The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 26

The World, or What the Rich Lack

I am alone on earth, no one deigns to think of me. All the people I see making their fortunes have a brazenness and a hard-heartedness which I do not sense in myself. Ah! I shall soon be dead, either of hunger, or from the sorrow of finding men so hard.


He made haste to brush his coat and to go downstairs; he was late. An under-master rebuked him severely; instead of seeking to excuse himself, Julien crossed his arms on his breast:

Peccavi, pater optime (I have sinned, I confess my fault, O Father),’ he said with a contrite air.

This was a most successful beginning. The sharp wits among the seminarists saw that they had to deal with a man who was not new to the game. The recreation hour came, Julien saw himself the object of general curiosity. But they found in him merely reserve and silence. Following the maxims that he had laid down for himself, he regarded his three hundred and twenty-one comrades as so many enemies; the most dangerous of all in his eyes was the abbe Pirard.

A few days later, Julien had to choose a confessor, he was furnished with a list.

‘Eh; Great God, for what do they take me?’ he said to himself. ‘Do they suppose I can’t take a hint?’ And he chose the abbe Pirard.

Though he did not suspect it, this step was decisive. A little seminarist, still quite a boy, and a native of Verrieres, who, from the first day, had declared himself his friend, informed him that if he had chosen M. Castanede, the vice-principal of the Seminary, he would perhaps have shown greater prudence.

‘The abbe Castanede is the enemy of M. Pirard, who is suspected of Jansenism’; the little seminarist added, whispering this information in his ear.

All the first steps taken by our hero who fancied himself so prudent were, like his choice of a confessor, foolish in the extreme. Led astray by all the presumption of an imaginative man, he mistook his intentions for facts, and thought himself a consummate hypocrite. His folly went the length of his reproaching himself for his successes in this art of the weak.

‘Alas! It is my sole weapon! In another epoch, it would have been by speaking actions in the face of the enemy that I should have earned my bread.’

Julien, satisfied with his own conduct, looked around him; he found everywhere an appearance of the purest virtue.

Nine or ten of the seminarists lived in the odour of sanctity, and had visions like Saint Teresa and Saint Francis, when he received the Stigmata upon Monte Verna, in the Apennines. But this was a great secret which their friends kept to themselves. These poor young visionaries were almost always in the infirmary. Some hundred others combined with a robust faith an unwearying application. They worked until they made themselves ill, but without learning much. Two or three distinguished themselves by real talent, and, among these, one named Chazel; but Julien felt himself repelled by them, and they by him.

The rest of the three hundred and twenty-one seminarists were composed entirely of coarse creatures who were by no means certain that they understood the Latin words which they repeated all day long. Almost all of them were the sons of peasants, and preferred to earn their bread by reciting a few Latin words rather than by tilling the soil. It was after making this discovery, in the first few days, that Julien promised himself a rapid success. ‘In every service, there is need of intelligent people, for after all there is work to be done,’ he told himself. ‘Under Napoleon, I should have been a serjeant; among these future cures, I shall be a Vicar–General.

‘All these poor devils,’ he added, ‘labourers from the cradle, have lived, until they came here, upon skim milk and black bread. In their cottages, they tasted meat only five or six times in a year. Like the Roman soldiers who found active service a holiday, these boorish peasants are enchanted by the luxuries of the Seminary.’

Julien never read anything in their lack-lustre eyes beyond the satisfaction of a bodily need after dinner, and the expectation of a bodily pleasure before the meal. Such were the people among whom he must distinguish himself; but what Julien did not know, what they refrained from telling him, was that to be at the top of the various classes of dogma, church history, etc., etc., which were studied in the Seminary, was nothing more in their eyes than a sin of vainglory. Since Voltaire, since Two Chamber government, which is at bottom only distrust and private judgment, and instils in the hearts of the people that fatal habit of want of confidence, the Church of France seems to have realised that books are its true enemies. It is heartfelt submission that is everything in its eyes. Success in studies, even in sacred studies, is suspect, and with good reason. What is to prevent the superior man from going over to the other side, like Sieyes or Gregoire? The trembling Church clings to the Pope as to her sole chance of salvation. The Pope alone can attempt to paralyse private judgment, and, by the pious pomps of the ceremonies of his court, make an impression upon the sick and listless minds of men and women of the world.

Having half mastered these several truths, which however all the words uttered in a Seminary tend to deny, Julien fell into a deep melancholy. He worked hard, and rapidly succeeded in learning things of great value to a priest, entirely false in his eyes, and in which he took no interest. He imagined that there was nothing else for him to do.

