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Early in the story, Julien Sorel realistically observes that under the Bourbon restoration it is impossible for a man of his plebeian social class to distinguish himself in the army (as he might have done under Napoleon), hence only a church career offers social advancement and glory.In complete editions, the first book ("Livre premier," ending after Chapter XXX) concludes with the quotation "To the Happy Few," a dedication that refers to The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, parts of which he had memorized in the course of teaching himself English.After he is guillotined, Mathilde de la Mole reenacts the cherished 16th-century French tale of Queen Margot, who visited her dead lover, Joseph Boniface de La Mole, to kiss the lips of his severed head.Mathilde makes a shrine of Julien's tomb in the Italian fashion.At great emotional cost, Julien feigns indifference to Mathilde, provoking her jealousy with a sheaf of love-letters meant to woo Madame de Fervaques, a widow in the social circle of the de la Mole family.Consequently, Mathilde sincerely falls in love with Julien, eventually revealing to him that she carries his child; despite this, whilst he is on diplomatic mission in England, she becomes officially engaged to Monsieur de Croisenois, an amiable, rich young man, heir to a duchy.

The initially cynical seminary director, the Abbé Pirard, likes Julien and becomes his protector.

It chronicles the attempts of a provincial young man to rise socially beyond his modest upbringing through a combination of talent, hard work, deception, and hypocrisy. The novel’s full title, Le Rouge et le Noir: Chronique du XIX indicates its twofold literary purpose as both a psychological portrait of the romantic protagonist, Julien Sorel, and an analytic, sociological satire of the French social order under the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30).

In English, Le Rouge et le Noir is variously translated as Red and Black, Scarlet and Black, and The Red and the Black, without the subtitle.

At first, he finds her unattractive, but his interest is piqued by her attentions and the admiration she inspires in others; twice, she seduces and rejects him, leaving him in a miasma of despair, self-doubt, and happiness (for having won her over her aristocratic suitors).

Only during his secret mission does he gain the key to winning her affections: a cynical jeu d’amour (game of love) taught to him by Prince Korasoff, a Russian man-of-the-world.

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