Tag Archives: Dilemma

The Ambush

I wrote a lot about the ambush scene the last time through, but I want to add a few notes from this reading.

The imagery and tension in the ambush sequence is amazing. I’d really like to see it done justice (so to speak) in a film or TV adaptation instead of cut completely or turned into a comic moment.

In scenes like this, Victor Hugo narrows in from omniscient point of view down to just what one character knows. Marius doesn’t know any of Patron-minette’s names, so we don’t get them. But we know, for instance, that Boulatrelle’s a road mender and a drunk, so the drunk with a road mender’s hammer is clearly him even before someone speaks his name out loud. Valjean continues to be M. Leblanc throughout, even after he gives his name as Urbain Fauvre (note: check spelling).

There’s a lot of duality going on: All the aliases, Marius’ dilemma, Thénardier’s real plight vs his scapegoating of Valjean. And lots of animal comparisons. (I’m noticing them a lot more since I’ve started listening to The Les Misérables Reading Companion.)

Another disturbing thing about Thénardier: his mood swings. You never know whether you’re going to face violence and rage or calm (but still malicious) craftiness. It’s a form of his adaptability. Or maybe shiftiness is a better term.

Thénardier’s rage and resentment and envy in the face of deprivation are the same feelings that drove Jean Valjean by the time he got out of prison. Thénardier isn’t just a villain, he’s the hero’s evil counterpart: a glimpse of what Valjean could have become if he’d continued down the road that prison forced him onto instead of encountering the bishop’s example and encouragement.

Though I suspect Mirror-Universe Jean Valjean would have been more competent than Thénardier. As an example, he tells Valjean to cross out part of the letter he forces him to write, asking Cosette to go with the kidnappers, because it might look suspicious. Not to rewrite the note without it. Thénardier isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

Valjean’s demonstration with the red-hot chisel that they can’t intimidate him through torture is both an impressive feat of badassery and an expression of the self-denial he learned from the bishop. It’s helped him and others over the years, but one day it will kill him.

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Part 37: This is the End

The wedding is a new beginning for Marius and Cosette, but it’s the beginning of the end for Jean Valjean. Fortunately, Thénardier tries to blackmail the happy couple.

If M. Gillenormand has gone overboard with joy and opulence, Valjean has fallen into despair. He leaves the wedding early and agonizes all night.

In part, he’s concerned that his legal troubles might still spill over onto her. But it turns out after all these years of being a good person, doing good works, helping people, and so on, he still believes he’s the horrible no-good piece of scum who tried to rob the bishop.

Now that Javert’s gone, Valjean has taken over his role, apparently having internalized Javert’s opinion of him. At his most charitable, he feels like he’s manure used to help a beautiful flower grow.

Once again, it comes down to identity. As far as he’s concerned, only what he’s done as Jean Valjean really represents himself. Any good he’s done as “Madeleine” or “Fauchelevent” doesn’t count…and his conscience will no longer allow him to live under a false name.

This is the point where I really have trouble agreeing with Valjean’s decisions. Philosophically, if you do good deeds for a good reason, you’ve done the good deeds. Saying that doing good pseudonymously doesn’t matter is like saying that doing good anonymously doesn’t matter…and yet people will often do so because they want their deeds to speak louder than their names.

Conversely, you’d have to accept that evil done under a false name doesn’t accrue to your soul, and I can’t imagine Jean Valjean agreeing with that.

Separation Anxiety

So, the morning after the wedding, not having slept all night, Valjean goes to speak with Marius and starts trying to socially separate himself from Cosette as well.

Marius hasn’t slept all night either. (Bom-chicka-waaaa!) Later on, Cosette wanders out of their bedroom, hair all messy.

Valjean tells Marius just enough to make himself look bad, but leaves out critical information like: That money in Cosette’s trust fund was obtained through legitimate business. “As to how it came into my hands, that is quite unimportant.” No, you idiot, it’s a matter of life and death. (Yours, incidentally.)

He tells Cosette to call him “Monsieur Jean” instead of “father,” starts addressing her formally as vous and Madame, refuses to move into the Gillenormand household even though he’s been invited, visits only in the dampest first-floor room, etc.

