The Charterhouse of Parma tells the story of the young Italian nobleman Fabrizio del Dongo and his adventures from his birth in 1798 to his death in 1829 (?). Fabrizio’s early years are spent in his family’s castle on Lake Como, while most of the novel is set in a fictionalized Parma (both in modern-day Italy).
The novel's early section is largely focused on Fabrizio's rather quixotic effort to join Napoleon when he returns to France in March 1815 (the Hundred Days). Fabrizio at seventeen is rather naive and doesn't speak very good French. However, he won't be stopped, and he leaves his home on Lake Como and travels north under false papers. He wanders through France, losing money and horses at a fast rate. He is nearly imprisoned as a spy, but he escapes, dons the uniform of a dead French Hussar, and, much to his surprise, finds himself in the Battle of Waterloo.
Stendhal, a veteran of many battles during the Napoleonic period (he was one of the few survivors of the retreat from Russia in the 1812), describes this famous battle as a chaotic affair with soldiers who gallop one way, then another, while bullets plow the fields around them. Fabrizio is lucky to survive the fighting with a serious wound to his leg (given to him by one of the retreating French cavalry men) and he returns to his family's castle, injured, broke, and still wondering "was I really in the battle?" Towards the end of the novel his efforts, such as they are, lead people to say that he was one of Napoleon's generals.
Fabrizio having returned to Lake Como, the novel now divides its attention between him and his aunt (his father's sister), Gina, the sometime Duchess of Sanseverina. Gina meets and falls in love with the Prime Minister of Parma, Count Mosca. Count Mosca proposes that Gina marry a wealthy old man, who will be out of the country for many years as an ambassador, so she and Count Mosca can be lovers while living under the social rules of the time. Gina's response is: "But you realize that what you are suggesting is utterly immoral?" She agrees, and so a few months later, Gina is the new social eminence in Parma's rather small aristocratic elite.
Ever since Fabrizio returned from Waterloo, Gina has had very warm feelings for her nephew, and she and Count Mosca try to plan out a successful life for the young man. Count Mosca's plan has Fabrizio go to seminary school in Naples, with the idea that when he graduates he will come to Parma and be installed as a senior figure in the religious hierarchy, soon to be the Archbishop, as the current office holder is old. The fact that Fabrizio has no interest in religion (or celibacy) matters not to this plan. Somewhat oddly (to the modern reader) Fabrizio agrees to the plan 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. So much attention is given to Gina and Count Mosca that some have suggested that these two are the true heroes of the novel.
After several years in Naples, during which he has many affairs with local women, Fabrizio returns to Parma and shortly gets involved with a young actress whose manager/lover takes offense and tries to kill Fabrizio. In the resulting fight Fabrizio kills the man and then flees Parma, fearing, rightly, that he will not be treated justly by the courts. However, his efforts to avoid capture are unsuccessful, and he is brought back to Parma and imprisoned in the Farnese Tower, the tallest tower in the city. His aunt, Gina, in great distress at what she feels will lead to Fabrizio's certain death, goes to beg the Prince for his life. The Prince wants Gina to offer herself to him in exchange for Fabrizio's freedom and is non-plussed when she refuses to agree to his implied offer.
For the next nine months Gina schemes to have Fabrizio freed and manages to get secret messages relayed to him in the tower. The Prince keeps hinting that Fabrizio is going to be executed (or poisoned) as a way to put pressure on Gina. Meanwhile, Fabrizio is oblivious to his danger and is living happily because he has fallen in love with the commandant's daughter, Clélia Conti, who he 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 something like a pre-modern keyboard).
Gina finally helps Fabrizio escape from the Tower by having Clélia smuggle three long ropes to him. The only thing that concerns Fabrizio is whether he will be able to meet Clélia after he escapes. But Clélia, who has sacrificed the health of her father because of her beloved, promises the Virgin that if her father recovers she shall never see Fabrizio again and will do anything her father says.
Gina leaves Parma and puts in motion a plan to have the Prince of Parma assassinated. Count Mosca stays in Parma, and when the Prince does die (perhaps poisoned by Gina's poet/bandit/assassin) he puts down an attempted revolt by some local revolutionaries and gets the son of the Prince installed on the throne. Clélia, to help her father who was disgraced by Fabrizio's escape, marries the wealthy man her father has chosen for her, and so she and Fabrizio live unhappily for some years because of the promise she made to never see him again.
Fabrizio voluntarily returns to the Farnese Tower to see Clélia and is almost poisoned there. To save him, Gina promises to give herself to the new Prince. She keeps her promise but immediately leaves Parma afterwards. Gina never returns to Parma, but she marries Count Mosca.
Once he is of murdering the actress's manager/lover, Fabrizio assumes his duties as a powerful man of the Catholic Church and a preacher whose sermons become the talk of the town. The only reason he gives these sermons, Fabrizio says, is in the hope that Clélia will come to one and he can see her and speak to her. After 14 months of suffering for both, she agrees to meet with him every night, but only 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 Fabrizio's child. When the boy is two years old, Fabrizio insists that he should take care of him in the future, because he is feeling lonely and suffers that his own child won't love him. The plan he and Clélia devise is to fake the child's illness and death and then establish him in secretly in a large house nearby, where Fabrizio and Clélia can come to see him each day. As it turns out, after several months the child actually does die, and Clélia dies a few months after that. After her death, Fabrizio retires to the Charterhouse of Parma, which gives the book its title, where he spends less than a year before he also dies. Gina, the Countess Mosca, who had always loved Fabrizio, dies a short time after that.
The novel is often cited as an early example of realism, a stark contrast to the Romantic style popular while Stendhal was writing. It is considered by many authors to be a truly seminal work; Honoré de Balzac considered it the most significant novel of his time, André Gide thought it the greatest French novel ever. Tolstoy was heavily influenced by Stendhal's famous treatment of the Battle of Waterloo and his own version of the Battle of Borodino is a central part of his famous novel War and Peace.
The novel is Horace Engdahl's favourite.