Reality itself is sufficient for our dreams.

from The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir nonfiction ~15 min read

It is only necessary to reverse this image to discover what Stendhal asks of women: first, not to fall prey to the traps of seriousness; because the supposedly important things are out of their reach, women risk alienating themselves in them less than men; they have a better chance of preserving this natural side, this naïveté, this generosity that Stendhal places higher than any other merit; what he appreciates in them is what we would call today their authenticity: that is the common trait of all the women he loved or invented with love; all are free and true beings. For some, their freedom is strikingly visible: Angela Pietragrua, “sublime whore, Italian style, à la Lucrezia Borgia,” and Mme Azur, “whore à la du Barry … one of the least doll-like French women that I have met,” oppose social custom openly. Lamiel laughs at conventions, customs, and laws; Sanseverina throws herself ardently into the intrigue and does not stop at crime. Others rise above the vulgar through the vigor of their minds: like Menta or Mathilde de la Mole, who criticizes, denigrates, and scorns the society that surrounds her and wants to stand apart from it. For others, freedom takes a wholly negative form; what is remarkable in Mme de Chasteller is her indifference to everything secondary; subjected to her father’s will and even his opinions, she still manages to contest bourgeois values by means of the indifference she is criticized for as childish, and that is the source of her carefree gaiety; Clélia Conti also stands apart by her reserve; balls and other traditional entertainments for girls leave her cold; she always seems distant “either out of scorn for what surrounds her or out of regret for some missing chimera”; she judges the world, she takes offense at its indignities. Mme de Rênal is the one whose soul’s independence is the most deeply hidden; she herself does not know she is not really resigned to her lot; her extreme delicacy and acute sensitivity show her repugnance for her milieu’s vulgarity; she is without hypocrisy; she has kept a generous heart, capable of violent emotions, and she has the taste for happiness; the fire that smolders barely gives off any heat, but only a breath is needed for it to be fully kindled. These women are, simply, living; they know the source of real values is not in exterior things but in the heart; that is what makes the charm of the world they inhabit: they chase away boredom merely by being present with their dreams, desires, pleasures, emotions, and inventions. Sanseverina, that “active soul,” dreads boredom more than death. Stagnating in boredom “is preventing one from dying, she said, it is not living”; she is “always totally involved in something, always active, always gay.” Foolhardy, childish, or deep, gay or serious, reckless or secretive, they all refuse the heavy sleep in which humanity sinks. And these women who have been able to preserve their freedom, albeit unfulfilled, will rise up by passion to heroism as soon as they meet an object worthy of them; their force of soul and their energy attest to the fierce purity of total commitment.

But freedom alone would not be sufficient to endow them with so many romantic attractions: a pure freedom inspires esteem but not emotion“; what is touching is their effort to “accomplish themselves in spite of the obstacles that beleaguer them; it creates even more pathos in women because the struggle is more difficult. The victory over exterior constraints is sufficient to enchant Stendhal; in Chroniques italiennes (Three Italian Chronicles) he cloisters his heroines in remote convents, he locks them up in a jealous spouse’s palace: they have to invent a thousand tricks to meet their lovers; secret doors, rope ladders, bloody chests, kidnappings, sequestrations, and assassinations, the unleashing of passion and disobedience is served by an ingenuity in which all the mind’s resources are displayed; death and the threat of tortures highlight even more the daringness of the deranged souls he depicts. Even in his more mature work, Stendhal remains sympathetic to this external expression of the romantic: it is the manifestation of the one born from the heart; they cannot be distinguished from each other just as a mouth cannot be separated from its smile. Clélia invents love anew by inventing the alphabet that allows her to correspond with Fabrice; Sanseverina is described to us as “a soul always sincere who never acts with caution, who totally gives herself over to the impression of the moment”; it is when she schemes, when she poisons the prince and floods Parma, that this soul is revealed to us: she is no other than the sublime and mad escapade that she has chosen to live. The ladder that Mathilde de la Mole leans against her window is much more than a prop: her proud recklessness, her penchant for the extraordinary, and her provocative courage take a tangible form. The qualities of these souls would not be revealed were they not surrounded by enemies: prison walls, a lord’s will, and a family’s harshness.