“You mean that you’re no longer my father? You’ll be telling me next that I’m not Cosette!” Well, technically, you’re not…Euphrasie.

Cosette starts spending time with “new acquaintances brought to her by marriage.” WHO? All of Marius’ friends are dead.

Marius: All my friends are dead.

Toussaint, the live-in servant whom Hugo doesn’t mention that often, goes with Cosette, and eventually quits because she doesn’t get along with the Gillenormands’ maid. This leaves Valjean alone in his home and Cosette with one less link to her past.

Marius goes back and forth as to how much he trusts Valjean at this point. But ultimately, he believes that Valjean murdered Javert, and becomes more and more convinced the money in the trust fund is the loot from Valjean having defrauded M. Madeleine. This drives even more of a wedge between them: Valjean feels himself unworthy, and Marius starts making him unwelcome.

Eventually, Valjean can’t bring himself to knock on the door. Then he can’t bring himself to walk past the street corner. His walks get shorter and shorter, and eventually he stops leaving the apartment altogether. After a while he stops eating.

Cosette thinks he’s just gone off on one of his mysterious trips, a fiction encouraged by the fact that Valjean has instructed the doorman to tell people he’s not at home.

Valjean’s decline in the musical is shockingly rapid. Here it’s slower, but much, much sadder. This is what dying of a broken heart really means.

Blackmail Gone Wrong

Thénardier shows up at Marius’ office dressed in a costume rented from a man who specializes in providing outfits for criminals. No, his name isn’t Gambi.

Marius has done his research, and not only does he see through the disguise, he tells him point blank, “I already know what you’re going to tell me.” Thénardier, trying to regain the upper hand, proceeds to show him newspaper clippings proving otherwise: That Madeleine was in fact Valjean, that Javert survived the barricade after being spared by one of the rebels, only to be found drowned the next morning.

What a switch: He makes a point of providing printed evidence, because it’s so much harder to forge than handwritten evidence.

“The words murderer and thief, which Marius had thought disposed of, came like a cold douche.” Yes, Thénardier is a douche. I think we can all agree on that.

Of course, the master-stoke of showing the piece of torn fabric from the “murder victim’s” coat is foiled when Marius walks over to the closet and pulls out his old coat to show that the piece matches exactly.

Marius decides to hand Thénardier some money anyway to settle his long-standing obligation, and urges him to start an honest life in the Americas. He does go to America, but he goes into the slave trade.

Death of Valjean

With Thénardier’s information, Marius finally understands what’s been going on, and he and Cosette go to see Valjean in person. Valjean is on his deathbed, having not eaten in days, but brightens at their arrival. He can hang on a few more minutes.

“‘I told you the truth,’ said Valjean. ‘No. The truth means the whole truth, not just part of it. Why didn’t you tell me that you were Monsieur Madeleine and that you had spared Javert?” Probably because you might have talked him out of leaving.

Cosette: “I won’t allow you to spend another day in this horrible place.” Valjean: “Certainly I shan’t be here tomorrow.” Gallows humor isn’t something I really associate with Valjean, and yet here it is. The “forbid me to die” exchange is also in here.

Cosette: “there won’t be any more of this “Madame – Monsieur Jean” nonsense, we’re a republic and we call each other tu, don’t we, Marius?”

Jean Valjean’s “last confession” is a description of the manufacturing method for making those glass beads and bracelet clasps. At one point he interrupts their last-chance reunion to point out something he forgot to write down. It seems a little odd at first, but it was the fact that Marius believed Cosette’s fortune to be ill-gotten that drove his side of the schism.

Apparently Valjean never told Cosette her mother’s name until now. You’d think the Thénardiers might have mentioned her once in a while, but then she has blocked out most of her early memories.

He also remarks on the Thénardiers being wicked people whom they must forgive. Did he just come to that conclusion now, or was he willing to forgive them already but not himself? Marius doesn’t interrupt…it’s a dying man’s monologue…but I have to wonder if he caught the reference. The name doesn’t seem to have come up when he asked Cosette about her childhood, and I imagine it would have come as a shock to realize that they share still another connection.

Valjean dies happy, his face lit by the two candlesticks, after months of easily-preventable sadness. All he had to do was tell Marius the whole truth instead of just the bad parts. He might still have chosen to live apart, as he did at the Rue Plumet, he might still have struggled with depression and his conscience, he might even have still died within that year…but he didn’t need to make himself unwelcome to the only people who made him feel life was worth living.

