Category Archives: Book Commentary


The musical gets rid of this part, but Éponine literally arranges to get Marius killed because he rejected her.

She’s been in full “If I can’t have him, no one can!” mode since foiling the robbery. She’s manipulated Jean Valjean and deceived Cosette to keep her away from Marius, and she’s sent Marius off to the barricade to die. She does throw herself in front of the bullet meant for him…but she says it’s because she wants to go first. It’s sort of a Rube Goldberg murder-suicide by cop.

This is not romantic. It’s villain territory. Reading it a few days after the Santa Fe school shooting (the killer had reportedly harassed and been rejected by one of the girls he shot) brought it into starker relief.

While she’s been helpful in the past, at this point she’s following in her father’s footsteps: the same sense of aggrieved entitlement, manipulating people from the shadows, and seeking revenge for perceived wrongs. But while her father’s too stubborn to give up, her life has been so awful that she has no hope left. The same desperation that allowed her to stand up to Patron-Minette leaves her feeling that there’s nothing left for her once she gets rid of Marius. The best she can hope for is that they’ll be together in death.

When Éponine is first re-introduced as Marius’ neighbor, she’s presented as someone who could have gone a different way, but the world had already started to grind her down. There’s no indication that either of her parents could have turned out better people, but we do get the sense that she could, under better circumstances. Her brother did, under similar deprivation but with more freedom. And since their parents neglected him to begin with, he didn’t see them as role models.

She’s fifteen, so she feels everything acutely. But she’s also world-weary. She has no hope of a future any better than the misery she’s lived through, and in fact there’s a good chance things will get worse for her if she survives.

In the musical, Éponine’s death is a tragedy. In the book, her tragedy has already unfolded, and her death simply completes it.

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Hitting the Fan

There’s a gripping description of Paris under siege as Marius walks from the streets where shops are open, to where shops are closed, to where a nervous crowd mingles, to the army staging area, to the dark, silent, empty streets controlled by the insurgency. Then, steps away from the barricade, he stops, sits down, and spends several pages of internal monologue trying to decide whether he’s doing the right thing. It’s weird, but it doesn’t seem as long this time through.

Speaking of people sitting and not acting: Pere Mabeuf has basically gone catatonic, staring at the floor all evening until he hears Enjolras shout for help restoring the fallen flag. He mechanically walks out, grabs the flag, climbs up…and is promptly shot and killed. It’s one of many cases where Hugo stops showing us the inner workings of a character’s mind and only shows him from the outside. We can only guess: Is he thinking clearly, but in despair? Is his inner turmoil as complex as Marius’ a few pages earlier? Or is he simply acting on autopilot?

Once Mabeuf’s body is carried inside (after Enjolras uses him as an inspiration symbol), everything happens fast:

  • Multiple casualties among named characters
  • The barricade is almost taken
  • Marius arrives, guns blazing
  • Gavroche discovers (in the worst way possible) that Javert hadn’t loaded his gun
  • Marius saves both Gavroche’s and Courfeyrac’s lives (for a few hours, anyway)
  • Eponine throws herself in front of a bullet aimed at Marius
  • Marius drives off the attackers by threatening to blow up the barricade, with everyone on it, himself included.

All of this happens in a space of a couple of minutes.

And then the waiting sets in again.

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Commandeering the Tavern

Grantaire skips out on the insurgency to get drunk. Joly and Laigle are with him. Joly has a cold, but is drinking anyway. (Grantaire feels slighted that Enjolras didn’t invite him to the revolution, and declares he won’t go to his funeral. Truer words…)

Have I mentioned lately how much I like Donougher’s translation?

‘Sbeaking of revolution,’ said Joly, ‘abbarently Barius is badly in love.’
‘Do we know who with?’ asked Laigle.
‘Doh, I said.’

Enjolras and the rest walk by on their way to find a spot to build a barricade, stop to chat, and figure, hey, it’s a nice defensible spot, why not make our stand here? Much to the consternation of the tavern owner, the widow Hucheloup.

I find myself wondering whether they would have been quite so casual in commandeering the tavern if the owner and staff weren’t all women. I’m sure they would have still done it, but I suspect they would have gone about it differently.

Admittedly they seize a passing cart and a horse-drawn bus for building the actual barricade. But there’s no description of how they treat the carter or the bus driver (though they’re at least polite to the passengers and let the horses loose). Grantaire and Joly harass the widow and the waitresses until Courfeyrac and Enjolras step in and tell them to knock it off.

Only Courfeyrac even attempts to console Mme. Hucheloup as they tear apart her home and business, and he’s extremely bad at it, suggesting it’s her chance to get back at the city for fining her over minor code violations. She’s not convinced.

(Incidentally, Grantaire has moved on from wine and is drinking a mixture of stout, brandy and absinthe. No wonder he sleeps through the entire siege.)

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Let’s Go Build a Barricade

As the crowd gathers, heading off to find a good place to build a barricade (because that’s what you do if you’re in Paris and you want to revolt), they start picking up more and more people. Pere Mabeuf joins in, though he seems to have suffered a BSOD. Gavroche is having such a great time that he doesn’t notice a disguised Javert. Courfeyrac stops by his apartment to pick up his hat, where he runs into some boy asking for Marius who looks like a girl dressed as a boy. It doesn’t occur to him that she is a girl dressed as a boy.

In fact, it doesn’t occur to anyone that Eponine is a girl, because she’s wearing pants.

Her raspy voice probably helps the disguise. But Marius almost recognized her by that voice, and dismissed the possibility.

I’m reminded of the scene in Mystery Men where one of the D-list heroes is explaining that the Clark Kent stand-in can’t possibly be Captain Amazing, because he wears glasses. How could he fly with such bad eyesight? Also Sandman: World’s End, in which a girl dresses as a boy so she can be a sailor. Only one character sees through the disguise, remarking that it’s about seeing what you’re actually seeing, not what you’re expecting to see.

It’s a blind spot. But it’s also refreshing that everyone goes with the gender she’s presenting as (even though it’s a disguise for her, not an identity) instead of trying to police it.

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Paris has the best riots?

Victor Hugo really wants to explain the difference between a riot and an insurrection. Mostly it’s a matter of justification: Is it trying to move things forward, or backward?

The June 5 rebellion was actually quite effective at first: street layouts made for good positions for barricades, and on top of those who were already armed, they robbed gun shops and guard posts and went door to door stealing weapons from homes. The scale doesn’t come through in most of the adaptations I’ve seen. It seems like there’s maybe a couple of streets blocked off, and barely any mention of other groups…but it was a third of Paris!

Not surprisingly, Paris has better riots than any other city. (You may have noticed Victor Hugo really likes Paris.) He cites a peculiar mix of streets where people go about their business as normal, with fighting a block away. Some amusing images from other Paris riots include an old man going back and forth between a barricade and army with a cart, offering water to both sides like they were marathon runners…and a gun battle that paused to let a wedding party go by.

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