Julien Sorel

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Julien Sorel
Le Rouge et le Noir character
Created by Stendhal
Gender Male
Occupation Preceptor
Title Monsieur Sorel de la Vernaye
Significant other(s) Louise de Rênal, Mathilde de la Mole
Relatives Father, brothers
Religion Christian
Nationality French

Julien Sorel is the protagonist of The Red and the Black by Stendhal, published in 1830. Originally, the novel was meant to be eponymous.


An intelligent, handsome, and ambitious young man, he was born in Verrières, a small imaginary town in Doubs, though not based on any real geographical location. The son of a carpenter, he was despised by his father and his brothers for his weakness ("his puny physique, ill adapted as it was to manual labour") and his bookish nature. He was a passionate admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte. The local bishop, Bishop Chélan, taught him Latin, allowing him to become a preceptor for the children of the mayor of Verrières, M de Rênal.

He plans his social ascension through two different means. He was a servant, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau from the Confessions, and an aspiring clerk. He dreams of integrating high society by the Red of the military uniform or the Black of the clergy.

Though the red refers to another aspiration: that of love and seduction, also similar to the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his tryst with the older Mme de Warens. Julien refuses the servant girl's advances and instead focuses on the conquest of the soft and fragile Mme de Rênal. His affair with her leads him to success, though Stendhal never delves into what exactly his feelings for Mme de Rênal are, whereas her affections are quite clear. That said, one of the scenes at the start of the novel clearly show the young man's psychology, when Julien grabs Mme de Rênal's hand at night. This seduction scene is described, in Stendhal's ironic style, as a fight scene: "Au moment précis où dix heures sonneront, j'exécuterai ce que, pendant toute la journée, je me suis promis de faire ce soir, ou je monterai chez moi me brûler la cervelle". Julien, an admirer of Napoleon, believes no decision should be made without a combative mindset. His pride is explained by the fact he has warrior ideals, transparent in this scene: the rest of the novel stems from his choice.

Because of social morality, he is forced to quit Verrières and a destroyed Mme de Rênal. He has no great qualms about leaving. He stops at the Besançon seminary and discovers the power struggles of the clergy. He then sets off for Paris and builds himself a prosperous future as secretary of the marquess de la Mole. His intelligent and his prodigious memory lead him to great success, both in the artistic circles of Paris and in diplomatic missions in foreign parts. But slowly, he becomes enamoured with the arrognt daughter of the marquess, Mathilde de la Mole, who is also infatuated with Julien. For the latter, Mathilde is desirable since others desire her. Her social rank pushes him to accept their affair. But Mathilde falls pregnant, and to avoid any dishonour, the marquess gives Julien a great sum of money, ennobles him as Julien Sorel de la Vernaye and makes him a lieutenant of the Hussards. But Julien abandons his new life when he attempts to murder Mme de Rênal in the church at Verrières, since she exposed Julien's immorality to the marquess as her confessor advised her to.

Mme de Rênal visits Julien in the Besançon prison. Their meeting revives the passion they shared for one other, to Mathilde's dismay. Julien makes it his goal to denounce the justice system as classist and his judges as biased. He adopts the role of a revolutionary, condemned for his social audacity, and not for attempted murder. He refuses to beg for mercy and is killed in a dignified manner. In the last moments of his life, he defines his death as a consequence of his fight, as if he was in control of his life until the very end. Mathilde, like her ancestor, makes Julien's decapitated head the center of a romantic cult. Mme de Rênal dies three days later.


At the beginning of the novel, Julien is described this way:

He was a young man of eighteen to nineteen years old, and of puny appearance, with irregular but delicate features, and an aquiline nose. The big black eyes which betokened in their tranquil moments a temperament at once fiery and reflective were at the present moment animated by an expression of the most ferocious hate. Dark chestnut hair, which came low down over his brow, made his forehead appear small and gave him a sinister look during his angry moods. It is doubtful if any face out of all the innumerable varieties of the human physiognomy was ever distinguished by a more arresting individuality. A supple well-knit figure, indicated agility rather than strength. His air of extreme pensiveness and his great pallor had given his father the idea that he would not live, or that if he did, it would only be to be a burden to his family. The butt of the whole house, he hated his brothers and his father. He was regularly beaten in the Sunday sports in the public square.

The inspirations behind the character[edit]

Antoine Berthet[edit]

The most obvious inspiration is Antoine Berthet, the real-life perpetrator of a scandalous crime[clarification needed], which heavily inspired the general intrigue in Stendhal's novel.[1]


Julien Sorel himself links his name to that of Louis Jenrel, a criminal whose extract in his journal talks of execution, seeing in it his inevitable, predestined tragic fate.[2] The link is strengthened by the fact Louis Jenrel and Julien Sorel are exact anagrams.[3]


Julien Sorel has been interpreted by :


  1. ^ Affaire Berthet dans Au cœur du Rouge : l'affaire Lafargue et Le Rouge et le Noir, Claude Liprandi éditions du Grand Chêne, Lausanne 1961, p.160 et suivantes
  2. ^ Georges Kliebenstein questionne « l'écho onomastique Louis Jenrel/Julien Sorel » dans Enquête en Armancie Université de Grenoble 2005, page 33
  3. ^ « En réalité Louis Jenrel est l'anagramme exacte de son nom » La fabrique des héros Daniel Fabre, éd. Maison des sciences de l'homme, 1998, page 289
  • Benjamin Aubry, « Guyétand, épigone de Voltaire ? » in La Gazette des Délices p. 8) 2004 [1]
  • « Julien Sorel », Dictionnaire des personnages (Laffont-Bompiani).
  • « Julien Sorel et Jean-Jacques Rousseau » [2]
  • Julien Sorel et Fabrice del Dongo - héros romantiques ? by Petra Janková, Université d'Ostrava - Faculté des lettres, 1999
  • notes de cours [3]
  • Stendhal, sociologue d'une certaine lutte des classes - Université de Liège [4]
  • Le Rouge et le Noir A French website entirely dedicated to The Red and the Black