenoble to Joseph-Cherubin Beyle, a lawyer, and his wife, Caroline-Adelaide-Henriette. He was the first child in the family to survive, a previous Marie-Henri having died a few days after birth the year before. Later siblings included Pauline, to whom the young Stendhal was very close, and Zenaide, for whom he professed dislike. Letters written to Pauline after Stendhal had left Grenoble at age sixteen are an important part of his collected correspondence. His mother died in 1790, when he was seven. Thanks to reminiscences in Stendhal’s autobiographical works, much is known about his childhood memories. In a famous passage from Vie de Henry Brulard, he claims that, before his mother’s death, he loved her ardently and desired to cover her body with kisses. In a contrast that has provoked much Freudian criticism, Stendhal never had a good relationship with his father, whom he described as authoritarian, hypocritically conventional, and bourgeois.

French Revolution, Paris, and the Napoleonic Wars. During the years of the French Revolution (1789-1799), Stendhal, captivated by rhetoric of liberation from tyranny, followed the events enthusiastically. Though the revolution, aiming as it did at the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a more democratic political system (it succeeded in the former and failed quite thoroughly in the latter), spent the greater part of its energy in Paris, it extended far enough into the countryside for Stendhal’s father’s royalist sentiments to earn him several months of incarceration. The newly created public school in Grenoble, l’Ecole centrale (Central School), afforded Stendhal much interaction with peers (he undertook a duel using pistols with one schoolmate), and the opportunity to excel at mathematics, which he saw as his ticket out of Grenoble. Indeed, in November of 1799 he arrived in Paris, where he was supposed to sit for the entrance exam given by l’Ecole polytechnique. He did not take the exam, however, and instead benefited from the patronage of a powerful cousin, Pierre Daru, who obtained for him a position as clerk in a government office.

Stendhal longed to write plays and become the Moliere of his time, but for the present he was being paid to write official letters for Daru’s signature. A few months later Daru sent him, commissioned as a second lieutenant, across the Saint Bernard pass into northern Italy, where Napoleon Bonaparte’s Italian campaign was in progress. Having read voraciously during his childhood, Stendhal identified with the heroes of romances by Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso as he endured the perils and rigors of a soldier’s lot on the way to Milan. He was enchanted by the solder’s life, and the vivid memories of this experience would find their place in the composition of The Charterhouse of Parma nearly forty years later.

Accusations of Plagiarism and the Start of a Literary Career In 1814, Stendhal’s first book appeared, bearing the unwieldy title The Life of Haydn, in a Series of Letters written at Vienna, followed by the Life of Mozart, with Observations on Metastasio, and on the present State of Music in France and Italy, 1817, and fancifully attributed to a pseudonymous Louis-Alexandre-Cesar Bombet. Sales were less than brisk, and three hundred unsold copies were republished in 1817 with a new binding and a much shorter title, by which the work is known today: Lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Metastasio. The pseudonym was all the more appropriate in that Stendhal’s book had borrowed to the point of plagiarism from other sources, principally from Giuseppe Carpani’s Le Haydine (1812). Carpani discovered the theft and complained in the French press, but the matter was never taken seriously. Comparison of Stendhal’s text with Carpani’s reveals much translation and adaptation but also considerable originality in style, scope, and critical judgment. Having subsidized the printing himself, Stendhal lost money on the venture but found his calling.

French Romanticism. From 1821 to 1830, Stendhal lived in Paris, frequenting the salons of Marie-Joseph, Marquis de Lafayette, Destutt de Tracy, Cabanis, Etienne Delecluze, and others. He interacted with the major figures of the Restoration—the return to the throne of the House of Bourbon accompanying Napoleon’s fall from power—particularly those with a liberal orientation, and acquired the reputation of being a witty (and sometimes irritating) conversationalist. His friendship with Prosper Merimee, who published a portrait of Stendhal titled H. B. (1850), dates from these years. He met other Romantic writers in the salons and contributed to their movement a pamphlet, Racine and Shakespeare, first published in 1823, then revised and enlarged in 1825.

Because of his attachment to the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, Stendhal stood apart from the early French Romantics, who had a nostalgia for the traditional values of legitimate monarchy and church, which had been stigmatized and even outlawed during the turbulent revolutionary and Napoleonic years. Indeed, the 1823 version of his pamphlet does not seem to have attracted wide attention. But French Romanticism was already in the process of becoming more liberal, as it contended against the reestablished French establishment’s condemnation of the movement. The 1825 version of Racine and Shakespeare enjoyed a good measure of success and influence, including a favorable review in the liberal Globe in London, which had been founded only the year before. Stendhal would later parlay this minor success into further critical publications and, ultimately, the novel The Red and the Black (1830), for which he is best known.

