Academic journal article French Forum

"Il Ne Faut Jamais Dire le Hasard, Mon Enfant, Dites Toujours la Providence": Sense and Coincidence in le Rouge et le Noir

Academic journal article French Forum

"Il Ne Faut Jamais Dire le Hasard, Mon Enfant, Dites Toujours la Providence": Sense and Coincidence in le Rouge et le Noir

Article excerpt

In 1830, the question of what sort of explanatory narratives were viable or believable was much at the fore of French cultural consciousness. For one, political posturing since the Revolution had compromised the notion of an absolute truth, of a definitive version of how the world is and how it should be. The rationales of the Ancien Regime gave way to the Revolution, were then revived, and then eliminated once more. Within the Restoration period, laws were introduced and then abandoned, then introduced again. The multiplicity of confessions, allowed by the Revolution's nominal separation of church and state, was compromised in 1814 and resuscitated in 1830. These continuous mutations, and the various justifications mounted to sustain them, put in question the entire notion of a final truth or formula. Meanwhile, in the philosophical-spiritual domain, secular modes of understanding were coming increasingly to dominate religious modes. Theories of positivism moved to replace religion as a means of explanation, to replace sacred forces with social forces, God with science, fate with biological determinism. With these substitutions and with the turbulence of the Restoration, God as a means of explanation began to seem both archaic and somewhat disingenuous. In the midst of these dismantlings was published Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir. In this article, I demonstrate that Le Rouge parodies and derails processes of interpretation--and, in so doing, subverts and critiques both secular and religious modes of understanding.

Carol Mossman and Peter Brooks discuss fiction's representation of and response to the transition from a religious to a nonreligious culture. For Brooks: "The enormous narrative production of the nineteenth century may suggest an anxiety at the loss of providential plots: the plotting of the individual or social or institutional life story takes on new urgency when one no longer can look to a sacred masterplot that organizes and explains the world." (1) Carol Mossman goes further than this and proposes that the master plot is itself such a production: "Confronted with the expanses of time undifferentiated, the human mind has, through religion and myth, reached out towards time's end, that is, toward an Apocalypse. And, in so doing, man has wrought himself a cosmic plot." (2) For her, the master plot of Brooks' scenario already expresses anxiety, already constitutes a manufactured response to an intrinsic disorder.

Le Rouge et le Noir, like a world without a master plot, both embodies and inspires a number of explanatory narratives. But it also underscores the arbitrariness and ultimate uselessness of all these narratives--at a historical moment when, as Brooks noted, organization is most desired. It undermines even those modes of narrative explanation that do not seem to be "productions" at all, such as, for instance, science, psychology, the logical discernment of cause and effect, intuition, as well as biblical narratives and the idea of destiny. In 1830, then, when problems of who or what (if anything) structures the world had a particular philosophical as well as political import, this novel, in the name of realism, carefully undermines the viability of all explanatory narratives. In an ironic subversion suitable to the historical moment, it belies both the nascent theories of positivist science and the comforting suppositions of the ecclesiastics, placing comprehension out of the reach of religious and secular alike.

The question of what drives Julien Sorel's ascent and descent is at the base of Le Rouge plot criticism. Numerous critics write that Julien Sorel does not ascend the social scale on his own steam but rather on a tide of outside forces. For Miller, Brombert, Blin, and others, those outside forces mean the social machine, the vicissitudes of Restoration culture, and the sentimental caprices of others. (3) It is Madame de Renal's love and not Julien's strategies that produces his amorous success. …

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