The Charterhouse of Parma – A Novel by Stendhal

February 25th, 2013

Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, wrote his last novelistic masterpiece, ”The Charterhouse of Parma”, in 1839. It has been called one of the most influential ever written novels. Read on to learn why.

Stendhal is the best-known pen name of French writer, Marie-Henri Beyle. Stendhal lived between 1783 and 1842, and had quite an exciting life. He was a member of Napoleon’s army and enjoyed a good deal of fame and success, both as a writer and as a politician, in the later part of his life. Among Stendhal’s works were a number of travel guides to European destinations, non-fiction works on art and other topics, and memoirs. He is most famous, however, for his novels. ‘The Red and the Black’ and ”The Charterhouse of Parma” are the classics that Stendhal is remembered for.

‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ is Stendhal’s last novel. Because Stendhal was suffering from physical illness, he dictated the novel rather than writing it in his own hand. Perhaps because he feared not having enough time to finish it, Stendhal completed the novel very quickly, over a span of less than 3 months. The author admitted that, due to the rapid pace of writing, the plot was not as well-drawn as it might have been. Nevertheless, ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ has frequently been cited as one of the most influential literary works in history. The novel was published in 1839, a few years before Stendhal’s death.

‘The Charthouse of Parma’ (known as ‘La Chartreuse de Parme’ in French) is a work of realist fiction, meaning that it depicts characters and events in a realistic fashion, rather than attempting to artificially create romantic, tragic, or moralistic scenarios. Indeed, Stendhal wrote a prologue to the book which indirectly cautions the reader to accept the book’s events as they are and not to draw moral conclusions from them. This approach to literature closely resembles the work of French novelist, Andr? Gide who expressed great admiration for Stendhal’s works.

Famously, Honore Balzac, who was a contemporary of Stendhal, praised ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ as the most important novel of the age. Another pioneer of realist literature, Balzac’s own works resemble ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ to a certain extent. For example, both authors were concerned with creating vivid portraits of the psychologies and mannerisms of their characters.

To broadly summarize the plot of ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’, one could say that the book is about the absurdity of nobility and political intrigue after the Age of Enlightenment and the Napoleonic era, when people were beginning to lose respect for aristocracy and its concerns. The novel follows Fabrizio (or Fabrizio del Dongo/Fabrice) and his aunt Gina as they pursue their own love affairs and engage in political scheming in the court of Parma. In addition, the beginning of ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ contains a famous description of the Battle of Waterloo, which is said to have influenced the Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy.

A distinguishing feature of Stendhal’s novel, which is missing from many similarly detailed novels of realism, is its lightheartedness and humor. ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ manages to craft complex characters without ever taking those characters too seriously. In addition, many of the minor characters, like Rassi and Ferrante, are effectively caricatures. Nevertheless, Stendhal accomplished this caricature without sacrificing the realism that made the novel so influential.

These days, Stendhal’s popularity lags somewhat behind that of novelists like Balzac and Tolstoy. The fact that ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ produced such an effect on these more famous writers and had such an influence on their works should be enough to convince us that Stendhal deserved to be just as deeply revered.

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