An Unrecognized Masterpiece. The arrival of The Red and the Black on the literary scene of Paris, however, went largely unheeded. Stendhal himself wrote with some resignation that he published for ‘‘the Happy Few,’’ although later authors (such as Honore de Balzac were outraged by the tepidity of the reception of this and other works), and he took up a post as consul to the papal state of Civitavecchia in 1931. For the next ten years, he held this post, publishing a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction texts, until an apoplectic fit forced him—in 1841—to request leave to recover in Paris. The following year, another such fit struck him as he was walking down the street, and he died at the age of seventy-eight in his Paris apartment. Publishing his first novel only at the age of forty-four, and unheralded in his lifetime, Stendhal has since been recognized as one of the greatest literary figures France—indeed, the world—has ever produced.



Stendhal's famous contemporaries include:

Washington Irving (1773-1859): An American author most famous for his stories ''Rip Van Winkle'' and ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.''

Charles Lamb (1775-1834): An English essayist also responsible for making Shakespeare accessible to children in his book Tales from Shakespeare.

Charles Nodier (1780-1844): A French author who wrote during the same period as Stendhal but whose work involved gothic themes, including vampires.

Benoit Fourneyron (1802-1867): The French engineer who designed the first usable water turbine, a device that captures energy from moving water.

William Fox Talbot (1800-1877): An English inventor, and a pioneer of the photographic process.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882): An English naturalist responsible for defining and defending his theory of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution.


Works in Literary Context

Stendhal’s fiction is marked primarily by its emphasis on ‘‘realism.’’ Unlike the wild narratives of novels such as Don Quixote, Stendhal’s fiction tries to represent the world as it is, catching both the small and large details of his characters’ lives in order to paint them as realistically as possible. As literature would continue to develop over the next century and, indeed, to this day, the tendency to represent fictional worlds realistically has continued. Novelists as divergent in subject and theme as Mark Twain and Toni Morrison have written in the realist tradition for which Stendhal was at least partially responsible.

Realism. Like most of his previous works, The Red and the Black relied in part on borrowed material and sprang from the account of a crime that Stendhal had read in the Journal of Criminal Cases. A blacksmith’s son named Antoine Berthet had been sentenced to death after shooting a woman—with whom he may have had a romantic history—in a church during Mass. Stendhal’s Julien Sorel differs from the real-life Berthet in important ways, but their stories have similar outlines. Given that Stendhal works from actual accounts of real-world events, it is no wonder that this novel, like much of his work, emphasizes ‘‘realism,’’ a technique in which an author tries to portray his characters and worlds as realistically as possible—as opposed to fantasy literature, such as science fiction, in which considerations of ‘‘the way things really are’’ is minimal.

Stendhal’s narrator touts his realist aesthetic in some direct statements in The Red and the Black, the most famous of which defines the novel as a mere reflector of reality: ‘‘Why, sir, a novel is a mirror that is carried along a highway.’’ In other interventions as well, the narrator pretends to apologize for elements of the story that might in some way be objectionable, but that must be reported because they are part of the story’s declared historical reality. Such protestations of ‘‘reality,’’ which accompanied the emergence of the novel as a distinct genre, may call attention to the artifice that underlies the invented narration, but do so without compromising fictional illusion—an important development in the history of literature. The importance of realism in the novel is further emphasized by Stendhal’s subtitle at the beginning of book one, ‘‘Chronicle of 1830,’’ despite the absence in the work of any mention of the crucial revolution of 1830 and the end of the Bourbon regime in France.



Stendhal looked to real-life events for the plots of his novels The Red and the Black and Armance. He was not the first artist to look to real life for inspiration for his fictional work. To a certain extent, the practice dates back to Homer's Iliad, which was believed by the ancient Greeks to have taken place in the distant past. The film, novel, and song that is ''based on a true story'' or ''inspired by real events'' is now a staple of the entertainment industry. Here are a few examples:

Catch a Fire (2006), a film directed by Philip Noyce. After Patrick Chamusso is falsely accused of an act of terrorism and after the South African government beats him and intimidates his wife, he vows revenge.

Into the Wild (1996), a speculative biography by Jon Kra- kauer. In this text, Krakauer recounts the short life of Christopher McCandless, who, at the age of twenty- two, left behind his affluent family to live off the land, though he wound up dying in the Alaskan wilderness only two years later.

''Hurricane'' (1975), a song by Bob Dylan. In this song, Dylan describes the imprisonment of Rubin Carter, who had been framed by crooked cops and lawyers for multiple counts of murder.