But the most difficult constraints to overcome are those that one finds in oneself: then the adventure of freedom is the most uncertain, the most poignant, and the most piquant. Clearly, the more often Stendhal’s heroines are prisoners, the greater his sympathy for them. Yes, he enjoys whores—sublime or not—who have once and for all trampled on the conventions; but he cherishes Métilde more tenderly, restrained by her scruples and modesty. Lucien Leuwen is happy when near Mme d’Hocquincourt, that liberated person: but it is Mme de Chasteller, chaste, reserved, and hesitant, that he loves passionately; Fabrice admires the undivided soul of Sanseverina that stops at nothing; but he prefers Clélia, and it is the young girl who wins his heart. And Mme de Rênal, bound by her pride, her prejudices, and her ignorance, is perhaps the most astonishing of all the women Stendhal created. He readily places his heroines in the provinces, in a confined milieu, under the authority of a husband or a foolish father; it pleases him that they are uneducated and even full of false ideas. Mme de Rênal and Mme de Chasteller are both obstinately legitimist; the former is a timid mind and without experience, the latter is a brilliant intelligence, but she underestimates its worth; they are therefore not responsible for their errors, but they are the victims of them as much as of institutions and social customs; and it is from error that romance springs forth, as poetry is born from failure. A lucid mind that decides on its actions in full knowledge is approved or blamed coldly, whereas the courage and ruses of a generous heart seeking its way in the shadows are admired with fear, pity, irony, or love. It is because women are mystified that useless and charming qualities such as their modesty, pride, and extreme delicacy flourish; in one sense, these are defects: they lead to lies, susceptibilities, and anger, but they can be explained by the situation in which women are placed; it leads them to take pride in little things or at least in “things determined by feeling” because all the “supposedly important” objects are out of their reach; their modesty results from the dependence they suffer: because it is forbidden to them to show their worth in action, it is their very being that they put in question; it seems to them that the other’s consciousness, and particularly that of their lover, reveals them in their truth: they are afraid, they try to escape it; in their evasions, their hesitations, their revolts, and even their lies, an authentic concern for worth is expressed; that is what makes them respectable; but it is expressed awkwardly, even with bad faith, and that makes them touching and even discreetly comic. When freedom is hoist by its own petard and cheats on itself, it is at the most deeply human and so in Stendhal’s eyes at its most endearing. Stendhal’s women are imbued with pathos when their hearts pose unexpected problems for them: no outside law, recipe, reasoning, or example can then guide them; they have to decide alone: this abandon is the extreme moment of freedom. Clélia is brought up with liberal ideas, she is lucid and reasonable: but learned opinions, whether right or wrong, are of no help in a moral conflict; Mme de Rênal loves Julien in spite of his morality, Clélia saves Fabrice in spite of herself: in both cases there is the same surpassing of all accepted values. This daring is what exalts Stendhal; but it is even more moving because it barely dares to declare itself: it is all the more natural, spontaneous, and authentic. In Mme de Rênal, boldness is hidden by innocence: because she does not know love, she does not recognize it and yields to it without resistance; one could say that having lived in darkness, she is defenseless against the violent light of passion; she welcomes it, blinded, even against God, against hell; when this fire goes out, she falls back in the shadows that husbands and priests govern; she does not trust her own judgment, but the evidence overwhelms her; as soon as she sees Julien again, she once more unburdens her soul to him; her remorse and the letter her confessor wrests from her show the distance this ardent and sincere soul had to span to tear herself away from the prison society enclosed her in and accede to the heaven of happiness. The conflict is more conscious for Clélia; she hesitates between loyalty to her father and pity inspired by love; she is searching for a rationale; the triumph of the values in which Stendhal believes is all the more striking to him in that this triumph is experienced as a defeat by the victims of a hypocritical civilization; and he delights in seeing them use ruses and bad faith to make the truth of passion and happiness prevail against the lies in which they believe: Clélia, promising the Madonna to no longer see Fabrice, and accepting his kisses and his embraces for two years, providing she closes her eyes, is both laughable and heartbreaking. Stendhal considers Mme de Chasteller’s hesitations and Mathilde de la Mole’s inconsistencies with the same tender irony; so many detours, changes of mind, scruples, victories, and hidden defeats in order to reach simple and legitimate ends is for him the most delightful of comedies; there is drollery in these dramas because the actress is both judge and party, because she is her own dupe, and because she burdens herself with complicated paths where a decree would suffice for the Gordian knot to be cut; but they nonetheless show the most respectable concern that could torture a noble soul: she wants to remain worthy of her own esteem; she places her own approbation higher than that of others, and thus she realizes herself as an absolute. These solitary debates without reverberation have more gravity than a ministerial crisis; when she wonders if she is going to respond to Lucien Leuwen’s love or not, Mme de Chasteller decides for herself and the world: Can one have confidence in others? Can one trust one’s own heart? What is the value of love and human vows? Is it mad or generous to believe and to love? These questions challenge the very meaning of life, that of each and every one. The so-called important man is futile, in fact, because he accepts ready-made justifications of his life, while a passionate and deep woman revises established values at each instant; she knows the constant tension of an unassisted freedom; thus she feels herself in constant danger: she can win or lose everything in a second. It is this risk, accepted with apprehension, that gives her story the color of a heroic adventure. And the stakes are the highest that can be: the very meaning of this existence of which everyone has a share, his only part. Mina de Vanghel’s escapade can seem absurd in one sense; but she brings to it a whole ethic. “Was her life a false calculation? Her happiness lasted eight months. She had too ardent a soul to settle for the real life.” Mathilde de la Mole is less sincere than Clélia or Mme de Chasteller; she orders her acts on the idea she has of herself rather than on the evidence of love and happiness: Is it more arrogant, grander to keep oneself than to lose oneself, to humiliate oneself before one’s beloved than to resist him? She is alone with her doubts, and she risks this self-esteem that is more important to her than life itself. It is the ardent quest for the real reasons to live through the shadows of ignorance, prejudice, and mystifications, in the wavering and feverish light of passion, it is the infinite risk of happiness or death, of grandeur or shame that gives romantic glory to these women’s destinies.

