Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle)

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STENDHAL (MARIE-HENRI BEYLE) (1783–1842), French novelist.

Stendhal was the pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle, a major author and minor bureaucrat, whose life spanned the turbulent period from the French Revolution to the July Monarchy, and whose writing helped mark the advent of both Romanticism and realism in French literature.

Born in 1783 in Grenoble, the young Beyle, an ardent republican, found himself at odds with his conservative bourgeois family from an early age. Arriving in Paris in 1799, on the eve of Napoleon's coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (9 November), he renounced his plans to study mathematics at the École Polytechnique in order to serve as a clerk at the Ministry of War, headed by his cousin Pierre Daru. Following Napoleon from his triumphant crossing of the Alps to his disastrous retreat from Moscow, he began to write in earnest when Waterloo left him unemployed. After a seven-year sojourn in Milan, he spent most of the 1820s in Paris, where he published his first novels. With a liberal government once again in power after the Revolution of 1830, he secured a post as consul to the small Italian city of Civitavecchia, which provided him with the leisure, and secure income, necessary for his writing. He died in 1842 in Paris from an attack of apoplexy.

Stendhal tried a number of genres and subjects before turning to the novel. A lifelong music lover, he wrote first about his favorite composers—Vies de Haydn, de Mozart et de Métastase (1815; Lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Metastasio), Vie de Rossini (1823; Life of Rossini)—borrowing heavily from Italian sources, as he did in his Histoire de la peinture en Italie (1817; History of Painting in Italy). Stendhal also tried his hand at political biography, authoring two histories of Napoleon—Vie de Napoléon (1817; Life of Napoleon) and Mémoires sur Napoléon (1837; Memoirs of Napoleon)—as well as at politically inflected travel writing—Rome, Naples et Florence (1817; Rome, Naples, and Florence) and Promenades dans Rome (1829; Walks in Rome). Throughout his early career, however, he longed to write plays and prepared for the task by falling in love with a series of actresses and going to the theater as much as possible. His Racine et Shakespeare (Racine and Shakespeare), published in two parts (1823 and 1825), called for a new kind of historical drama as a way to confront contemporary political divisions. His rejection of the strictures of French classicism in favor of a more realistic form of theatrical historical representation, modeled on the English master, served as a rallying cry for the young generation of French Romantics.

By the time Victor Hugo's historical drama Hernani (1830) consecrated many elements of his vision, however, Stendhal had shifted his ambitions from theater to the novel. Behind this shift lay a recognition that with the decline of aristocratic culture in the nineteenth century, the novel had replaced the comedy as the most potent tool for social critique. While his early novel Armance (1827) had focused on an aristocratic hero, Le Rouge et le Noir (1830; The Red and the Black), based on a true story, depicts the social ascent of a provincial miller's son, Julien Sorel, through hypocrisy and seduction and his eventual demise on the scaffold just as he is about to secure an aristocratic title. Denounced by contemporaries as immoral, the novel would later be celebrated as a founding monument of literary realism because of its psychological penetration and analysis of the political and social faultlines of post-Revolutionary France. In his later masterpiece, La Chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma), Stendhal projects his critique of French politics and society onto a fictionalized Italian court. Dictated in a mere fifty-two days, the novel depicts the fate of a hero, Fabrice del Dongo, bred on Romantic dreams who fails to master a more prosaic present. The modernity of Stendhal's fiction lies not only in the way it represents the psychological and social conflicts faced by modern subjects, but also in its excision of the kind of picturesque description favored by his contemporaries, Walter Scott and Honoré de Balzac.

Along with two unfinished novels—Lamiel and Lucien Leuwen—he left two unfinished autobiographies: Vie de Henry Brulard (The Life of Henry Brulard, published in 1890) and Souvenirs d'égotisme (Memoirs of an Egoist, published in 1892). Stendhal emerges from these latter texts as a figure at war with the conventions, hypocrisy, and stupidity of the world around him. Indeed, critics and admirers have distilled a "philosophy of revolt" (in the words of Michel Crouzet) from Stendhal's life and work, which they have labeled "Beylism." Stendhal knew that his unflinching honesty and spare style would fail to please his contemporaries. He continually looked forward to finding readers in 1880, 1935, or 2000, while dedicating his novels to the "Happy Few"—a select coterie of kindred souls that has never ceased to grow.

See alsoBalzac, Honoréde; France; Hugo, Victor; Realism and Naturalism; Romanticism.


Barbéris, Pierre. Sur Stendhal. Paris, 1982

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Crouzet, Michel. Nature et société chez Stendhal: la révolte romantique. Lille, 1985.

Kelly, Dorothy. Fictional Genders: Role and Representation in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative. Lincoln, Neb., 1989.

Petrey, Sandy. Realism and Revolution: Balzac, Stendhal, Zola and the Performances of History. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.

Samuels, Maurice. The Spectacular Past: Popular History and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century France. Ithaca, N.Y., 2004.

Maurice Samuels