This novel is set in France in the 1820s. The hero is Julien Sorel, who starts the novel as a 19 year old peasant, who has a remarkable intelligence and ability to learn and remember texts, and who has a deep fascination with Napoleon. Julien wants to raise himself from being a peasant to someone very important, as Napoleon did.
However he has little morality and lives a life full of deceit, hiding his true intentions and taking advantage of other people to make his way. He is also very proud and condescending but manages to comes across much nicer when he makes the effort. But he is also ignorant of many things, which causes him trouble, and often doesn’t understand how he should behave with different people or situations. He sets his own standards and duty by which he lives by, rather than the standards of the time.
The novel starts with his time as a tutor for the mayor of his town’s children and more particularly his affair with the mayor’s wife, Madame de Renal. The second part follows Julien as he goes into a seminary in the nearest city, where he learns his theology very well, but doesn’t believe any of it, and alienates himself from almost everyone else there with his naivety and arrogance.
He then reaches Paris, engaged as Secretary to a rich noble. He finds Parisian society a challenge and makes few friends. After some time he begins a relationship with his employers daughter, full of distrust on both sides, and which ultimately leads to his downfall.
What do I think of it? The back cover of the book says “lauded as one of the greatest works in Western literature”. I would not go this far, but my ignorance of the state of politics and society in which the novel is set certainly means there are many happenings and conversations I don’t appreciate. But it is a very well written and enjoyable book, and gives a great insight into the mind of the hero. However as he is so unlikeable, selfish in his ways and so proud, it makes it difficult for me to enjoy the book as much as I should.