Moliere’s 17th-century comedy Tartuffe is about the character Tartuffe who ensconces himself into Orgon’s house as a deeply religious man and then seduces Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Since its first stage debut in 1664, the word tartuffe has come to symbolize hypocrisy, particularly in those who use religious doctrine as a social or political tool to get what they want.
It could be argued that the hero of Stendhal’s 1830 novel, The Red and the Black, Julien Sorel, is a twitchy little scheming tartuffe in his own right. And a very successful one indeed, until the end of the novel, that is, when his head rolls from the guillotine. His second mistress, Mathilde-a sort of modern day self-absorbed drama queen with gorgeous blue eyes and other curvaceous attributes, steals Julien’s severed head and buries it. His first mistress, the married M. de Renal, dies within three days of Julien’s death. This ending surely will be one of the subjects of the seminar in soggy Paris beginning on Monday evening.
Despite some of the psychological redundancy and overkill that Stendhal infuses into the young priest Julien, who impresses his employers with his photographic memory of the Bible and his ability to speak in Latin, I am willing to consider the many themes intended for us, Stendhal’s readers. I am always ready to consider.
To that point, each of us brings our life experience to the table when discussing a novel. Did we achieve our societal goals? Our materialistic goals? Do we agree with the politics of the time? Are we in business-like marriages? Are we religious? Would we like to take the arm of someone who isn’t our spouse and sneak away into a garden for a lot of fun? In our discussions, we also bring our secrets, which remain secret in such discussions, but which often influence our reactions to the plot, the characters, and the takeaway.
Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is a piece of historical fiction about so many things–the political landscape of post-Napoleonic France between 1815-1830, the attempts at upward mobility by the young hero, a liberal son of a country carpenter, the many tartuffes that pervade French society at the time (and of course today as well) , the role of 19th-century French women and the art (or lack thereof) of seduction, and infidelity.
I wonder how many tartuffes will be around the table?