- I’m impressed with the callback to the miner’s candlestick from back in Digne as Hugo dives into the mining metaphor. (Valjean considers using it to attack the sleeping Bishop. The Denny translation calls it a spike, losing the more immediate callback in the Bishop’s gift of actual candlesticks.)
- Now that she points it out, Éponine’s description when we first meet her as a teenager does rather resemble Fantine’s by the time she’s dying: skin and bones, prematurely aged, missing teeth, even a raspy voice.
- Three times through the book. Three times. And I never caught on to the implications of just how far Thénardier goes in exploiting his daughters. The way she’s undisturbed walking into Marius’ bedroom, phrases in the letters, the way she smiles at Marius at one point… Ugh.
We 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:
- Valjean did make discreet inquiries about his sister and her family after taking on his new life, but nothing turned up.
- Javert was a warden at Toulon while Valjean was imprisoned and did see him there, but made no particular impression on him. He was just another guard as far as Valjean was concerned, so he didn’t recognize the Inspector when Javert was given his post.
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.
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.
I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years, and providing a running commentary on Twitter at
KelsonV @ReadingLesMis. This post is reworked from this week’s comments. Read on, or start with part 1.
The Bishop of Digne continues to be the focus of an extended character study, one which also describes conditions in the French countryside in the early 1800s.
After chapters of M. Bienvenu seeming perfect, we see him confront his own prejudices as he talks with a dying Revolutionary (as in The French Revolution a generation before) who lives outside of town, shunned by the population as a regicide and probably an atheist. The old man convinces the Bishop of the noble aims of the Revolution, and asks whether the abuses were really worse than the abuses they fought against. Bienvenu comes to respect him even without a miraculous deathbed conversion (he says something about the universe having a self, which must be God, but that’s a long way from standard Christian theology). That’s a much more even-handed treatment of atheism than I expected to find in an 1862 book with heavy religious themes, especially after the snark directed at a materialist a few chapters before.
“Without going deeply into matters with which this book is only indirectly concerned…” Why let it stop you this time?
Hugo’s thoughts on those who join a cause only after it is sure to succeed: “We can respect the struggle only when it is dangerous…only those who fight from the beginning deserve the final victory.”
He then goes on to rant about the difference between success and merit, and the crowd’s inability to tell them apart. I swear I’ve read this same rant about the Internet, business, and reality television more times than I can count.
Valjean, At Last!
On page 71, Jean Valjean makes his first appearance as he arrives in Digne. Note that we’re still in “Part 1: Fantine,” and there’s still no sign of her. The costume designer for the movie clearly read this description of him after his release from jail.
Two inns kick him out because he’s an ex-convict, so Valjean asks for lodging at the prison. They won’t take him because he’s an ex-con, and tell him he needs to get himself arrested. He ends up in the doghouse — literally — and even the dogs force him out.
The bishop’s sister and their servant are arguing over rumors of a dangerous stranger in town, and whether they should bolt the door, when Valjean knocks. Awkward.
His reputation having preceded him, Valjean gives up on keeping his status quiet, and blurts out his whole story as soon as he opens the door. After a whole chapter being tight-lipped and vague, everything just tumbles out and he just starts rambling. Come to think of it, everyone the Bishop meets seems to talk at length. He must have that effect on people.
And now we get to Valjean’s past as the provider for his widowed sister and her seven children. A bad winter left them with no food, no money, and no work, and that’s when he breaks a windowpane, steals a loaf of bread and gets sentenced to five years hard labor. His sister and her family vanish long before he gets out of prison. He gets one letter, and then nothing. The loss sheds some light on him taking in Cosette.
Victor Hugo really wants you to understand Jean Valjean’s state of mind after 19 years in prison — or lack thereof, as it’s basically turned him into a desperate, caged animal. You also get some idea of what Valjean was like before his prison sentence, something missing from the show.
Then Hugo shifts gears and starts telling about a ship and a man being swept overboard. It takes a few paragraphs to become clear that this isn’t a POV shift, but a metaphor for what happened to Valjean’s soul when he was abandonded by society.
The theft of the silver, almost automatic in the musical, is a tense, suspenseful scene as Valjean wrestles with indecision.
You’ve got to love the bishop’s wit: An exchange the next morning: “Where’s the silver basket?” “Here you are.” “But it’s empty!” “So it’s the silver you’re worrying about? I can’t tell you where that is.” (Interestingly, it’s his idea to tell the police that he gave it to Valjean, not something he picks up and runs with as in the musical.)
It takes Valjean a whole day after he leaves Digne to process what’s happened, finally understanding when he realizes that he’s absent-mindedly stolen a coin from a small boy and that his first impulse is to find him and return it. “…in robbing the boy, he had committed an act of which he was no longer capable.” Valjean went for a long walk, met himself, and realized he didn’t like himself much.
At page 118 of Les Misérables, I’ve finished what, in the musical, is the prologue. Whoa. It is like a Wheel of Time book!
Update: thoughts from my next read-through.
Continue to Part 3 to meet Fantine, Cosette and the Thénardiers.
I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (the Norman Denny translation) after 20 years, and providing a running commentary on Twitter at
KelsonV @ReadingLesMis. I’ve expanded on this week’s comments here.
The book begins with Part One: Fantine, and opens with the Bishop of Digne. The first several chapters are mainly a character study of him, known to his flock as Msgr. Bienvenu, a kind-hearted soul who cares for those in need and still lays the verbal smackdown on anyone more self-absorbed than him (which seems to be everyone).
Victor Hugo not only worked out the Bishop’s household budget, but included it in the novel. To be honest, it is character building. The bishop allocates most of his “household expenses” to various charities.
The silver Valjean later tries to steal gets mentioned in passing as the only luxury he hangs onto, giving everything else to the poor…even when he goes off to bandit-controlled territory for two weeks and, instead of robbing him, they hand him the loot from another cathedral.
“Although it has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell…” As I recall, there’s a lot of that, just not admitted.
The first time I read this I had no idea of the significance of the bishop speaking Languedoc.
This will have to be more than a lunchtime project, or it’s going to take months. I’d forgotten just how dense the book is. I only had two lunch hours to read this week, and I read 1/4 as many pages as I’d read of A Memory of Light in the same amount of time.
Update: thoughts from my next read-through.
Continue to part 2 as Jean Valjean makes his first appearance.