Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What to make of Julien?

I mentioned previously in passing that Julien, in the opening chapters anyway, reminded me a little of Pierre in War and Peace. Obviously, I still have War and Peace on the brain — and with each passing chapter they're less alike. However, there are some superficial similarities: There's references to both of them as childlike. They're both ardent supporters of Napoleon. They've both been denied access to "society," and when finally admitted are rather enamoured of it (Julien not actually admitted, but at least allowed to see it up close).

I sympathize with these naifs. They're underdogs; I want to root for them.

Except, a few more chapters along, I don't really like Julien anymore. I still feel a little sorry for him, but I don't understand him.

I don't have any fully formed notions of his motivations — I'm just thinking out loud here and I have yet to go back and reread some of this section.

What's with this duty he feels toward Mme de Rênal? Or is it duty to himself to fulfill a role he's decided he's fit for. Or duty to his aspired-to station in society?

Mme is also naive; we know she didn't get any ideas about love (or much else) from books, indeed she has trouble recognizing it. As awkward or uninformed as her actions are, they seem to me to come purely of herself, her nature; it's natural.

But Julien?! As I understand it: he picked up these notions of how a young man ought to conduct himself quite recently and suddenly, while in the employ of de Rênal? Does he think this will advance his career? How stupid is he? Or is he in fact acting on a natural impulse that he now regards through a distorted lens?

9 Comments:

Blogger Diana said...

I share your confusion but I'm getting very angry at him. He's using Mme de Rênal in order to gain "experience" and letting her think that he loves her. He knows that she "loves" him (although I think her version of love is projection and fantasy, but regardless, she feels it and deeply) and he's just playing around, happy to lose his virginity/get laid. I just want Mme de Rênal to wake up and realize that, "He's just not that into you!!"

11:11 AM  
Blogger Isabella said...

What about when they first meet, when he kisses her hand? I thought that was a natural, emotional impulse — although, as I read over that passage, I see it's told through her perspective. So even then, I don't know, was he acting as he thought he was supposed to? Or did he already have designs?

As for Mme, I think "projection and fantasy" may be a little strong — there's been no external force to give her any ideas; if anything, I think her initial attraction is purely physical. She simply doesn't know how to deal with his games.

Does anyone know anything about Julien's favourite book, "Memories of Napoleon on Saint-Helena"? A quick search shows such a book written by Betsy Balcombe, who met him as a young teen. Perhaps this helped set some model for flirtation (for lack of a better word)?

3:12 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

Julien's an ass -- that's the only thing I remembered about this book from my reading in college.

I think we're supposed to be appalled by their relationship (I know I am!), and to notice the source of the dysfunction. Part of it is Julien's ambition, to be sure -- he can't enjoy anything for its own sake because everything is a stepping-stone to advancement. But part of it is also class-consciousness. Julien is always second-guessing her motives and feelings, assuming she despises him for being from a lower class (which probably indicates the degree to which he despises himself).

Stendhal places himself (and the reader) at an ironic distance from both of them, and in that sense this is a novel way ahead of its time.

3:17 PM  
Blogger amcorrea said...

When the word "conquest" pops up in Ch. 9, the "duty" issue becomes a bit more clear. I think it's the whole supposed manhood/poetic ideal thing ("He had done his duty, and a heroic duty.").

In my opinion, he's making it all up as he goes along. He's a perfect paper-doll parody of himself.

Had a good laugh at this bit:

'At the precise moment when ten o'clock strikes, I shall carry out the intention which, all day long, I have been promising myself that I would fulfill this evening, or I shall go up to my room and blow my brains out.'

What a pity he didn't! Of course, if he had, there wouldn't be much of a book left.

5:19 PM  
Anonymous jap said...

I came across this website through the blog Books, Inq. One of the things that I noticed was that the contributors were all females. If this is a females only blog, let me know and this will be my last comment on the book being discussed.

The copy I am reading is the Modern Library Classics edition with the translation by Burton Raffel. The cover caught my attention. It has a very senuous expression.

Julien is young and it seems, eager to join the adult world. What he lacks is maturity. Don't be mistaken though, he is using Mme de Renal to lose his virginity. What I find hard to believe is the scene when he kisses Mme de Renal hand. Was it really that dark out that Monsieur de Renal and Madame Derville did not notice what he was up to? Let us see how Mme de Renal reacts to Julien's advances over the next couple of chapters. It has caught my attention to see how Julien is going to react.

I would like to thank Isabella for this blog because I don't think I would read this book. In the future I hope you continue this website. Looking forward to finishing this book and the discussions it will produce.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

Welcome, jap! This is our third book, and there's a pretty big turnover on readers each time. If we're all female this time around (are we?), then that's a first.

If you're reading along, and would like to be a formal contributor to the blog, e-mail Isabella and she'll set you up.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

Hi, Jap! I'm also curious whether the others realize what's going on between these two — M Rênal may very well be oblivious to any matters of love, or maybe he doesn't care. I hope we get a little more insight into the surrounding cast as we go on.

And, like Rachel said, email me if you want to be able to post your own entries.

11:01 AM  
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