Tag Archives: Ephiphany

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.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.

Part 2…4601

Les Misérables: The BookI’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.

Follow @ReadingLesMis on Twitter or @KelsonV@Wandering.Shop on Mastodon.