Tag Archives: Convent

Conventionality

The eerie scene of the convent garden at midnight, with its desolation and mist and wind and unseen voices and a mysterious figure with a rope around it’s neck, would be great for Halloween, but it’s late winter, not late fall.

There’s a surprising amount of deadpan snark in the description of the convent. And quite a bit of wit in Fauchelevent’s interactions with the mother superior, and humor in the buried alive sequence.

The convent school sorts the girls into four houses. Well, they sort themselves based on what corner of the room they sit in at mealtime, but hey, it’s still a step up from Cosette’s cupboard under the stairs back at the inn.

As far as convents in general, well…

We ourselves respect the past in certain instances and in all cases grant it clemency, provided it consents to being dead. If it insists on being alive, we attack and try to kill it.
   – Victor Hugo on social attitudes and practices once commonplace, but now seen as harmful.

A more succinct translation might be: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

Whew! After two months of lunch-hour reading (yeah, I’m posting this late to the blog), I’ve finished the first two parts of the book.

Valjean and Cosette are safe as assistant gardener and schoolgirl at the convent, and we’re ready for a time skip!

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Part 12: Buried Alive!

Valjean's ResurrectionI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, or read on.

Previously: Valjean and Cosette fled Javert and landed in a convent garden. Then we learned all about the convent’s history.

Fauchelevent turns out to be a former legal clerk. Then he took a cart to the knee.

He figures he can come up with a cover story for Jean Valjean and Cosette to stay, but the hard part is sneaking them out again so they can be seen coming through the front door. Cosette can fit in a basket, but Valjean?

Having established himself as indispensable but harmless over the last two years, playing dumb while observing everything, Fauchelevent rambles to the prioress about how he’s getting old, the garden’s so big, and could he maybe trouble them to let his brother come to assist him? Oh, and he has a granddaughter who might attend the school, and who knows, one day she might choose to join their order?

One of the nuns has just died, her final wishes to be buried in the vaults beneath the convent. Of course, city regulations require the dead to be buried in an off-site cemetery, which means they’ll be sending the coffin out without a body. Hmmm…

The nun, upset at the city’s usurpation of a spiritual matter, goes on a rant about secular vs religious authority, and even Hugo remarks that she’s going on a tear.

Fauchelevent comes to Valjean with two problems: getting Valjean out, and getting the empty coffin out. If only he had another body to put in it…. Shrewd as he is, the idea of smuggling Valjean out in the coffin doesn’t occur to him. It literally is inconceivable. To Jean Valjean, on the other hand, an ex-convict with three escapes behind him, it’s easy to contemplate. He’s seen worse.

Even long-winded Victor Hugo knows if you describe a plan in detail, you don’t need to portray the execution of it until the point where it goes off the rails. In this case, the grave digger Fauchelevent had planned to get drunk so he could sneak Valjean out of the coffin turns out to be dead. The new guy? Teetotaler.

Hugo is actually having fun with the quirks of this new gravedigger, who is a failed writer but still works as a scribe for illiterate clients. Love letters by day, graves by night. As Valjean gets buried alive, the scene above the grave is actually comic.

By the time Fauchelevent chases the new guy off and gets down to open the coffin, Valjean has fainted. Fauvent is convinced Valjean has suffocated, and laments at length about this cruel trick of fate. Then Valjean opens his eyes. Commence freaking out.

As the new assistant gardener, Valjean compares the nuns’ life in the convent with the prison life he knew — oddly similar, but on one hand voluntary austerity and deprivation leading to greater virtue and on the other hand enforced, leading to hatred, and finds himself moved to humility.

That wraps up Part Two: Cosette. Next up is the jump forward in time to 1832 and the urchins of Paris.

Pages covered: 451-491. Image of the grave situation by de Neuville from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Part 11: Getting Un-Convent-ional

The Convent of Le Petit PicpusI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to the chase through Paris, or read on.

Frustrating to a modern reader, Hugo tends to separate exposition and action. He’ll describe the characters and setting in exquisite detail for pages on pages, then tell you what they did there.

In this case, it’s the convent where Valjean and Cosette have landed, and its order of nuns. They practice severe isolation even when visitors are allowed, only speaking through a small grille in the wall of the parlor.

The nuns are forbidden to bathe or brush their teeth. “The act of brushing the teeth is the topmost rung of a ladder of which the lowest rung is perdition.” Maybe it’s just as well that they’re so isolated.

One of the strange sights – the shrouded body with a rope around its neck – turns out to be an atonement ritual practiced by the nuns.

The fact that they cannot inter their dead within the convent grounds is mentioned in passing, though it’ll be important later.

One of the nuns is quoted as saying, “The prayers of the postulants are terrifying, those of the novices are worse, and those of the professed nuns are worst of all.”

The convent runs a girls’ boarding school. I’d been trying to remember how they ended up keeping Cosette without cloistering her. Though even the schoolgirls follow enough of the rules that it seems like she wouldn’t see Valjean for years, which I don’t recall being the case.

I love how, after 20 pages describing this convent, Hugo basically says, “since we’re already off-track, I may as well go off on another tangent.” And this is before the part the translator decided to pull out into an appendix!

Speaking of which…

Convents

I didn’t read this chapter the first time through. I can see why Norman Denny pulled it out. (He notes that even Hugo’s editor wanted to remove it, but that Hugo insisted on keeping it.) It’s basically 10 pages of Hugo ranting about convents and monasteries, which he calls “a wasting disease of civilization.” His attitude — and keep in mind that he was very religious, and the beginning of this chapter says that the main character in the book is God — is that the institution was a necessary horror in the middle ages but had no place in the modern world.

