The Red and the Black Background

The Red and the Black Background

Stendhal was already 40-years-old when he published his first novel in 1830. Routinely included among any lists of the greatest novels in world literature today, The Red and the Black was almost immediately ignored or dismissed by readers and critics of the time. Much of the leveraged dismissal of Stendhal’s novel can be traced to an unease with the author’s flouting of audience expectations which had already in relatively short lifespan of the novel’s existence developed into generic conventions. That which was rejected upon publication would, of course, start becoming the convention in another fifty years.

Readers in 1830 had come to expect a novel to read like a non-fictional narrative—which is so many of them contain prefatory material which outlines an often bogus contextual background. Such context is often even less factual that the fictional narrative, but by virtue of being presented separate from the narrative creates the perception of “fact,” with fact being completely disconnected from “truth.”

What readers of novels were not necessarily accustomed as a true portrait of society with its robust sense of contradiction its rough acceptance of pleasant illusions as an acceptable simulation of the truth for the purpose maintaining equilibrium. Stendhal himself expected that it would take until almost the end of the 19th century for the novel as a means of literary expression to reach the point where the rules he broke to write a forge a new construct for the form would become the rule rather than the exception, and this prescience proved almost eerily accurate.

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