Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, the First Great Antihero in Literature

With spectacular forthrightness, French novelist Marie Henri Beyle Stendhal handled love and ambition with the same investigative skill. His revelation of conformism and delusion more than justifies the recurrent claim that he is a major precursor of psychological realism.

Julien Sorel, the central character of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is one of fiction’s first great antiheroes. Sorel’s immense predicament is that he is a Napoleon-like figure in the black world of the French Restoration, in which the egotist is supposed to follow, and to observe rank and hierarchy. Sorel’s inconsistency and intricacy assess him as a new type of fictional character. The American literary and social critic Irving Howe suggests,

The modern hero, the man who forces society to accept him as its agent the hero by will rather than birth-now appears for the first time: and he carries with him the disease of ambition, which flourishes among those who are most committed to the doctrine of equality and spreads all the deeper as the restored Bourbons try to suppress that doctrine. Before the revolution men had been concerned with privileges, not expectations; now they dream of success, that is, of a self-willed effort to lift oneself, through industry or chicanery, to a higher social level. Life becomes an experiment in strategy, an adventure in plan, ruse, and combat; the hero is not merely ambitious but sensitive to the point of paranoia, discovering and imagining a constant assault upon his dignity; and Stendhal carries this outlook to its extreme limit, perhaps even to caricature, by applying it to the affairs of love.

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