Monday, November 06, 2006

"The cage less gay"

"The little town of Verrières might be one of the prettiest in all Franche-Comté."

The town of Verrières is fictional, but its geography and description suggests Besançon. It's not a stand-in, however, as characters refer to this other town in their comings and goings (as a centre of learning and of fashion, or at least shopping).



It's pretty, pretty, pretty, we're told repeatedly. With a horizon "for the purpose of pleasing the eye." Rênal's wall offers "one of the most picturesques views in all France.

But:

"Nowhere in France can you hope to find the picturesque gardens surrounding Germany's manufacturing towns — Leipzig, Frankfurt, Nuremburg, etc. In Franch-Comté, the more walls you put up, the more your property bristles with rocks heaped one on top of another, the more claim you have on your neighbours' respect."

The trees are "like the most vulgar of garden vegetables."

Add to this the roar and frightful appearance of the mill's operation, "visibly harsh and violent," and the stench of financial transactions, and I have to wonder:

How pretty is it really?

I get the feeling we may get a look at some ugly undersides, including of the good-looking (if delicate) Julien and the pretty-for-her-age Mme Rênal.

And what is it that makes them ugly? For the town, it's the concessions to commerce, the idiotic "tyranny of opinion" (any idea what to make of this reference to the United States?), the call to a kind of conformity. The epigraph suggests it's not a happy place, and Julien is desperate to escape. (I knew a town like that once.)

In Julien we already see hypocrisy regarding his public stance on Napoleon, a conformity to his new crowd. Madame is "an artless soul," bored and not giving much thought (or care?) to anything (a kind of passionless conformity to her station?). But they'll make a handsome couple, no?

4 Comments:

Anonymous rachel said...

The US being the embodiment of the worst excesses of capitalism and democracy, something the old world likes to think it is exempt from, but isn't.

6:28 PM  
Blogger marydell said...

My best guess is that the town's location is what makes it pretty, but the townsfolk ruin its prettiness with their walls and industry. Stendhal makes it clear early on that M. de Rênal, the mayor, is a leading cause of the town's ugliness with his nail factory and garden walls. M. de Rênal is also clearly a very stupid man since he paid an outrageous price for a bit of land he could have gotten more cheaply.

I also had to pause on the bit about the US and "tyranny of opinion," and guess it has something to do with the politics of the time. The Revolutionary War had ended about 40 years before (with some help from the French fleet) Stendhal wrote R&B. Perhaps there wasn't much good feeling toward the young country in the years following the war.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Isabella said...

The "tyranny of opinion" simply stuck out for me as out of nowhere and rather harsh. I guess it's too soon to tell what politics will be expressed, and I'm sure I'll learn more of Stendhal's own stance as we go, but I'd have thought America would be viewed as embodying France's own revolutionary spirit. France of course had its own excesses and Terror. It's just that Part 1 is introduced with Danton's "Truth, bitter truth," and we see Julien as an admirer of Napoleon; perhaps Stendhal is much more critical of these than I'd assumed.

9:31 AM  
Blogger amcorrea said...

The U.S. was young enough to believe it was the best thing going--like a teenage boy with oodles of self-assurance and not much humility. By the time you get to Henry Adams and the Gilded Age, it's incomprehensible to many why anyone would want to live anywhere else. Kind of like now. (In fact, I'd guess that the state of things now is the inevitable continuation of attitudes prevalent at the birth of the nation.)

I'm reminded of that Oscar Wilde line: "The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years."

(I'm a dual citizen, so don't quite reach the heights of expat status--but I've chosen to live my life in another country for similar reasons.)

Anyhow, Stendhal seems incredibly perceptive. Looking forward to diving in a bit deeper soon.

1:19 PM  

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