The Red and the Black

Author: Stendhal  | Date: 1830


A Transaction

Cunctando restituit rem.

(By delaying, he saved the state.)


"ANSWER ME without lying, if you can, you cur. Since when do you know Madame de Renal? When have you spoken to her?"

"I have never spoken to her," replied Julien. "I have never seen this lady except in church."

"But you have looked at her close, you brazen scamp?"

"Never! You know that in church I see only God," answered Julien, with what he thought enough hypocrisy to avoid a return of blows.

"But there is something up," muttered the peasant, shrewdly. Then, after a moment’s silence: "But I’ll never learn anything from you, you damned hypocrite. Anyhow, I’m going to get rid of you; and my saw will go the better for that. You’ve won over the curate or somebody else who has got a good situation for you. Go and pack up your things, and I’ll take you to M. de Renal’s, where you will teach the children."

"What shall I get for that?"

"Your board and clothes and three hundred francs in wages."

"I don’t want to be a servant."

"You idiot, who is talking about being a servant? Do I want my son to be a servant?"

"But with whom am I going to be at the table?"

The question disconcerted old Sorel; he felt, if he kept on talking, he might say something imprudent. He therefore began to storm at Julien, pouring out upon him a veritable torrent of abuse in which the word "gourmandizer" was most conspicuous. Then he went away to consult his other sons.

Julien saw these soon afterwards leaning on their axes. After observing them for some time without being able to read anything from their expression, he moved to the other side of the shed, so as not to be taken by surprise. He wished to think in quiet of the unexpected event that was changing the course of his life. But he could not think calmly; his imagination was busy representing what M. de Renal’s house would be. All that he would rather give up, he thought, than to come down to eating with servants. "My father would force me to it- rather die! I have fifteen francs and eight sous saved up, and I’ll run away this very night; two days over the cross-roads, where I need not be afraid of the guards, and I am at Besancon. Then I’ll enlist as a soldier, and, if necessary, go to Switzerland. But then good-by to a career and to the priesthood, that leads to everything!"

His horror of eating with servants was not natural to Julien; he would not have hesitated at anything equally disagreeable to get on in the world. But this repugnance he drew from Rousseau’s "Confessions," the only book through which he looked at life. A collection of "Bulletins de la Grande Armee" and the "Memorial de Sainte-Helene" completed his Koran. Never did he pin his faith to other books. Like the old army surgeon, he looked upon all other books as a pack of lies gotten up by stupid fops just to make a noise in the world.

Together with an ardent disposition, Julien united such an astounding memory as is often allied with idiocy. In order to win over the old curate, Chelan, on whom, he saw clearly, his career more or less depended, he had committed to memory the whole of the New Testament in Latin. He also knew M. de Maistre’s "On the Pope," and with as little faith in the one as in the other.

As though by agreement, Sorel and his sons avoided speaking to him for the rest of that day. Towards evening Julien went to take his theology lesson at the curate’s; but he did not deem it prudent to say anything of the strange proposition that had been made to his father. "Perhaps it is only a trap," he said to himself, "I must pretend I have forgotten it."

Early next day M. de Renal sent for old Sorel. The latter, after a delay of an hour or two, finally arrived with a hundred excuses and salaams. Then, by urging all sorts of objections, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his son would eat with the master and mistress of the house, and on company days alone with the children, in a separate room. Interposing more objections, as he perceived a decided eagerness on the part of the Mayor, Sorel asked to see his son’s sleeping-room. It was a large, neatly furnished room, in which the children’s beds were already being brought in. That came like a ray of light to the old peasant; he soon asked, with the utmost assurance, to see what clothes his son would receive. M. de Renal went to his desk and took out a hundred francs.

"With this money your son may go to the tailor Durand and order a black suit."

"And if I should take him away from you," asked the peasant, who had all at once forgotten his courtly genuflexions, "might he keep this suit?"

"Of course."

"Well, then," said Sorel, drawling out his words, "It remains only to agree about one thing- the money you are going to give him."

"What!" cried M. de Renal hotly, "we agreed about that yesterday. It is three hundred francs; I think it is a good deal, if not too much."