‘Am I then forgotten by all the world?’ he wondered. He little knew that M. Pirard had received and had flung in the fire several letters bearing the Dijon postmark, letters in which, despite the most conventional style and language, the most intense passion was apparent. Keen remorse seemed to be doing battle with this love. ‘So much the better,’ thought the abbe Pirard, ‘at least it is not an irreligious woman that this young man has loved.’

One day, the abbe Pirard opened a letter which seemed to be half obliterated by tears, it was an eternal farewell. ‘At last,’ the writer informed Julien, ‘heaven has granted me the grace of hating not the author of my fault, he will always be dearer to me than anything in the world, but my fault itself. The sacrifice is made, my friend. It is not without tears, as you see. The salvation of the beings to whom I am bound, and whom you have loved so dearly, has prevailed. A just but terrible God can no longer wreak vengeance upon them for their mother’s crimes. Farewell, Julien, be just towards men.’

This ending to the letter was almost entirely illegible. The writer gave an address at Dijon, and at the same time hoped that Julien would never reply, or that at least he would confine himself to language which a woman restored to the ways of virtue could read without blushing.

Julien’s melancholy, assisted by the indifferent food supplied to the Seminary by the contractor for dinners at 83 centimes a head, was beginning to have an effect on his health, when one morning Fouque suddenly appeared in his room.

‘At last I have found my way in. I have come five times to Besancon, honour bound, to see you. Always a barred door. I posted someone at the gate of the Seminary; why the devil do you never come out?’

‘It is a test which I have set myself.’

‘I find you greatly altered. At last I see you again. Two good five franc pieces have just taught me that I was no better than a fool not to have offered them on my first visit.’

The conversation between the friends was endless. Julien changed colour when Fouque said to him:

‘Have you heard, by the way? The mother of your pupils has become most devoutly religious.’

And he spoke with that detached air which makes so singular an impression on the passionate soul whose dearest interests the speaker unconsciously destroys.

‘Yes, my friend, the most exalted strain of piety. They say that she makes pilgrimages. But, to the eternal shame of the abbe Maslon, who has been spying so long upon that poor M. Chelan, Madame de Renal will have nothing to do with him. She goes to confession at Dijon or Besancon.’

‘She comes to Besancon!’ said Julien, his brow flushing.

‘Quite often,’ replied Fouque with a questioning air.

‘Have you any Constitutionnels on you?’

‘What’s that you say?’ replied Fouque.

‘I ask you if you have any Constitutionnels?’ Julien repeated, in a calmer tone. ‘They are sold here for thirty sous a copy.’

‘What! Liberals even in the Seminary!’ cried Fouque. ‘Unhappy France!’ he went on, copying the hypocritical tone and meek accents of the abbe Maslon.

This visit would have made a profound impression upon our hero, had not, the very next day, a remark addressed to him by that little seminarist from Verrieres who seemed such a boy, led him to make an important discovery. Ever since he had been in the Seminary, Julien’s conduct had been nothing but a succession of false steps. He laughed bitterly at himself.

As a matter of fact, the important actions of his life were wisely ordered; but he paid no attention to details, and the clever people in a Seminary look only at details. And so he passed already among his fellow students as a free thinker. He had been betrayed by any number of trifling actions.

In their eyes he was convicted of this appalling vice, he thought, he judged for himself, instead of blindly following authority and example. The abbe Pirard had been of no assistance to him; he had not once uttered a word to him apart from the tribunal of penitence, and even there he listened rather than spoke. It would have been very different had Julien chosen the abbe Castanede.

The moment that Julien became aware of his own folly, his interest revived. He wished to know the whole extent of the harm, and, with this object, emerged a little from that haughty and obstinate silence with which he repulsed his fellows. It was then that they took their revenge on him. His advances were received with a contempt which went the length of derision. He realised that since his entering the Seminary, not an hour had passed, especially during recreation, that had not borne some consequence for or against him, had not increased the number of his enemies, or won him the good will of some seminarist who was genuinely virtuous or a trifle less boorish than the rest. The damage to be repaired was immense, the task one of great difficulty. Thenceforward Julien’s attention was constantly on the alert; it was a case of portraying himself in an entirely new character.

