Le Rouge et Le Noir introduces us to a little hero of humble origins living in an obscure provincial town in France in the years after the fall of Napoleon. Julien Sorel, a clever boy who enjoys reading books, is scorned by his practical, down-to-earth father and older brothers (we hear nothing of his mother, who appears to be absent). In this sense he starts as a little dreamer, his head apparently in the clouds, who is scorned and rejected by his unimaginative family.
But Sorel is not like the traditional folk tale hero. He is profoundly ambitious. His dreams are of winning earthly glory, like his hero Napoleon, and in general his attitude towards the rest of the world is one of contempt. As he nears adult life, he goes out from home in a first, limited way, by having an affair with an older married woman in the town where they live, but eventually he contemptuously rejects her. He then goes off to a seminary for prospective priests, but only because he has calculated that the Church is the best stepping stone for a poor boy to further his worldy ambitions. Again this attitude towards his fellow students is one of heartless scorn.
Eventually Sorel travels to the centre of all his ambitions, the great city of Paris, where he wins the post of private secretary to the magnificent Marquis de la Mole, the most powerful man in France. He unscrupulously worms his way into the heart of his employer’s beautiful daughter Mathilde (whom he enjoys humiliating sexually) and seems on the verge of marrying her and succeeding to the ‘kingdom’ of immense power and riches. But at the last moment disaster strikes. The unhappy mistress he had discarded years before comes back into his life, obsessed with her desire for revenge. In a desperate bid to hold onto his new prospects, he attempts to murder her – and ends up, not at the altar with his ‘Princess’, but disgraced an on the guillotine.
Obviously there is a huge difference between the heartless, self – seeking Sorel and the essentially good-hearted heroes and heroines we have been looking at (who are so specifically contrasted with the self-seeking dark figures who are their main antagonists and rivals). When Sorel comes into any kind of opposition to others in his story, it is they who become victims of his egotism rather than the other way around. He himself is indeed a kind of ‘monster’. Yet, outwardly, the ultimate goal he is seeking is remarkably similar to that central symbolic goal we see in other stories. What he aspires to is union with the ‘beloved other’ and succession to a position of great power: except that he is after these things only as a means to egotistical gratification, as expressions of his desire for power over others. And in the end his drive for that goal is not just frustrated; it brings about his complete destruction.