"That was your offer; I don’t deny it," said old Sorel, his words coming slower than ever. Then, by a stroke of genius quite familiar to those who know the peasants of Franche-Comte, he added, looking steadily at M. de Renal: "We find something better elsewhere." *

* In DOS versions italicized text is enclosed in chevrons.

At these words the Mayor’s face fell. He soon composed himself, however, and entered on a profound discussion lasting over two hours. Not a word was spoken but was carefully weighed. In the end the astuteness of the peasant won the day- that was an article not essential to the rich man for earning a livelihood. All the points involved in Julien’s new mode of life were carefully reviewed; not only was his salary to be four hundred francs, but it was to be paid monthly, in advance.

"Very well, I will give him thirty-five francs," said M. de Renal.

"To make it a round sum," said the peasant slyly, "a rich and generous man like you, monsieur Mayor, will make it thirty-six francs?"

"Well- yes," said M. de Renal; "but let us close it."

For once, anger lent a shade of firmness to his tone. The peasant saw that he must not press any further. Then M. de Renal began to make progress on his side. He would never give the thirty-six francs for the first month to old Sorel, who was eager to get it for his son. It was dawning on M. de Renal that he would be obliged to tell his wife of his part in the whole transaction.

"Give me back the hundred francs I gave you," he said firmly. "Durand owes me something; I will go with your son to order the black suit."

After this vigorous move, Sorel prudently took recourse to his respectful formalities; these took a good quarter of an hour. Then, seeing that he had positively nothing more to gain, he took his leave. His last reverence was accompanied with the words: "I will send my son to the chateau-" so the Mayor’s house was called by the officials when they wished to please him.

On returning to his house, Sorel looked in vain for his son. Distrustful of what might happen, Julien had stolen out in the middle of the night to put his books and the Cross of the Legion of Honor where they might be safe. He had brought them to his friend, a young wood dealer, by name of Fouque, who lived on the top of the mountain overlooking Verrieres.

When he appeared again, his father began by saying: "The Lord knows, you damned good-for-nothing, if you will ever have the honor to pay me for what I have given you these many years. There, take your rags and go to the Mayor’s."

Julien, surprised at not receiving a blow, hurried away. But scarcely was he out of sight of his terrible father when he began walking very slowly. He judged it would not be amiss with his hypocrisy if he stopped a while at the church.

That word should not be surprising. Before arriving at the import of it, the young man had covered considerable ground. In his early childhood the long white coats and black tufted helmets of some dragoons of the Sixth who were returning from Italy, and whom Julien saw tying their horses to the grilled window of his father’s house, had made him wild for the army. Later he would listen with delight to the accounts of the battles of Lodi, of Arcole, of Rivoli, which the old army surgeon would give. He would notice with what an impassioned look that old man would gaze at his cross.

But when Julien was fourteen a church was building in Verrieres that, for a small town, was indeed magnificent. Four marble columns particularly took Julien’s fancy. These later became celebrated in the neighborhood for the mortal hatred they engendered between the justice of the peace and the young Besancon vicar who passed for a Congregation spy. The magistrate came near being removed; such, at least, was the common opinion. Did he not dare to differ with the priest who went every fortnight to Besancon, where, it was said, he had interviews with the Bishop?

In the meantime the magistrate- the father of a numerous family- was handing down decisions that were seemingly unjust, and these were all adverse to the readers of the "Constitutionel". It was only a question, it is true, of a few francs; but one of these fines had to be paid by a nail-maker, Julien’s godfather. "What a change!" burst out that man in mighty wrath; "and to think that for twenty years this justice has passed for such a good man!"

All at once Julien ceased to speak of Napoleon; he announced his intention of becoming a priest. And he was constantly seen in his father’s mill learning by heart the Latin Bible which had been given to him by the curate. This good old man, marvelling at his progress, spent whole evenings instructing him in theology. Before him Julien expressed only the most pious sentiments. Who would have thought that his girlish face, so pale and delicate, concealed the firm resolution to brave a thousand deaths rather than fail to make a mark in life?