The control of his eyes, for instance, gave him a great deal of trouble. It is not without reason that in such places they are kept lowered. ‘What was not my presumption at Verrieres!’ Julien said to himself, ‘I imagined I was alive; I was only preparing myself for life; here I am at last in the world, as I shall find it until I have played out my part, surrounded by real enemies. What an immense difficulty,’ he went on, ‘is this incessant hypocrisy! It would put the labours of Hercules to shame. The Hercules of modern times is Sixtus V, who for fifteen years on end, by his modesty, deceived forty Cardinals, who had seen him proud and vigorous in his youth.

‘So learning is really nothing here!’ he told himself with scorn; ‘progress in dogma, in sacred history, and the rest of it, count only in appearance. All that is said on that topic is intended to make fools like myself fall into the trap. Alas, my sole merit consisted in my rapid progress, in my faculty for grasping all that nonsense. Can it be that in their hearts they esteem it at its true value; judge of it as I do? And I was fool enough to be proud of myself! Those first places in class which I always obtain have served only to give me bitter enemies. Chazel, who knows far more than I, always puts into his compositions some piece of stupidity which sends him down to the fiftieth place; if he obtains the first, it is when he is not thinking. Ah! one word, a single word from M. Pirard, how useful it would have been to me!’

>From the moment in which Julien’s eyes were opened, the long exercises of ascetic piety, such as the Rosary five times weekly, the hymns to the Sacred Heart, etc., etc., which had seemed to him of such deadly dullness, became the most interesting actions of his life. Sternly criticising his own conduct, and seeking above all not to exaggerate his methods, Julien did not aspire from the first, like the seminarists who served as models to the rest, to perform at every moment some significant action, that is to say one which gave proof of some form of Christian perfection. In Seminaries, there is a way of eating a boiled egg which reveals the progress one has made in the godly life.

The reader, who is perhaps smiling, will please to remember all the mistakes made, in eating an egg, by the abbe Delille when invited to luncheon by a great lady of the Court of Louis XVI.

Julien sought at first to arrive at the non culpa, to wit, the state of the young seminarist whose gait, his way of moving his arms, eyes, etc., do not, it is true, indicate anything worldly, but do not yet show the creature absorbed by the idea of the next life and the absolute nullity of this.

Everywhere Julien found inscribed in charcoal, on the walls of the passages, sentences like the following: ‘What are sixty years of trial, set in the balance with an eternity of bliss or an eternity of boiling oil in hell!’ He no longer despised them; he realised that he must have them always before his eyes. ‘What shall I be doing all my life?’ he said to himself; ‘I shall be selling the faithful a place in heaven. How is that place to be made visible to them? By the difference between my exterior and that of a layman.’

After several months of application kept up at every moment, Julien still had the air of a thinker. His way of moving his eyes and opening his lips did not reveal an implicit faith ready to believe everything and to uphold everything, even by martyrdom. It was with anger that Julien saw himself surpassed in this respect by the most boorish peasants. They had good reasons for not having the air of thinkers.

What pains did he not take to arrive at that expression of blind and fervent faith, which is so frequently to be found in the convents of Italy, and such perfect examples of which Guercino has bequeathed to us laymen in his paintings in churches.†

† Author’s footnote: For instance, in the Louvre, no. 1130: ‘Francis Duke of Aquitaine laying aside the crown and putting on a monastic habit.’]

On the greatest festivals the seminarists were given sausages with pickled cabbage. Julien’s neighbours at table observed that he remained unmoved by this good fortune; it was one of his first crimes. His comrades saw in it an odious mark of the most stupid hypocrisy; nothing made him so many enemies. ‘Look at that gentleman, look at that proud fellow,’ they would say, ‘pretending to despise our best ration, sausages with cabbage! The wretched conceit of the damned fellow!’ He should have refrained as an act of penance from eating the whole of his portion, and should have made the sacrifice of saying to some friend, with reference to the pickled cabbage: ‘What is there that man can offer to an All Powerful Being, if it be not voluntary suffering?’

Julien lacked the experience which makes it so easy for us to see things of this sort.

‘Alas! The ignorance of these young peasants, my comrades, is a great advantage to them,’ Julien would exclaim in moments of discouragement. ‘When they arrive in the Seminary, the teacher has not to rid them of the appalling number of worldly thoughts which I brought with me, and which they read on my face, do what I will.’

Julien studied with an attention that bordered upon envy the more boorish of the young peasants who arrived at the Seminary. At the moment when they were stripped of their ratteen jackets to be garbed in the black cassock, their education was limited to an immense and unbounded respect for dry and liquid money, as the saying goes in the Franche–Comte.

It is the sacramental and heroic fashion of expressing the sublime idea of ready cash.

