The misreading and misleading of innocence in a corrupt world
My Relation to the Text
The French author Henri Marie Beyle, usually known throughout his fictional writings as Stendhal, is often called one of the founding fathers of the novel. The Charterhouse of Parma is widely considered to be this French author's masterpiece. Although Stendhal is more famous for his tale of the rise and fall of the adolescent Julian Sorrel, in his earlier novel called The Red and the Black, many critics consider the novel The Charterhouse of Parma to be his most sweeping and compelling work, a tale of military prowess and court intrigue in Napoleonic France.
The first story 'arc' of The Charterhouse of Parma chronicles the exploits of Fabrizio del Dongo, a young aristocrat so determined to fight and so entranced by the example of Napoleon, he hardly cares what side he fights on during the battles that ended Napoleon's first career as a general. Like many young people, Fabrizio is looking for a direction in his life, a philosophy to shape and guide him, something to live for. If he were born in America during the 1960's, Fabrizio would no doubt be protesting the Vietnam war -- but as he is an ardent young aristocrat of 19th century France, he joins Napoleon's army just before the Battle of Waterloo.
He does so do much to advance his own personal or familiar interests or even out of intellectual conviction, but more because of the emotional attraction of the Napoleonic cause, because Napoleon seems so noble to him, in his starry adolescent eyes, as a leader of men. Before he actually sees combat, war seems like a very attractive thing to this young man. His experiences provide a powerful reminder of how, though Napoleon is often the subject of parody today as a small, hyperbolic Frenchman, and other leaders have overtaken Napoleon's persona in terms of cultural meaning and relevance, historically, in terms of charisma, in his day Napoleon was a political celebrity as well as an historical actor and military leader.
However, the young Italian nobleman Fabrizio is wholly unlike his hero Napoleon (and unlike Stendhal's earlier, conniving hero Julian Sorrel for that matter.) Napoleon was a man who controlled his fate; rising from obscurity to greatness through is military prowess and talent as a leader. Fabrizio is 'to the manor born' but is largely controlled and buffeted by fate and by the will and political machinations of others. As actors, the book's most willful and dominant characters are Fabrizio's aunt, the Duchess of Sanseverina, and her lover Count Mosca. They try to further Fabrizio's political career at in the court of Parma merely so they can control him.
At times, Fabrizio's innocence and lack of guile can frustrate the modern reader, causing him or her to identify more with the more knowing and conniving characters of the text. Yet to his credit, Stendhal as an author never renders Fabrizio's early romanticism and youthful vigor and enthusiasm with a sentimental gloss. Fabrizio is gullible and without internal and intellectual defenses against those who would use him and his high birth for political purposes, but he is not morally superior to those around him, for his ability to be used as a pawn, nor for his strong romantic feelings for the beautiful Clelia, later in the book. If anything, Fabrizio's career in court indicates to the reader that it is possible to be good and used for ill purposes, a fact that is early on illustrated in the text during Fabrizio's military career, where he throws himself into the fray of bloodshed because of his idealism and the false images of war that his culture and family have inculcated him in.
Interpretation of select quotations from the text
Stendhal has often been called a master of realism, long before realism was an integral part of the novelistic tradition and literary fashion. Some of the most compelling passages, visually speaking, come early on in the novel, when the naive, young and foolish Julian enters into military service with an idealistic view of what soldiering entails.
A bullet, entering on one side of the nose, had come out by the opposite temple, and disfigured the corpse in a hideous fashion, leaving it with one eye still open. "Get off your horse then, lad, said the cantiniere, "and give him a shake of the hand, and see if he'll return it."
Without hesitating, although almost ready to give up the ghost from disgust, Fabrizio flung himself off his horse and taking the hand of the corpse gave it a vigorous shake. Then he stood still as though no life was left in him. He did not feel he had the strength to mount his horse again. What most particularly horrified him was that still open eye. The vivandiere will think me a coward,' he said to himself bitterly
You shall fight tomorrow my boy," she said at length
On the contrary I want to start fighting at once," said our hero in a somber tone that seemed to the vivandiere to auger well. (Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma, 55)
The brutality of the war is vividly conveyed to the reader in this passage. The physical horror of war upon the human body is dramatically depicted in the horror of the physical violence upon this anonymous human, dead body. The body is ravaged with a bullet to the brain, the organ that makes a human being most human. Yet the corpse still stares at the young man, as it were still alive.
Fabrizio ironically referred to as 'the hero' of the tale in the passage, although his behavior is anything but heroic. Of course, Fabrizio believes his behavior is, or at least, that it is more heroic to react to a corpse without horror or pity, because it is the dead body of 'the enemy' in war. Although Fabrizio is physically sickened and weakened by the sight of this wartime horror, he does not allow himself to feel compassion towards the dead man. Fabrizio's main concern is wholly selfish, to look like a brave solder in front of the cantiniere and the vivandiere.
The lack of humanity within the cantiniere as a man, despite the aristocratic Fabrizio's idealization of this coarse individual, is evidenced by his insistence that the young aspiring shoulder shake the hand of the mutilated body. When Fabrizio does, the female camp follower considers this praiseworthy, rather than bad. Of course, this woman is not all bad, because her profession comes out of necessity, unlike the soldiering of the cantiniere, rather than choice -- she does help Fabrizio survive in a kind manner, but the calcification of war upon the human spirit for Stendhal is still evident in the mannerisms of both individuals.
The lack of morals in war is not relegated solely to the battlefield for the author. Rather it is paralleled, if not intensified in the court of Parma, only slightly more under wraps. Consider the counseling received by Fabrizio, after he is no longer a soldier.
Monsignor Landriani, a man of superior intellect, a scholar of the first rank, has only one weakness: he likes to be loved. Therefore, seem to grow more affectionate as you look at him. And on your third visit, show you love for him outright. This, added to your birth, will make him adore you at once. Show no sigh of surprise if he accompanies you to the head of the stairs, look as if you were accustomed to such manners; he is a man who was born on his knees before the nobility. For the rest be simple, behave like the apostles -- no cleverness, no brilliance, no quick repartee. If you don't startle him in any way, he will find your company pleasant. Bear in mind that it must be of his own accord that he makes you his Vicar-General. (145)
One can see by this advice that the manners of how to behave at court are just as formalized as how to behave in the field of battle and to survive as a solider, and the schooling of Fabrizio, the guileless, faceless and almost characterless innocent becomes a kind of revealing 'test' for the reader as to the character of the individual and their environment, when they talk to him. The guile and cunning in this advice is, in its own way, just as brutal as the advice given to the young man when he functioned as a solder.
Thus, it is clear from such manuals of how to live that Fabrizio must always dissemble, even dissemble a kind of persona that is ironically close to his true self, that of a wide eyed innocent with no cleverness. Even towards the end of the novel, truth and goodness, as well as dissembling is misread
From that moment the immense favor that Fabrizio had enjoyed in the Archbishop's Palace was at…