Works in Critical Context

During his lifetime Stendhal’s works enjoyed much less popular success than those of contemporaries whose work has not endured, but his works were well known to the cultured elite. Consequently he had a certain reputation in Paris salons but did not derive a substantial income from his writing. Stendhal reflected that it was less desirable to have a wide following among his contemporaries than to appeal to readers in 1880 or 1935, and curiously, his choice of dates proved somewhat prophetic. Zola, in an essay first published in 1880, discussed Stendhal as one of his precursors (along with Balzac and Flaubert), and in 1882 an article by the novelist Paul Bourget, along with the influence of Hippolyte Taine’s continuing enthusiasm, consolidated Stendhal’s reputation in the French literary canon. By 1935 a growing critical industry of ‘‘Stendhaliens’’ had published a wealth of texts on and by their author. In his own time, however, Stendhal had to rely on work as a journalist, a specialist in military supply, and as French consul abroad to supplement income from publications and his father’s estate.

Armance. In part to distract himself from dejection after the end of a love affair, Stendhal wrote his first novel, Armance, in 1827. Stendhal took the premise of his novel from another author’s book. Henri de Latouche had published an anonymous novel, Olivier, in 1826; this in turn was based on an unpublished story of the same title by Claire de Durfort, Duchesse de Duras. The reading public and Stendhal’s friends, however, had a largely negative reaction to Armance, and the eight hundred to one thousand copies of the first printing found so few buyers that in 1828 the remainders were rebound and announced as a second edition. Indeed, despite his prodigious output, Stendhal frequently misjudged the appeal of his work to the reading public. Although he often picked scandalous and timely subjects, plucked from gossip circles, he could never quite make a lasting connection with critics of his time. Perhaps this was due, to the novel’s gender-bending literary trickery, on which some recent criticism has focused. Maryline Lukacher, for instance, suggests that ‘‘in Armance, the title is deceitful and enigmatic, since it does not correspond to what it is supposed to describe. Under the cover of a woman’s name, Stendhal is effectively telling the story of a man.’’

The Red and the Black. By far Stendhal’s most popular and most frequently read work today is The Red and the Black. Responses to the novel have come from a wide variety of directions, including everything from psychoanalysis to philosophy of science, political science to theater studies. John Vignaux Smyth surveys this criticism, noting that ‘‘‘Red’ and ‘Black’ are often identified by critics with the poles of honesty and hypocrisy,’’ and arguing, ‘‘The venerable comparison of fiction and truth to clothes and body takes us beyond fiction-as-representation to fiction as a relation between concealment and revelation.’’ Meanwhile, writing from the perspective of psychoanalytically informed feminism, Julia Kristeva writes that Stendhal’s women, here and elsewhere, ‘‘have the strength of destiny, the power of ancient divinities.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Read The Red and the Black. In your opinion, how successful is Stendhal’s portrayal of ‘‘reality’’—how real is his realism? In your response, consider his portrayal not only of physical details—descriptions of places and objects—but also his portrayal of human nature. Collect your thoughts in a short essay in which you analyze specific examples from the text to support your thinking.

2. Read, watch, or listen to a work that is ‘‘based on a true story.’’ The examples from the ‘‘Common Human Experience’’ sidebar might provide some possibilities. Then, using the Internet and the library, research the real events upon which this story is based. In a short essay, discuss the choices the artist made in shaping the final text—which details were kept, and which were lost? What details seem to have been distorted for artistic effect?

3. Choose an event that is currently being talked about frequently in the news or in your circle of friends. Then, create a short story or film that is based on this event. Review Stendhal’s fiction, particularly Armance and The Red and the Black, as examples if necessary.

4. In modern times, plagiarism of another author’s work is not only frowned upon but a violation of copyright law. In the time of Shakespeare, however, the kind of plagiarism Stendhal committed was not considered a serious crime. Using the Internet and the library, research the history of plagiarism and its perceived inappropriateness. In a short essay, present an overview of this history and make an evaluation of what you’ve discovered. Do modern copyright laws provide suitable protection for writers? Do these laws restrict freedom of expression in some ways?




Adams, Robert M. Stendhal: Notes on a Novelist. New York: Noonday, 1959.

Alter, Robert. A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Brombert, Victor. The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Erdman, David V., ed. The Romantic Movement: A Selective and Critical Bibliography. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill, 1988.

Josephson, Matthew. Stendhal, or the Pursuit of Happiness. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1946.

May, Gita. Stendhal and the Age of Napoleon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Talbot, Emile. Stendhal and Romantic Esthetics. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1985.

Wood, Michael. Stendhal. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971.