Julien Sorel is a man of great ambition. He is a carpenter's son, but longs to distinguish himself among the upper classes, like his hero Napoleon once did. Napoleon's route--the military--is no longer available to him in 1830, but perhaps a life of distinction in the clergy will be equally good. Like all egoists, the endgame matters little; while he would have preferred the red coat the black will do. And like all social climbers, he harbors a deep and bitter antipathy toward the social classes through which he wants to rise.
At the very beginning of the novel he manages to procure a job as a tutor for the children of the mayor, M. de Renal, based on the merit of having memorized the entire Latin New Testament. But Julien has no religious sentiment; he cultivates what he calls hypocrisy, an outward expression of piety and orthodoxy that belies his disgust. And yet, Julien is a poor hypocrite: his education is too limited, and he is too impulsive. When he begins to suspect that M. de Renal's wife has fallen in love with him, he considers it his "duty" to seduce her--a Napoleonic conquest--but, in a manner not unlike the way that a Catholic sacrament transmutes the heart, his outward actions of affection compel him too toward love. The principle struggle of The Red and the Black is the surface vs. the interior, and despite Julien's cultivation of hypocrisy this struggle affects him most strongly because his rivals in the nobility have little of his inward depth. He permits himself to internalize such frauds, as when his friends try to legitimize his newfound wealth by spreading a rumor of noble parentage:
Could it really be possible, he wondered, that I might be the natural son of some great lord driven into exile in our mountains by the terrible Napoleon? This idea seemed less improbable to him with every passing moment... My hatred for my father would be proof of it... I shouldn't be a monster anymore!
The Red and the Black, strangely, offers two iterations of the same story: After being forced to leave Mme. de Renal, Julien is hired as a secretary to a Parisian nobleman, M. de la Mole, whose daughter Mathilde becomes Julien's mistress. Such repetition allows us to see clearly how Julien grows, and becomes more adept at playing the games of the upper class, but his rage grows with him. When, for a second time, it becomes clear to Julien that society will not suffer both his ambition and his love, he rejects society in an act of shocking violence.
I won't spoil anything, but I will say that I was impressed with the simple admiration with which Stendhal treats Julien's actions. They are an anachronism, Napoleonic in their way, and they are strangely redemptive. Julien refuses to play a rigged game, and as such he frees himself from time, and from society. By banishing his hypocrisy, he is freed unto himself.
Two things frustrated me about The Red and the Black: The first is that it is replete with very topical references to French politics of 1830, and the appendix in the back is not very illuminating. The second is that Julien is remarkably fickle, and much of the second book is consumed by Julien falling in and out of love with Mathilde, who alternately falls in and out love with him. A sense of absurdity redeems this, though, and I admit that it seems to accurately map our propensity to change our minds about love. The Red and the Black is called the first psychological novel, and its depiction of Julien's inward thoughts is especially fine, including what I would call an early form of stream-of-consciousness. That psychological detail is what makes the novel so rewarding, and I will concede that when Julien is at his most frustrating, he is at his most human.