The woman is of course unaware of the seduction she radiates; self-contemplation and playacting are always inauthentic attitudes; by the mere fact of comparing herself to Mme Roland, Mme Grandet proves she does not resemble her; if Mathilde de la Mole continues to be endearing, it is because she gets confused in her playacting and is often prey to her heart just when she thinks she governs it; she moves us insofar as she is not ruled by her will. But the purest of heroines lack consciousness of themselves. Mme de Rênal is unaware of her grace just as Mme de Chasteller is of her intelligence. It is one of the deep joys of the lover with whom the author and the reader identify: he is the witness through whom these secret riches are revealed; the vivacity Mme De Rênal deploys out of everyone’s sight, the “bright wit, changing and deep,” unknown to Mme de Chasteller’s milieu, he alone admires them; and even if others appreciate Sanseverina’s wit, he is the one who penetrates the deepest into her soul. Faced with the woman, the man tastes the pleasure of contemplation; she intoxicates him like a landscape or a painting; she sings in his heart and lights up the sky. This revelation reveals him to himself: one cannot understand women’s delicacy, their sensibilities, and their ardor without developing a delicate, sensitive, and ardent soul oneself; female feelings create a world of nuances and requirements whose discovery enriches the lover: when with Mme de Rênal, Julien becomes someone other than the ambitious man he had decided to be; he chooses himself anew. If the man has only a superficial desire for the woman, he will find seducing her amusing. But it is real love that will transfigure his life. “Love à la Werther opens the soul … to feeling and pleasure in the beautiful in whatever form it takes, even in a hair shirt. It makes happiness attainable even without wealth.” “It is a new aim in life to which everything is connected and that changes the appearance of everything. Love-as-passion throws in man’s eyes all of nature with its sublime aspects as if it were a novelty invented yesterday.” Love shatters daily routine, chases away boredom, the boredom in which Stendhal sees such a deep evil because it is the absence of all the reasons for living or dying; the lover has an aim, and that is enough for each day to become an adventure: what a pleasure for Stendhal to spend three days hidden in Menta’s cellar! Rope ladders and bloody chests represent this taste for the extraordinary in his novels. Love, that is woman, reveals the real ends of existence: beauty, happiness, the freshness of feelings and of the world. It tears man’s soul out and thus gives him possession of it; the lover experiences the same tension, the same risks, as his mistress and feels himself more authentically than during a planned career. When Julien hesitates at the base of the ladder Mathilde has set up, he puts his whole destiny into question: in that very moment, he demonstrates his true worth. It is through women, under their influence, in reaction to their behavior, that Julien, Fabrice, and Lucien learn about the world and themselves. Test, reward, judge, or friend, the woman in Stendhal is really what Hegel was once tempted to make of her: that other consciousness that, in reciprocal recognition, gives to the other subject the same truth it receives from it. The happy couple that recognizes each other in love defies the universe and time; it is sufficient in itself, it realizes the absolute.

But this supposes that woman is not pure alterity: she is subject herself. Stendhal never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destinies. He undertook something rarer and that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character. He does not examine Lamiel as Marivaux does Marianne, or Richardson does Clarissa Harlowe: he shares her destiny as he had shared that of Julien. Precisely because of that, the character of Lamiel is singularly significant, if somewhat theoretical. Stendhal sets up all imaginable obstacles around the girl: she is a peasant, poor, ignorant, and brought up harshly by people imbued with every prejudice; but she eliminates from her path all the moral barriers the day she understands the scope of these little words: “It’s stupid.” Her mind’s freedom enables her to take responsibility for all the movements of her curiosity, her ambition, her gaiety; faced with such a resolute heart, material obstacles cannot fail to decrease; her only problem will be to carve out a destiny worthy of her in a mediocre world. That destiny accomplishes itself in crime and death: but that is also Julien’s lot. There is no place for great souls in society as it is: men and women are in the same boat.

It is remarkable that Stendhal is both so profoundly romantic and so decidedly feminist; feminists are usually rational minds that adopt a universal point of view in all things; but it is not only in the name of freedom in general but also in the name of individual happiness that Stendhal calls for women’s emancipation. Love, he thinks, will have nothing to lose; on the contrary, it will be all the truer that woman, as the equal of man, will be able to understand him more completely. Undoubtedly, some of the qualities one enjoys in woman will disappear: but their value comes from the freedom that is expressed in them and that will show in other guises; and the romantic will not fade out of this world. Two separate beings, placed in different situations, confronting each other in their freedom, and seeking the justification of existence through each other, will always live an adventure full of risks and promises. Stendhal trusts the truth; as soon as one flees it, one dies a living death; but where it shines, so shine beauty, happiness, love, and a joy that carries in it its own justification. That is why he rejects the false poetry of myths as much as the mystifications of seriousness. Human reality is sufficient for him. Woman, according to him, is simply a human being: dreams could not invent anything more intoxicating.

—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. -1