Following Jean Valjean through despair to his death reminds me of two things: First, the old adage to count no man happy until he’s dead (variously attributed to Sophocles, Herodotus and Solon). I recently read a post by Robert J Sawyer on killing characters, which probably primed me to think of it. Second, the aspiring writer in the first volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, who had figured out the secret to happy endings: You have to know where to stop. Otherwise, all stories end in death.

They bury him in a hidden grave, marked only by a plain slab of stone. Someone — perhaps Cosette? — writes a verse in chalk:

He sleeps. Although so much he was denied,
He lived; and when his dear love left him, died.
It happened of itself, in the calm way
That in the evening night-time follows day

The Final Pages

Pages covered: 1139-1201.

And that’s it. It’s been a long, long project, and I can’t believe it’s done. I didn’t feel like I was really finished when I read the last page, but now that I have a full series of commentaries — within the calendar year, no less — it actually feels complete.

I don’t think I’ve ever finished a blog before. Abandoned, sure, but not concluded. I do still want to re-watch the movie now that I’ve finished the book, and I’ll write up some thoughts on that, and there’s going to be polishing to be done on the site: fixing typos, cross-linking articles, cleaning up the leftover boilerplate text from when they were on my other blog, things like that.

And who knows? I picked up the new Christine Donougher translation, The Wretched, because the Kindle edition was only a dollar. I might read that next year. Though if I do, I’ll probably confine myself to a single post, or at most one per volume.

If you’d like to continue reading my thoughts on other subjects, please check out K-Squared Ramblings, where I talk about life, tech, and geek interests, or Speed Force where I write about comic books and superheroes, particularly the Flash.

Thanks for following along with me on this journey, and I hope to see you elsewhere online!

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Part 19: Ambush in the Slums

I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about Paris’ chief scumbags, or read on.

All the surviving major players in the events outside the barricade meet in this scene: Marius meets Éponine, Thénardier encounters Valjean and Cosette (and tries to rob them), and even Javert returns…ironically to rescue the man he’s hunted! This is a long one, mainly because there isn’t a good spot to break it up. I suppose I could split it between the initial meetings and the extortion attempt, but really, this whole sequence flows together more smoothly than anything else of comparable length so far. I found myself reluctant to put the book down while reading it.

Now, there’s a cheerful title: “The noxious poor.” As the section goes on, it becomes clear that the title distinguishes the Thénardiers from the honest poor, like Marius or Fantine.

The “first tenant” at the Gorbeau tenement complains about how everything costs more these days.

Meeting Éponine

Éponine and MariusMarius, still in despair months after he’s last seen the girl of his dreams, finally meets Éponine on Groundhog Day, when she knocks on his door begging for money.

Éponine is pathetic in the truest sense of the word. She’s dressed about as well as Cosette when she was in the Thénardiers’ “care” (which is to say in too few rags to even begin to keep her warm), has a husky voice like “a bronchitic old man,” is missing teeth, and is down to skin and bones. “A blend of fifty and fifteen.” She hasn’t eaten in three days. Hugo compares her, and girls like her, to “flowers dropped in the street which lie fading in the mud until a cartwheel comes to crush them.”

Éponine is thrilled to find books in Marius’ room. She clearly has a crush on him already, and rambles to him about how she likes to go off on her own. There aren’t any exact matches to the imagery, but I’m certain this passage inspired the song.

Catching up with the Thénardiers

Marius realizes he didn’t really know true poverty at all, and finds a hole in the wall through which he begins spying on the “Jondrettes.” Just, y’know, to see how badly they’re really doing. (This is the same guy who was stalking Cosette so determinedly that her father moved them to a new house.) The narration refers to them as “les misérables.”

Thénardier now looks like “a combination of vulture and prosecuting attorney.” He’s running a series of scams begging for money through letters. He diversifies his identities, tactics and targets in the pitches. Today he’d claim to be a Nigerian prince in one letter and a lottery commissioner in another. But the letter begging his neighbor for money is about as honest as it could be…except for his name, which he’s given as Jondrette.

