Places: The Charterhouse of Parma

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: La Chartreuse de Parme, 1839 (English translation, 1895)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Milan

*Milan. Charterhouse of Parma, TheCity in northern Italy’s Lombardy region. Stendhal evokes the atmosphere of this region to explain Napoleon’s romantic impact on the novel’s main character, Fabrizio del Dongo. Napoleon entered the city on May 15, 1796, the head of a young army destined to change the face of Europe. It is this Napoleon that awakens Fabrizio’s ambitions to fight in what becomes Napoleon’s last famous battle at Waterloo two decades later. Milan also represents, in Stendhal’s ironic prose, a foil to the jaded sophistication of his French readers. In introducing his cast of passionate characters, Stendhal comments that in Milan, a “region quite remote from our own, a man may still be driven to despair by love.”

*Como

*Como. City in northwestern Italy not far from Milan. With its charming lake of the same name, it is one of the most beautiful sites in the country and in the novel is the home of the del Dongo family. Stendhal presents Como as the secluded, stifling setting in which the naïve Fabrizio grows up with visions of sharing in Napoleon’s glory.

*Waterloo

*Waterloo. Belgian village south of Brussels, where Napoleon fought his last, losing battle in 1815. Stendhal effectively evokes the country atmosphere and the confusion of battle, including Fabrizio’s ludicrous attempts to join Napoleon’s forces. Traveling under false papers he is arrested as a spy. His incarceration is the first of several imprisonments that ultimately lead to his self-incarceration in the Charterhouse of Parma.

*Parma

*Parma. Northern Italian city south of the River Po that serves as the site of the novel’s central action. Here Fabrizio, under suspicion by the prince and the royalists because of his Napoleonic adventures, wins the favor of the clergy and becomes a controversial figure emblematic of the city’s factionalism. Dominating the city is the despotic prince, who has ambitions to become the constitutional monarch of Italy. Indeed, it is only his ambition that prevents the prince from summarily having Fabrizio executed for killing (in self-defense) a rival for the love of an actress. Fabrizio is a prisoner in the Farnese Tower, the prison which is part of the city’s citadel–a defensive fortress that is mentioned frequently in the novel. Like Parma itself, the citadel is a center of intrigue, where Fabrizio must take care that he is not poisoned by his jailers, and where he survives because he is able to bribe them.

Parma’s combination of corruption and thuggery makes the simple, passionate Fabrizio an endearing figure to the public even when they feel he is guilty of murder. However, the prison also becomes a metaphor for his self-confining passions. His devotion to Napoleon leads to his first arrest. His equally devout passion for an actress results in his incarceration in the Farnese Tower. There through a window he observes his jailer’s daughter and wishes to stay in prison so he can remain close to a woman with whom he presumes he will never be able to live. Even after she forces him to agree to a daring escape from the tower, he returns to his prison cell in despair over his inability to have her.

*Charterhouse of Parma

*Charterhouse of Parma. Although it provides the novel’s title, this former monastery is mentioned only in the book’s last three paragraphs. It is the site of Fabrizio’s religious retreat from the world. However, it also becomes another form of imprisonment and exile. Stendhal clearly means to link the Charterhouse of his title to the del Dongo castle at Grianta in Como where Fabrizio grew up and to places like Ferrara, a small ancient town in northern Italy, where Fabrizio hid after killing his rival. Thus the idea of society as a prison house from which Fabrizio cannot escape and the idea of society itself as a place of incarceration suffuse Stendhal’s deeply ironic and disturbing novel.

BibliographyAlter, Robert, in collaboration with Carol Cosman. A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal. New York: Basic Books, 1979. Despite its relative brevity, this is the best biography in English. Alter calls The Charterhouse of Parma the novel that Stendhal “had been gathering resources all his life to write” and skillfully relates the circumstances of its composition. Notes and illustrations, no bibliography.Gutwirth, Marcel. Stendhal. New York: Twayne, 1971. A very readable if somewhat dated study of the writer’s autobiographical and fictional works, developed in terms of several controlling images: “The Pistol Shot,” “Brief Candle,” and so on. Prefaced with a brief but useful chronology.Talbot, Emile J. Stendhal Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. The best starting point for the beginning reader of Stendhal. Talbot profits from scholarship appearing since Gutwirth’s survey but downplays the autobiographical element in Stendhal’s fiction. Good annotated bibliography of secondary works.Turnell, Martin. The Novel in France. New York: Vintage, 1958. A standard and highly acclaimed survey. Places Stendhal’s three major novels in a tradition running from the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century. Turnell praises The Charterhouse of Parma for its “extraordinary poise and maturity.”Wood, Michael. Stendhal. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. An accessible study of Stendhal’s major and some of his minor works. Wood is particularly good at identifying the many elements–personal, historical, social, and political–that contributed to the genesis of The Charterhouse of Parma.
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