The Charterhouse of Parma
'The Charterhouse of Parma' Summary
The Charterhouse of Parma chronicles the adventures of the young Italian nobleman Fabrice del Dongo from his birth in 1798 to his death. Fabrice spends his early years in his family's castle on Lake Como, while most of the rest of the novel is set in a fictionalized Parma (both locations are in modern-day Italy).
The book begins with the French army sweeping into Milan and stirring up the sleepy region of Lombardy, which was allied with Austria. Fabrice grows up surrounded by intrigues and alliances for and against the French — his father the Marchese comically fancies himself a spy for the Viennese. It is broadly hinted at that Fabrice may have actually been fathered by a visiting French lieutenant. The novel's early section describes Fabrice's rather quixotic effort to join Napoleon when the latter returns to France in March 1815 (the Hundred Days). Fabrice at seventeen is idealistic, rather naïve, and speaks poor French. However, he will not be stopped and leaves his home on Lake Como to travel north with false papers. He wanders through France, losing money and horses rapidly. He is imprisoned as a spy, but escapes with the aid of the jailer's wife who develops a fondness towards Fabrice, donning the uniform of a dead French hussar. In his excitement to play the role of a French soldier, he wanders onto the field at the Battle of Waterloo.
Stendhal, a veteran of several Napoleonic campaigns (he was one of the survivors of the retreat from Moscow in 1812), describes this famous battle as a chaotic affair: soldiers gallop one way and then another as bullets plow the fields around them. Fabrice briefly joins the guard of Field Marshal Ney, randomly comes across the man who may be his father (he commandeers Fabrice's horse), shoots one Prussian cavalryman while he and his regiment flee, and is lucky to survive with a serious wound to his leg (inflicted by a retreating French cavalryman). He eventually returns to his family's castle, injured, broke, and still wondering, "was I really in the battle?" Fabrice is quickly forced to flee since his older brother - sickly and dull - denounces him. Towards the end of the novel, his efforts, such as they are, lead people to say that he was one of Napoleon's bravest captains or colonels.
The novel now divides its attention between him and his aunt Gina (his father's sister). Gina meets and befriends the Prime Minister of Parma, Count Mosca. Count Mosca proposes that Gina marry a wealthy old man, the Duke Sanseverina, who will be out of the country for many years as an ambassador, so that she and Count Mosca can be lovers while living under the social rules of the time. Gina responds, "But you realize that what you are suggesting is utterly immoral?" Nevertheless, she agrees, and so a few months later, Gina is the new social eminence in Parma's rather small aristocratic elite.
Gina (now the Duchess Sanseverina) has had very warm feelings for her nephew ever since he returned from France. Since going to join Napoleon was officially illegal, she and Count Mosca try to plan out a successful rehabilitation for the young man. Count Mosca's plan has Fabrice go to seminary school in Naples, with the idea that when he graduates he will come to Parma and become a senior figure in the religious hierarchy, and eventually the Archbishop, as the current office holder is old. The fact that Fabrice has no interest in religion (or celibacy) matters not to this plan. Fabrice reluctantly agrees and leaves for Naples.
The book then describes in great detail how Gina and Count Mosca live and operate in the court of the Prince of Parma (named Ranuce-Erneste IV). Stendhal, who spent decades as a professional diplomat in northern Italy, gives a lively and interesting account of the court, though all of what he describes is entirely fictional, as Parma was ruled by Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma during the time of the novel. (Marie Louise was Napoleon's second wife.)
After several years of theology school in Naples, during which he has many affairs with local women, Fabrice returns to Parma. Fabrice had been afraid that he could never fall in love, and he is surprised when he develops romantic feelings towards Gina; the omniscient narrator tells us that she shares the same feelings although the characters never discuss them.
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