He laments that people will often advance outmoded ideas including superstition, bigotry and prejudice under the veneer of “social order, divine right, morality, the family,” etc. The more things change…

“For our own part, we respect certain things belonging to the past and forgive all of it, provided it consents to stay dead. But if it tries to come alive we attack and seek to kill it.”

Interesting thought: a monastery has equality and brotherhood, but not liberty.

Hugo takes atheists to task, comparing them to blind men refusing to acknowledge the existence of the sun. He admits that some atheists are great philosophers, though he rejects their philosophy. Nihilists, on the other hand, he has nothing good to say about.

He goes on to clarify that he’s in favor of religion in general (which is pretty obvious from the rest of the book)…just not organized religions. According to Wikipedia, his views shifted even further in this direction as he grew older, opposing the Catholic Church in particular (this is France, after all), calling himself a “Freethinker” and espousing essentially Deist views.

Meanwhile…

Les Misérables on Blu-RayIn related news, the movie is out on Blu-Ray and DVD today. I’m looking forward to seeing it again. I enjoyed it despite its flaws, but a lot of my opinions on it are really still first impressions. I’d like to develop a more considered view of it. Plus of course it’ll be interesting to see it again with the novel (or at least the first third of it) fresh in my mind. Maybe it’ll help distract the part of my brain that kept comparing the stage version I know best with what was on screen.

Pages covered: 425-450 and 1202-1213. Image of the Petit-Picpus convent from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery. Next up: Valjean is buried alive.

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Part 10: Valjean sure knows how to pick a hiding place

Hunt in DarknessI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Now that Valjean has rescued little Cosette from the Thénardiers, the story moves to Paris! But not to the greatest neighborhood. Victor Hugo describes it in such loving details as:

“An interesting and picturesque feature of buildings of this kind is the enormous size of the spiders that infest them.”

“It is possible to conceive of something even more terrible than a hell of suffering, and that is a hell of boredom. If such a hell exists, that stretch of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have been the road leading to it.”

It’s to this cheerful spot that Valjean brings Cosette. It’s still better than the Thénardiers’ inn, though.

Becoming Cosette’s surrogate father is as major a turning point for Valjean’s soul as the incident with the bishop. This doesn’t come through in the stage musical at all, but they made it central in the movie, and Victor Hugo flat-out compares the two epiphanies in the novel: The bishop taught him virtue, while Cosette taught him the meaning of love. Hugo even ponders whether Valjean’s no-good-deed-goes-unpunished experience would have sent him back into bitterness if he hadn’t met her.

Les Misérables SoundtrackIf I may digress for a moment (and since I’m writing about Les Misérables, it would only be fitting), I finally listened to the movie soundtrack on its own last night, two months after seeing the film…and I’ve finally placed what “Suddenly” reminds me of: “Someone Else’s Story” from Chess. No wonder it felt like it didn’t fit in this score: it reminds me of a different show!.

Valjean brings his money to Paris sewn into the lining of his coat. I wonder if they used serial numbers in those days.

He hasn’t quite learned how to keep a low profile yet. He becomes known for being generous to the local beggars, and one night one of the regulars doesn’t quite look right when he hands him some money.

Then Javert rents a flat in the same tenement. Uh-oh…

Exit, Pursued by Javert

Before the chase through the nighttime Paris streets, Hugo apologizes for not knowing how much of the area he’s about to describe is still around. Before that apology, he apologizes for mentioning himself. These days it would just be an author’s note, not part of the text.

Streetlights haven’t been lit because of the full moon. That’s not something I would have considered, but if the lights have to be lit by hand, it makes sense that you’d take advantage of efficiencies like that.

Trapped in a dead end, Valjean takes the only escape route he can: up. But he can’t free-climb with Cosette.

Cosette finally starts breaking down over the flight. He tells her she must be quiet, because Mme Thénardier is following them. This works, but only because it scares her even more — after they reach safety, he has to assure her that she’s gone.

An empty garden, a ruined building, sounds of pursuit, midnight hymns, a body with a rope around its neck…and an incredible coincidence, as the gardener (who happens to be awake at midnight) is the man Valjean saved from the runaway cart.

The Hunter

The viewpoint returns to Javert and Valjean’s arrest months before. He actually forgot about him — a job well done, but it’s been done and over with — until reading the news of his death. Then he read about a little girl being “abducted” in Montfermeil, whose mother Fantine had died in a hospital earlier that year, and started to wonder.

By the time Javert shows up to interview the Thénardiers, they’ve realized they don’t want police looking too closely at them, and changed their tune: she left with her grandfather, and Thénardier had simply wanted to keep her around a few more days.

“Javert went back to Paris. ‘Valjean is dead,’ he said to himself, ‘and I’m an ass.'” Well, you’re half-right.

He keeps seeing odd reports, though, and tries to put together enough evidence to make an arrest. He even poses as one of the beggars, hoping his suspect will show up and give him a good look at his face (establishing Javert as a master of disguise). His lack of certainty, coupled with police PR problems at the time, give Valjean enough time to flee. Once he flushes Valjean into a dead end, though, he decides to toy with his prey, which gives him just enough time to escape.

Notes

Someone landed on one of these articles this week by searching for “How to read Les Misérables.” I did a search myself, and found WikiHow’s article by that title. “Things you’ll need: Willpower. A copy of Les Misérables” – So true!

Bad reception at the place I had lunch on Wednesday kept me from tweeting my comments, so I had to write them offline. This is probably better, since I don’t have to clutter up my Twitter feed with my notes, and I can still tweet highlights if I want to. I’m going to stick with that plan going forward.

Also, like last week, my commentary ended up being a lot longer than I wanted, so I’ve split it into two articles. The second one will go up in a few days.

Pages covered: 385-424. Continue on to Part 11: the convent.

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