Happiness, for these seminarists, as for the heroes of Voltaire’s tales, consists first and foremost in dining well. Julien discovered in almost all of them an innate respect for the man who wears a coat of fine cloth. This sentiment estimates distributive justice, as it is dealt out to us by our courts, at its true worth, indeed below its true worth. ‘What is to be gained,’ they would often say among themselves, ‘by going to law with the big?’

‘Big’ is the word used in the valleys of the Jura to denote a rich man. One may imagine their respect for the richest party of all: the Government!

Not to smile respectfully at the mere name of the Prefect is reckoned, among the peasants of the Franche–Comte, an imprudence; and imprudence, among the poor, is promptly punished with want of bread.

After having been almost suffocated at first by his sense of scorn, Julien ended by feeling pity: it had often been the lot of the fathers of the majority of his comrades to come home on a winter evening to their cottages, and to find there no bread, no chestnuts, and no potatoes. ‘Is it surprising then,’ Julien asked himself, ‘if the happy man, in their eyes, is first of all the man who has just eaten a good dinner, and after that he who possesses a good coat! My comrades have a definite vocation; that is to say, they see in the ecclesiastical calling a long continuation of this happiness: dining well and having a warm coat in winter.’

Julien happened to hear a young seminarist, endowed with imagination, say to his companion:

‘Why should not I become Pope like Sixtus v, who was a swineherd?’

‘They make none but Italians Popes,’ replied the friend; ‘but they’ll draw lots among us, for sure, to fill places as Vicars–General and Canons, and perhaps Bishops. M. P—— the Bishop of Chalons, is the son of a cooper; that is my father’s trade.’

One day, in the middle of a lesson in dogma, the abbe Pirard sent for Julien. The poor young fellow was delighted to escape from the physical and moral atmosphere in which he was plunged.

Julien found himself greeted by the Director in the manner which had so frightened him on the day of his joining the Seminary.

‘Explain to me what I see written upon this playing card,’ he said to him, looking at him in such a way as to make him wish that the earth would open and swallow him.

Julien read:

‘Amanda Binet, at the Giraffe cafe, before eight o’clock. Say you are from Genlis, and a cousin of my mother.’

Julien perceived the immensity of the danger; the abbe Castanede’s police had stolen the address from him.

‘The day on which I came here,’ he replied, gazing at the abbe Pirard’s forehead, for he could not face his terrible eye, ‘I was trembling with fear: M. Chelan had told me that this was a place full of tale-bearing and spite of all sorts; spying and the accusation of one’s comrades are encouraged here. Such is the will of heaven, to show life as it is to young priests, and to inspire in them a disgust with the world and its pomps.’

‘And it is to me that you make these fine speeches’— the abbe Pirard was furious. ‘You young rascal!’

‘At Verrieres,’ Julien went on calmly, ‘my brothers used to beat me when they had any reason to be jealous of me . . . ’

‘To the point! Get to the point!’ cried M. Pirard, almost beside himself.

Without being the least bit in the world intimidated, Julien resumed his narrative.

‘On the day of my coming to Besancon, about noon, I felt hungry, I went into a cafe. My heart was filled with repugnance for so profane a spot; but I thought that my luncheon would cost me less there than at an inn. A lady, who seemed to be the mistress of the place, took pity on my raw looks. “Besancon is full of wicked people,” she told me, “I am afraid for you, Sir. If you find yourself in any trouble, come to me, send a message to me before eight o’clock. If the porters at the Seminary refuse to take your message, say that you are my cousin, and come from Genlis . . . ”’

‘All this farrago will have to be investigated,’ exclaimed the abbe Pirard who, unable to remain in one place, was striding up and down the room.

‘You will go back to your cell!’

The abbe accompanied Julien and locked him in. He himself at once proceeded to examine his trunk, in the bottom of which the fatal card had been carefully concealed. Nothing was missing from the trunk, but several things had been disarranged; and yet the key never left his possession. ‘How fortunate,’ Julien said to himself, ‘that during the time of my blindness I never made use of the permission to leave the building, which M. Castanede so frequently offered me with a generosity which I now understand. Perhaps I might have been so foolish as to change my clothes and pay the fair Amanda a visit, I should have been ruined. When they despaired of making any use of their information in that way, so as not to waste it they have used it to denounce me.

A couple of hours later, the Director sent for him.

‘You have not lied,’ he said to him, looking at him less severely; ‘but to keep such an address is an imprudence the serious nature of which you cannot conceive. Unhappy boy! In ten years, perhaps, it will redound to your hurt.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00