Tag Archives: Fauchelevent

No Such Thing as Coincidence

There are a lot of coincidences in Les Misérables that seem far-fetched, like Valjean landing in the one place where someone would recognize him as M. Madeleine and help him. Hugo treats them as divine design, referring at one point to “chance, that is to say, providence…”

My favorite is when Montparnasse tries to mug Jean Valjean outside Mabeuf’s garden while Gavroche is hiding in the bushes. None of the characters know each other at this point.

Another good one: Javert doesn’t normally read the news, but he picks up a newspaper for coverage of a special occasion on the very day that a tiny article appears about Valjean’s apparent death.

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A Few Thoughts on the Mysterious Monsieur Madeleine

Surely “Pere Madeleine” must have invented a first name, even if no one was on first name basis with him. I don’t think it’s ever mentioned.

He enjoys reading (or at least does so out of habit), while Javert hates books, but reads because he feels like he ought to.

He’s also a crack-shot, but “never killed a harmless animal. He never shot a small bird.” … like a lark, for instance?

Heh… Hugo describes animals as “the visible spectres of our souls.” Not as literally as in His Dark Materials, of course…

Javert does try to help with the cart accident, by sending someone for a jack. (Of course they’ve got one.) Also, the way no one will help until Madeleine lifts the cart, but everyone suddenly rushes in afterward, fits with behavior like diffusion of responsibility.

Valjean has little reason to fear Javert more than any other inspector at this point. Javert’s new, or might as well be. Sure, some of the hints he drops are a bit worrying, but Valjean doesn’t recognize Javert (he was one of many guards passing through Toulon), and has no reason to think Javert might recognize him. It’s not personal. Yet.

Fantine & Javert are both thrown for a loop by Madeleine’s intervention. She deludes herself into thinking Javert had a change of heart & thanks him effusively. He’s frozen in place until she starts to walk out of the police station.

I still love the way Madeleine quotes regulations & pulls rank to get Javert to release Fantine. It comes back to bite him, of course, but it’s still very satisfying.

What, no endnotes on reference to Homer, Milton or Dante? That really points out who’s still well-known!

Valjean’s nightmare still reminds me of the land of the dead in the Earthsea books. More so now. I find myself thinking of Le Guin, and Ged, and Tehanu, being true to oneself, and tearing down the wall that trapped souls in the Dry Lands.

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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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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.


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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Righteousness vs “Righteousness”

Les Misérables

Last time we followed the mysterious Monsieur Madeleine’s rise to prominence in Fantine’s hometown. By the time she returns, it seems that everybody loves Monsieur Madeleine.

Well, almost everyone.

Javert is not impressed.

Inspector Javert is described using the wolf/sheepdog metaphor, as a dog born to wolves. Outcast, he decides he can never join society, but can either prey on it or protect it. His instinct for order leads him to the latter.

Continuing the animal metaphor, Javert laughing is “a rare and terrible occurrence…Javert unsmiling was a bulldog; when he laughed he was a tiger.”

He’s been investigating “M. Madeleine” for quite some time, though it causes severe cognitive dissonance between his two key beliefs: government officials can do no wrong and criminals can do no right. (M. Madeleine has pretended not to notice.)

Javert hints at his suspicions to Valjean before he lifts the cart off of Fauchelevent, (“I’ve only known one man with the strength to do this…”) but Valjean does it anyway, because he’s just that kind of guy.

Fantine Gets Screwed Over

Fantine’s dismissal is far less personal than in the play: a local busybody/moral guardian finds out about her child and exposes her secret. She even gets severance pay, it’s just not enough to cover her debts. No one will hire her because of her reputation, and she can’t leave town and start fresh because she owes too much here. She probably would have been all right just being fired from the factory, if it weren’t for the whole town ostracizing her. Even then, she manages to cut back enough and find just enough work to hang on all summer, but winter and mounting debts do her in.

And then the Thénardiers start demanding more and more money. They write to her saying that Cosette is freezing and needs 10 francs for a woolen dress. She sells her hair and buys a dress. They’re furious because, of course, they wanted the money, and give the dress to Éponine. The next time they write, they claim she’s deathly ill and needs 40 francs for medicine or she’ll die within a week. Fantine sells her incisors for that — not exactly practical for a show where she has to sing. Finally, at the end of her rope, she receives a demand for 100 francs or they’ll turn Cosette out on the street. She figures she’s already sold the rest…

I wonder what the “moral guardian” would say if she knew that her action had increased the number of prostitutes in town.

Somewhere in this section I had to look up 1800s French currency and figure out how centimes, sous, napoleons and francs were related. The first hit was someone on Yahoo Answers who was re-reading Les Mis and wanted to know the same thing.

Fantine’s Arrest

Bamatabois isn’t a repulsive customer – he’s just harassing Fantine for the hell of it until he dumps a snowball down her back and she snaps.

Javert really can’t handle anything that challenges his assumptions, such as the Mayor commanding him to let some prostitute go free after she hit a citizen.

By this time, Fantine’s so bitter that she has the same problem. She’s come to blame M. Madeleine for the year or more of hell, so when he tells Javert to free her, she thinks she’s misheard, and Javert must have had a change of heart.

As they argue over Fantine’s jail sentence, Javert claims jurisdiction…then M. Madeleine cites regulations. Repeatedly, until he completely shuts Javert down.

The way M. Madeleine addresses Fantine after he pardons her, and the way she reacts to the sudden change of fortune, strongly mirrors the way the bishop pardoned Valjean. (Except the part where Fantine faints immediately afterward, but Hugo has been hinting at her having consumption since she left Paris.)

Pages covered this week: 164-190. Continue on to part 5 as Javert confronts M. Madeleine with his suspicions. Sort of.

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