For Julien a career meant, first of all, to leave Verrieres; he detested the place of his birth. Everything he saw there ran counter to his ideal. For from childhood he had had moments of great exaltation. Later he would delightfully conjure up in his mind beautiful Parisian women who would know and admire him some day for his brilliant career. Why should not one of these fall in love with him just as Bonaparte, while still poor, had been loved by the brilliant Madame de Beauharnais? For many years Julien had not passed a single hour without telling himself that Bonaparte, an obscure, moneyless lieutenant, made himself master of the world by his sword. That thought had consoled him in his griefs, which he thought very great, and redoubled every stray joy.

The building of the church and the decisions of the magistrate came to him then as a revelation. One idea formed itself in his mind that made him wild for weeks, finally mastering him with all the force of a new idea in an ardent soul.

"When Bonaparte arose, France was in dread of disaster; military glory was necessary and fashionable. To-day one sees priests at forty with incomes of a hundred thousand francs, or three times as much as the famous division generals under Napoleon received. There must be men to back them. Here is this justice of the peace, such a fine head, and such a good old man until now, dishonoring himself for fear of displeasing a young vicar of thirty. I will become a priest."

Once, when two years had elapsed after beginning his studies, he was betrayed in the very midst of his piety by the sudden darting out of his old flame. It was at M. Chelan’s, at a dinner for the priests, to which the good curate had invited him as a marvel of diligence. It came into his head to praise Napoleon furiously, madly. For that he held his right arm bent across his breast- he had dislocated it, he said, while moving a log- and carried it in that position for two whole months. After that self-inflicted pain he pardoned himself. That was the young man of eighteen, so weak in appearance, looking for all the world considerably less than seventeen years of age, who entered the magnificent church of Verrieres with a little bundle under his arm. It was empty, gloomy. On the occasion of some feast the transepts had been decorated with some crimson stuff. In the sunlight this shone with dazzling splendor, with a sort of depressingly religious effect. Julien was ill at ease. Being alone in the church, he sat down in a pew that looked the prettiest. It bore the arms of M. de Renal. On the altar Julien noticed a piece of printed paper, smoothed out as if it was meant to be read. Examining it, he saw:

"Details of the execution and of the last moments of Louis Jenrel, executed at Besancon on the..." and there the paper had been torn off. On the back there were the first two words of a line: "The First Step."

"Who could have put that paper there?" thought Julien. "Poor wretch!" he added, with a sigh, "his name ends like mine"; and he crumpled the piece of paper in his hand.

On going out, Julien thought he saw some blood near the font; it was some holy water that had been spilt, to which the reflection from the red curtains in the windows had given the color of blood. Julien was soon ashamed of his weakness.

"Am I going to be a coward?" he said. "To arms!"

That phrase, repeated so frequently in the old surgeon’s recitals of his battles, invariably had a heroic effect on Julien. He arose, and walked rapidly towards M. de Renal’s house.

But when he saw it only twenty steps away, he was seized with unconquerable timidity in spite of his fine resolutions. The iron grating was open; it was so imposing: yet he must enter.

Julien was not the only one whose heart was uneasy over his arrival at the house. Madame de Renal, who was of an extremely timid disposition, was greatly disconcerted over the idea that a stranger would find it his duty to stand between herself and her children. She was accustomed to seeing her children put to bed in her own room. That morning she had shed many tears when she saw the little beds carried into the tutor’s room. It was in vain that she had begged her husband to have Stanislaus-Xavier’s- the youngest boy’s- little bed carried back into her own room again.

Womanly delicacy was most marked in Madame de Renal. She had formed in her mind a most disagreeable picture of a frowzy, uncouth creature in rags, who would be snarling at her children just because he knew Latin- a barbarous language for which her boys would be whipped.


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Chicago: Stendhal, "Chapter 5," The Red and the Black, trans. Charles Tergie Original Sources, accessed September 27, 2022,

MLA: Stendhal. "Chapter 5." The Red and the Black, translted by Charles Tergie, Original Sources. 27 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: Stendhal, 'Chapter 5' in The Red and the Black, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 27 September 2022, from