Tag Archives: Barricade

On The Barricade

I finished reading the final battle on the barricade a little after noon on June 6. It happens…a bit after noon on June 6. That was kind of weird.

I don’t have a lot new to say about it compared to last time. Just a few notes.

The digression to the 1848 barricades is shorter than I remember. I also really like contrast between the chaotic, throw-everything-on-the-street barricade and the perfectly engineered stone wall with silent snipers.

Enjolras, after a scouting mission determines that no help is coming and they’re all going to die, gives a stirring speech about the glorious future their deaths will usher in. He’s painfully optimistic about the 20th century.

Combeferre’s story about the starving orphan whose autopsy he attended is one of the hardest things to read in a book full of people experiencing horrible things. (Every stage and movie adaptation I’ve seen downplays how awful things are for the characters.)

Here’s a rare case where I like Denny’s translation over Donougher’s. Regarding Valjean’s pattern of shooting helmets instead of heads, Combeferre says he “does good deeds with a gun” (Donougher), which doesn’t get the same idea across as saying that he “does kindness with bullets” (Denny).

Most of the named characters die in lists. Bullet points, if you will. Only a few get individual send-offs: Mabeuf, Éponine and Gavroche. They hear Jean Prouvaire being executed after he’s captured. And at the end, Enjoras and Grantaire face a firing squad together.

There’s a lot of philosophical commentary about urban warfare, civil war, revolutions that have or don’t have the support of the populace, and how revolutions are sometimes necessary in preserving the long-term life of society over the short-term life of the individual. It’s presented as supporting material for the June Rebellion. But it’s the other way around.

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Valjean’s Hidden Decisions and the End of Resilience

We don’t see inside Jean Valjean’s head when he decides to go to the barricade, so it’s not clear why he goes. But the lead-in to the decision is much like the lead-in to the Champmathieu fiasco: There’s a threat to his way of life, but all he has to do is wait for another man to lose his, and he’ll be safe. From that standpoint, the question of whether he goes to protect Marius or to watch him die isn’t so ambiguous. It’s the same kind of dilemma, and whether he’s decided or not (just as before, it’s Schrödinger’s decision), he can’t let fate relieve him of the responsibility, so he goes.

Valjean has wrapped up way too much of his sense of self-worth in his role as Cosette’s father. That’s what makes the prospect of losing her seem like such a threat. And he’s right: not that it should be a danger, but that it is, because he can’t handle the transition. After nineteen years of prison and seventeen years on the run from the law, Valjean has latched onto supporting Cosette as the one thing he’s good for. And if Marius is doing that, he can’t see any place for himself.

Just like Javert, he dies from inflexibility.

Javert kills himself because he realizes that his world view is wrong, and he can’t see a place for himself in the world as he now understands it.

Valjean sinks into depression and starves himself because his world has changed, and he can’t see a place for himself in the new one.

In the past, Valjean has been incredibly resilient. He adapted to life in prison, out of prison, as a businessman, a fugitive, a father, a gardener, and a retiree. But he’s become stuck here, seeing his life with his adopted daughter as the endgame, not as one more stage in his life, unwilling to let it change until his conscience forces his hand, and then unwilling to embrace it

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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)
  • Éponine 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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