The Thénardiers’ situation is heartbreaking, as vile as they are, if only because the children deserve better. And yet when one of their letters bears fruit, he breaks what they have left, careless of injuring Azelma in the process, in order to gain more sympathy from the “philanthropist”… Continue reading

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Part 6: Get Me To The Courthouse On Time

Les Miserables featuring a bookmarkAfter his night of inner debate, Valjean rushes out of town to reach the court trying his double. He still hasn’t decided what to do, but he needs to be there just in case.

At this point, Victor Hugo stops to describe the country postal system.

Just kidding. He only takes a couple of paragraphs before a postal cart racing down the road crashes into Valjean’s cart. At his next stop, someone notices the wheel’s busted and won’t last the rest of the journey, and he spends several pages talking with the local wheelwright about how soon it can be fixed, can he hire another conveyance, can he just ride, etc.

What a relief! I tried to go to the trial, but the wheel broke and I can’t get on the road till tomorrow! I can’t turn myself in, but it’s not my fault!

At this point someone overhears the conversation who can rent him a gig. Noooooo!

And now the road’s closed for repairs. Valjean making it to the trial is like Hurley getting to the airport to catch Flight 815.

Interlude: Fantine

It’s weird to read about Fantine dying of consumption while you and your small child are both coughing loudly due to a bad cold. Actually I don’t think the book specifically says which extended respiratory disease she has, but it’s at least a good bet. (On checking, I found that Wikipedia has an article on Tuberculosis in popular culture.)

Fantine actually does sing a lullaby she used to sing to Cosette in her final hours.

M. Madeleine visits Fantine every afternoon at 3:00. On learning that he’s left town, the nuns fear the shock will kill her. Instead, she’s deliriously happy — why else would he have left town except to fetch Cosette!

Another of those things that don’t quite come across in the musical: At this point it’s been five years since Fantine last saw Cosette. She was two at the time, and now she’s seven. Cosette barely remembers her mother at all, and Fantine only remembers her daughter as an infant.

Trial Edition

M. Madeleine, Mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer, has to pull rank to get into the packed courtroom, which is already in session.

Would you believe these facts about not-Valjean’s trial?

  • The hotshot prosecutor is a tough guy who always “gets his man” (in the translator’s words). Also, he writes poetry.
  • The “gentleman” who had Fantine arrested is on the jury.
  • There’s a bit of theater criticism (Racine’s Phaedra) in the closing arguments.
  • Valjean’s hair turns white in the courtroom while he’s watching the proceedings.

The original form of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” ended with “…or Death.” According to Wikipedia, the last bit was dropped due to association with the Terror.

No one believes M. Madeleine when he finally outs himself as Jean Valjean. The presiding judge asks if there’s a doctor present. He convinces them by rattling off details about the three fellow convicts who had identified the other man and are still in court as witnesses. Even so, everyone’s too shocked to make a move to arrest him (Javert has already left), so he walks out, saying essentially “You know where to find me.”

Hospital

The next chapter is seriously titled “In which mirror Monsieur Madeleine examines his hair.” Sometimes I think S. Morgenstern was a real author, and his name was Victor Hugo.

Valjean returns to Fantine’s bedside to find that her condition is markedly improved by her belief that she’ll see Cosette soon. He and the doctor spend several pages trying to explain why she can’t see Cosette right now without telling Fantine that he hasn’t brought her.

Then Javert walks in.

Victor Hugo couldn’t have Fantine say “Oh, merde!” back in 1862, but you know she was thinking it. [Edit: well, actually…]

You can tell Javert is seething with inner turmoil because the button on his collar is a little off.

The shock of Javert’s cruelty when he arrests Valjean is what finally kills Fantine. But hey, he was right about Valjean, so he’s perfectly happy in his I-think-I’m-an-avenging-angel-with-a-flaming-sword-of-righteousness way.

Javert actually puts Valjean in the town jail. He breaks out. The nun who never lies covers his escape, sacrificing her honesty for his freedom.

And that wraps up the first part of the book! Next up is Part Two: Cosette, which starts with the battle of Waterloo.

Pages covered this week: 225-275. You might also be interested in my review of the movie. Continue to Part 7: Waterloo.

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Part 5: 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:

  • 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.

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