Part 7: Waterloo

Les Miserables: WaterlooI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to part 6, or read on.

Previously: Fantine dies, Cosette is still stuck with the Thénardiers, Javert’s a jerk, and Valjean exposes himself.

Let me rephrase that: Valjean reveals his secret identity.

Anyway, Victor Hugo figured this was the perfect time to stop and spend forty-five pages on the Battle of Waterloo. As much as I snark about Hugo’s digressions and long-windedness, and tangential as it is to the rest of the book, this chapter really is fascinating.

He starts by recounting his own visit to the battlefield nearly fifty years later, describing what it’s like now (well, then). The style of the time allowed him to refer to himself, but only in third person and not by name: “the traveler” or “the author of this tale.”

The flashback structure sets up an effective contrast between the peaceful farm of Hugo’s day and the carnage of snipers, cannon balls, soldiers scaling a wall with their fingernails, a burning chapel and a well full of skeletons before it moves on to the main portion of the battle.

It’s easy to think of Napoleon as being serious and impassive. Hugo points out his sense of humor and high spirits at Waterloo — well, the beginning of it.

If the Temeraire books retell Waterloo (and I doubt they will, since the history of the war has diverged so much at this point), it’ll be vastly different just having aerial views of the battlefield. So much depends on tiny patches of cover as seen from the ground, in particular a sunken lane that Napoleon’s cavalry charge doesn’t see until the front lines fall into it. (Plus, well, dragons.)

It turns out Victor Hugo could get away with “merde” as long as it was historical. He then spends two pages describing how sublime it was that this particular French officer, Cambronne, chose that single word to reply to his chance to surrender. I shit you not.

Aftermath

At one point he describes the English and German memorials at the site, adding, “There is no French memorial. For France the whole plain is a graveyard.”

It’s interesting to see a French perspective of Waterloo try to reconcile the defeat of the French army with the idea that it was a victory for civilization. Hugo takes the opinion that Napoleon’s defeat was pre-ordained by God because the “tide of the nineteenth century” required his removal from the stage. This conveniently absolves the English and German commanders of greatness, though he stresses that the common soldiers were great, even if Wellington was a mediocre leader who by all rights should never have triumphed against Napoleon’s genius.

He goes on to say that Waterloo, in itself, represented the revenge of the old guard, counter-revolutionary forces, but that changes in the political landscape prevented them from reasserting themselves completely afterward, creating a post-war Europe with greater liberty than before, even under the old leadership.

Forty pages on, we’re back to the story as we meet Thénardier looting the bodies of dead French soldiers. One of them isn’t dead yet: Sgt Pontmercy, whom the future innkeeper pulled out of the pile of dead bodies at the critical sunken lane in order to rifle through his pockets, accidentally saving his life.

That one scene is the only part of “Waterloo” that factors into the rest of the story as anything but historical background, but it’s important for Marius’ interactions with the Thénardiers. Not long after I read the book the first time, I caught a glimpse of a student’s essay written as a character study of Thénardier. Because the class was reading an abridged version, the later misrepresentation of his actions at Waterloo was taken at face value. It significantly altered the character by giving him a noble past that he never actually had.

Pages covered this week: 279-324. You might also be interested in my review of the movie. Next up: Valjean returns to prison in Part 8.

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