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  • A Semiotic Analysis of the Use of Colors in Stendhalian and Other Novels
  • James T. Day
Charlotte Peeples King . A Semiotic Analysis of the Use of Colors in Stendhalian and Other Novels. Studies in French Literature, Vol. 60. Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. v + 335 pp.

Taking note of Stendhal's keen interest in painting, Charlotte Peeples King finds in the author of Le Rouge et le Noira kind of archetypal color-coding that suffuses his novels and those of writers after him. Whether following convention or his own connotative system, she argues, Stendhal consistently links various colors to specific themes, [End Page 130]attitudes, or moods. Red, associated with passion and revolutionary impulses, and black, suggesting despair and death, are the most important in his rich palette of colors. Green, a kind of lesser black, may signal agitation or disorder. Professor King has undertaken an ambitious project that covers thousands of pages of literary works. In addition to most of Stendhal's fiction, she surveys two novels by Zola, two by Beauvoir, and one by Claude Mauriac. Despite scholarly labors visibly executed with Stendhalian energy, however, King's study proves less than satisfying.

One reason for this is King's decision to incorporate into her work large chunks of an unpublished 1979 dissertation, Ada M. Vilar de Kerkhoff's "Problèmes de Discours Narratif Romanesque: Éléments de Titrologie" (Middlebury College). Kerkhoff's perspective, methods, and terminology do not consistently support King's critical focus and they sometimes cause the 2002 study to seem dated. A second problem is that instead of incisive summaries of important points made by Kerkhoff and other sources, King relies on overlong quotations and lengthy paraphrases, often awkward, of texts written in French. Critical authority is further eroded by errors of all kinds: text alignment, spacing, punctuation, spelling, word usage, syntax, bibliography management, transcription of quotations, and translation from the French. In this study based on close reading, one finds an unsettling number of mistranscribed names: Vanina Vanini is regularly split by a comma; Matilde Dembowski earns an "r" (Dembrowski); Madame de Rênal is recircumflexed (Renâl); Théophile Gautier garners an "h" (Gauthier); Madeleine Simons becomes Marguérite (98), while C. W. Thompson is rebaptized Michael (111). King provides translations into English of all 774 French passages quoted in the book. Some of these renderings are likely to undermine her readers' confidence: for instance, "C'est à juste titre" (iii), with the meaning "and rightly so," is translated "It is a correct title" (250).

Le Rouge et le Noirintroduces Julien Sorel as he is being chastised in the sawmill by his rough-mannered father. Stendhal soon provides descriptive detail on his bleeding hero: "Il avait les joues pourpres et les yeux baissés. C'était un petit jeune homme de dix-huit à dix-neuf ans, faible en apparence [. . .]." Inexplicably, King misreads the first of these sentences as applying to Julien's father (116). Thus she reaches the improbable conclusion that "[t]he father's noble tendencies, as [End Page 131]derived from the connotations of blue in purple ( pourpre)" impede communication between old Sorel and Julien, who is marked by red and black: dark eyes and a fiery temperament (116). For most readers of this novel, Julien's father has no noble tendencies. Father and son do indeed exist on separate planes, as King suggests, but it takes a misreading to have this relation validated by a scheme of color-coding. One senses a bit of squeezing to get colors to fit into the desired signifying system.

Context, consequently, does not always receive adequate attention. Julien, meditating in his prison cell near the end of the novel, finds that his inadequate understanding of life, death, and eternity gives him something in common with the denizens of an imagined anthill that is destroyed by the boot of a hunter running after the prey he has just shot. Although Stendhal makes the key issue of incomprehension explicit with his humorous observation that "[l]es plus philosophes des fourmis ne pourront jamais comprendre" the "rougeâtre" gunshot or the black boot, King finds great significance in this final conjunction of red...


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