Stendhal’s narration is a perpetual mystery of European literature; it goes hand in hand with his characterization (as narration usually does). How might the mystery be approached? Here, as a touchstone, is an example, from the end of Chapter 15, “The Cockrow,” immediately after Julien has first seduced Madame de Renal:
Some hours later, when Julien emerged from Madame de Renal’s room, one might have said, in the language of romance, that there was nothing more left for him to wish. And indeed, he was indebted to the love he had inspired and to the unforeseen impression made on him by her seductive charms for a victory to which not all his misplaced ingenuity would ever have led him.
But, in the most delicious moments, the victim of a freakish pride, he still attempted to play the part of a main in the habit of captivating women: he made incredible efforts to destroy his natural amiability. Instead of his paying attention to the transports which he excited, and to the remorse that increased their vivacity, the idea of duty was continually before his eyes. He feared a terrible remorse, and undying ridicule, should be depart from the ideal plan that he had set himself to follow. In a word, what made Julien a superior being was precisely what prevented him from enjoying the happiness that sprang up at his feet. He was like a girl of sixteen who has a charming complexion and, before going to a ball, is foolish enough to put on rouge.
In mortal terror at the apparition of Julien, Madame de Renal was soon a prey to the cruelest alarms. Julien’s tears and despair distressed her greatly.
Indeed, when she had no longer anything to refuse him, she thrust him from her, with genuine indignation, and then flung herself into his arms. No purpose was apparent in all this behavior. She thought of herself damned without remission, and sought to shut out the vision of hell by showering the most passionate caresses on Julien. In a word, nothing would have been wanting to complete our hero’s happiness, not even a burning sensibility in the woman he had just vanquished, had he been capable of enjoying it. Julien’s departure brought no cessation of the transports which were shaking her in spite of herself, nor of her struggle with the remorse that was tearing her.
‘Heavens! Is to be happy, to be loved, no more than that?’ Such was Julien’s first thought on his return to his own room. He was in that state of astonishment and uneasy misgivings into which a heart falls when it has just obtained what it has long desired. It has grown used to desiring, finds nothing left to desire, and has not yet acquired any memories. Like a soldier returning from a parade, Julien was busily engaged in reviewing all the details of his conduct. ‘Have I failed in one of the duties I owe to myself? Have I really played my part?’
And what a part! The part of a man accustomed to shine before women.
The narrator of The Red and the Black has no special powers of insight. His language is full of the clichés of the age of sentiment and Rousseau, the recurrence of the words “heart” and “soul” standing out among them. That is to make a point: no special scalpel is required to see beneath the surface of hypocrites and self-deceivers, and no special language or elaborate metaphors are required to sound the depths of their motives and desires. The fact of hypocrisy is not especially remarkable or interesting, but it may be more or less impressive in its inadvertent effects, as when Julien is called, with irony that is not mere sarcasm, “a superior being.” Rousseau’s boast of self-revelation is made moot by Stendhal’s narrator, for whom everyone stands revealed, not least when they purport to reveal themselves.
The characters in Stendhal’s novel are not “flat,” but their depth consists of two flat planes super-imposed. They are ridiculous, albeit not overtly ridiculed (and that restraint by the narrator might be, or might be mistaken for, sympathy; still, few would want to be subjected to the narration—even though the narrator would likely fare no better were he the subject); and so the novel, even where the pain of characters is most earnestly scrutinized, is the tartest and driest of comedies. Even Byron, whose Don Juan provides epigraphs to many chapters, might have winced and cringed.
But Stendhal avoids the monotony that might be expected from such harsh piercing of the surface, and intrusion into the blank space that lies between the flimsy appearance and the equally flimsy ambition that lies beneath it. He does so in two ways. First, the sense of self of his characters cannot be located firmly on the lower, “deeper” of the levels; sometimes, the characters really believe in their most own lies; at other times, they survey they from their underlying ambitions; at times they are uncertain, moving between. Hence the narration is dynamic and rapid, and the characters themselves unsettled between the two thin surfaces. Second, in the case of the most compelling of his characters, like Julien Sorel, each of the two surfaces, the deceiving and the motivating, as it were, is delicate, capable of rupture, but also incomplete, still taking into its tissue the waste threads of the world (Napoleon’s memoirs and Rousseau form the earliest tissue; with more experience, more is woven in). The characters, then, develop, their surfaces remain penetrable, their self-deception patent, their motivations crass—but all evolving, strengthening nonetheless.