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. Fabrice becomes involved with a young actress whose manager/lover takes offense and tries to kill Fabrice. In the resulting fight, Fabrice kills the man and flees Parma for Bologna, fearing correctly that he will not be treated justly by the courts. After returning to Parma surreptitiously, Fabrice returns to Bologna, spending much time trying to form a relationship with an attractive soprano, Fausta; in the meantime, the judiciary have found him guilty of the murder. Distressed by these developments indicating that Fabrice may be executed, Gina goes to the Prince to plead for Fabrice's life stating she will leave Parma if he is not. While the Prince is alienated by Gina's dignity and independence, he fears that his court will become boring without her and that she will speak poorly about his dominion when she departs. He communicates his willingness to free Fabrice and yields to Gina's demand that he sign a note to release him. But the Count, in an effort to be diplomatic, omits the crucial phrase: "this unjust procedure will have no further effect." The following morning, the Prince connives to have Fabrice imprisoned for twelve years by signing an order affixed with a date preceding the note purporting to release him. For the next nine months, Gina schemes to have Fabrice freed and manages to get secret messages relayed to him in the tower, in part by means of an improvised semaphore line. The Prince keeps spreading rumors that Fabrice is going to be executed as a way to put pressure on Gina. Meanwhile, Fabrice is oblivious to his danger and is living happily because he has fallen in love with the commandant's daughter, Clélia Conti, whom Fabrice can see from his prison window as she tends her caged birds. They fall in love, and after some time he persuades her to communicate with him by means of letters of the alphabet printed on sheets ripped from a book. The happy Fabrice resists Gina's plans to escape. But Gina finally persuades him and has Clélia smuggle three long ropes to him. The only thing that concerns Fabrice is whether he will be able to meet Clélia after he escapes. But Clélia – who has feelings of guilt because the plot involved giving laudanum to her father, which she perceived as poison – promises the Virgin that she shall never see Fabrice again and will do anything her father says. Gina puts in motion a plan to have the Prince of Parma assassinated. This plot is carried out by a poet/bandit/assassin Ferrante who has fallen in unrequited love with Gina. Count Mosca stays in Parma, and when the Prince does die (it is strongly implied that he was poisoned by Ferrante) he puts down a revolt by some local revolutionaries and installs the son of the Prince on the throne. The new Prince (only 21 years old) falls in love with Gina. When the prosecutor's indictments come close to the truth behind the uprising, Gina persuades the Prince to burn the documents. Count Mosca, committed to installing Fabrice as the Vicar General, persuades Gina and Fabrice that Fabrice voluntarily return to be acquitted. Instead of going to the town jail, Fabrice voluntarily returns to the Farnese Tower to be close to Clelia. Seeking revenge, General Conti attempts to poison Fabrice, but Clelia keeps him from eating the poisoned food. A distraught Gina seeks the Prince's intervention to have him transferred, and he agrees to do so on the condition she gives herself to him. Gina so promises in duress. After three months, the Prince proposes marriage to Gina but is rejected. Gina submits to his physical demands and leaves immediately afterward. Gina never returns but marries Count Mosca. Clélia marries the wealthy Marchese her father has chosen for her, and Clelia and Fabrice live unhappily. Once acquitted, Fabrice assumes his duties as the Vicar General in the Catholic Church, and his sermons become the talk of the town. The only reason he gives these sermons, Fabrice says, is in the hope that Clélia will come to one, allowing him to see her and speak to her. After fourteen months of suffering for both, she agrees to meet with him every night, on the condition that it is in darkness, lest she break her vow to the Madonna to never see him again and they both be punished for her sin. A year later she bears Fabrice's child. When the boy is two years old, Fabrice insists that he should take care of him in the future, because he is feeling lonely and worries that his own child will not love him. The plan he and Clélia devise is to fake the child's illness and death and then establish him secretly in a large house nearby, where Fabrice and Clélia can come to see him every day. After several months the child actually does die, and Clélia dies a few months after that. After her death, Fabrice retires to the titular Charterhouse of Parma (a Carthusian monastery), where he spends less than a year before he also dies. Gina, the Countess Mosca, who had always loved Fabrice, dies a short time after that. The novel ends with the epithet "To the Happy Few."
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