Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Who IS This Guy, Anyway?

Les Miserables featuring a bookmarkWe left off with Fantine’s arrest and Valjean overriding Javert. Over the next few weeks, as Fantine’s health deteriorates, Valjean writes to the Thénardiers asking them to send Cosette to Montreil-sur-mer. Of course, since he sends money, they refuse to let her go - she’s turned into a gold mine as far as they’re concerned, so they keep asking for more.

Javert is so angry at being overruled regarding Fantine that he reports M.Madeleine as Jean Valjean even though he still has no proof. So when he’s told that the “real” Valjean has been found, he not only feels that he’s been insubordinate, but that he’s done so for the wrong reason, and must be made an example of. He insists on being dismissed – simply resigning isn’t enough, because that would be honorable – because of the one-slip-and-you’re-out philosophy summed up in “Stars.”

Some background that turns up:

Wheel of Time fans will find this interesting: One of the Sisters attending Fantine is an ageless woman known for never speaking a word that is not true.

Page 208: “The reader will have realized that Monsieur Madeleine was indeed Jean Valjean.” You think?

Who Am I?

Valjean/Madeleine’s inner debate over whether to reveal himself and save the man mistaken for him takes 15 pages. [Edit: More like 50, including the trip to court and watching for an hour before making up his mind.] The two concerns that have driven him for the past eight years, redeeming his soul and burying his past, have finally come into full conflict.

At one point he’s determined to turn himself in, then suddenly remembers Fantine and Cosette, and starts thinking about the consequences to the town. Then he’s determined to take the opportunity fate has granted him, but just to be sure he needs to wipe out his last links to Jean Valjean, including the candlesticks. He’s just setting them on the fire when the sight of them jogs his conscience.

His almost accidental theft of a coin from a boy chimney-sweep after the incident with the bishop, missing in the play, is a critical point in his legal status here. It makes him a recidivist, far worse than simply having broken parole, and subject to life imprisonment at hard labor. Sort of a 19th-century version of “Three Strikes” with the third strike being shoplifting.

Edit: Reader Rachel asked about how the law tied the theft to Valjean. It’s not clear. I imagine Petit Gervais reported the theft at the next town, and they put two and two together from his description and the fact that Valjean was known to have been in the area that day. They do get a number of details wrong, claiming he was armed and had accomplices. At the time I was reading, I figured they were amping up the charges because hey, he’s a criminal anyway, but it occurs to me that the boy may have embellished the tale himself.

I keep getting reminded of fantasy novels. When Valjean finally sleeps, he has a dream about a not-exactly-deserted town that reminds me of the cities of the dead in the Earthsea books. Let’s add another series to my re-read list. At least they’re short.

Pages covered this week: 191-224. Continue to part 6 and the trial.

Posted in Book Commentary by Kelson Vibber, February 23, 2013

Tagged: candlesticks · champmathieu · dilemma · javert · jean-valjean · madeleine · montreil-sur-mer