Tag Archives: History

Last Stand at the Barricade

The barricade, and the wider insurrection it’s a part of, is doomed. We get another philosophical chapter, as Hugo contrasts the revolt which has the support of the populace with the revolt that doesn’t. Even if the revolution is noble in purpose, “One cannot goad people into moving faster than they are prepared to go.”

“Victory, if it is in accord with progress, deserves the applause of mankind; but an heroic defeat deserves one’s heartfelt sympathy.”

Nice: “We say to them: ‘You are robbing Hell of its pavements!’ To which they might reply: ‘That is why our barricade is built of good intentions.’”

Every once in a while, Hugo reminds the reader that, however socially progressive he might be, he still has his own blind spots. He wants society to stop exploiting women, but doesn’t want to fully enfranchise them. Here he comments on the need for civilization, and revolution, to have artists…but that “a civilizing race must be a masculine race.” It’s a bit jarring, even when you consider how imbalanced the cast is in both size and agency.

“The modern ideal finds its prototype in art and its method in science.”

“…in this play which centres upon a social outcast, and of which the real title is, Progress.” Well, it’s certainly easier to spell.

Page 1048: Hugo lays out the main theme of the whole book in a single paragraph.

The book which the reader now holds in his hands, from one end to the other, as a whole and in its details, whatever gaps, exceptions, or weaknesses it may contain, treats of the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from limbo to God. Matter itself is the starting-point, and the point of arrival is the soul. Hydra at the beginning, an angel at the end.

Fall of the Barricade

It’s still broad daylight when the army makes its full attack. Waves of soldiers attack, are repulsed, attack again. The army has a huge advantage in numbers, weaponry, and having actually eaten in the last day, but the barricade has the advantage of position…and being manned by idealists.

Enjolras is keeping himself out of sight while trying to keep track of the entire battle, while Marius “I want to die” Pontmercy sets himself up as a target.

“The defenders’ ammunition was running low, but not their sarcasm.” Bossuet asks what Courfeyrac did with his hat. “It was taken off by a cannon-ball.” Combeferre remarks of those who said they would join but didn’t, “There are people who observe the rules of honour as we do the stars, from a very long way off.”

After several waves of attacks, most of the defenders are killed, and the barricade is breached. Marius and Enjolras are the last of the students/leaders to survive, Marius drenched in blood from head and shoulder wounds, Enjolras remarkably unscathed because someone’s always there to hand him a new weapon when he needs one.

The last few rebels fall back to the tavern, Enjolras covering them alone while Marius collapses from loss of blood. They’re so focused on breaking into the tavern that no one notices Valjean carrying Marius off.

By the time the soldiers breach the door, the rebels have all retreated to the upper floor and cut down the staircase. Paving stones, the last few bullets, and finally those wine bottles serve as weapons.

Last Stand

Enjolras and Grantaire at the Firing SquadThe soldiers climb up to the second floor, where they find Enjolras standing there, alone, surrounded by his dead comrades, saying, “Shoot me!” Come at me, bro!

One of the soldiers lowers his musket, remarking that he’s too pretty to kill. “I feel as though I’d be shooting a flower.”

Grantaire has slept through the whole battle in a drunken stupor, and awakens in the silence. Realizing what’s happened, he interrupts the firing squad, walks over to Enjolras, and says, “Might as well kill two birds with one stone.” Then he turns to Enjolras: “If you don’t mind.”

The man dedicated to the ideals of the movement, and the man who rejected them all but idolized their leader, die together. While I think Hugo was going more for rebuffed hero worship here, I can definitely see a parallel between Marius/Éponine and Enjolras/Grantaire.

A few minutes later, the soldiers take the last few holdouts in the attic and cellar, and it’s all over.


Valjean has spent his time tending to the wounded, shoring up the barricade, and other support jobs, not willing to take part in the fighting. This makes his request to be the one to execute Javert stand out even more than it would otherwise.

We start to see into his head again as he tries to figure out how to escape with the unconscious Marius, calling back to the chase through Paris years before, but we still have no sense of why he’s there, except that it involves Marius. The epiphany portrayed in “Bring Him Home” takes place entirely off the page, and it’s not clear when he reached the decision to rescue him, or even whether it was made deliberately or on the spur of the moment.

It’s strange that, because of the staging of the show, I can’t help but picture this as happening at night, when it’s actually early in the afternoon.

As the battle rages inside the tavern, offering a few minutes of cover, Valjean desperately looks for a way out, finally spotting an iron grate in the street. Into the sewers!

Pages 1041-1060, concluding the epic “War Within Four Walls” chapter. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Barricades of Future Past (Plus Cannon Geekery)

And now we’re into the last of the five main divisions of Les Misérables: Part Five: Jean Valjean. Naturally, it starts with a history lesson. Not about 1832…but about 1848, reasoning that his 1860s audience would be more familiar with the barricades of the June 1848 revolt.

I was reading this and thinking, “Another digression? Now? Eh, I guess it’s still thematic.” I turned the page, and read the sentence, “Where the theme is not lost sight of there can be no digression.” Well, then, there you go!

Hugo contrasts the two main barricades of that event: One in the Saint-Antoine neighborhood, massive, three stories high and seven hundred feet long, a jumble of anything that could be scrounged up and manned by a passionate leader, the other in the Temple neighborhood, built seemingly overnight of paving-stones lined up with the precision of a mason, and defended silently…but with ruthless efficiency.

Victor Hugo refers to himself in a number of places, but always obliquely — except here, when describing the silence of the no-man’s land in front of the Temple barricade: “I remember seeing a butterfly flutter up and down that street. Summer does not abdicate.” It surprised me enough when I first read the book that I remembered it, and it’s not a translation error. The original French reads “Je me souviens d’un papillon blanc qui allait et venait dans la rue.”

Back to the Past

Marius’ time as leader lasts about five minutes before he discovers he has something to lose after all, and sinks into paralyzing despair.

Continue reading

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You Say You Want A Revolution

Street Orator

Les Misérables is divided into five parts, most of them named after characters: Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Jean Valjean. Then there’s Part Four: “The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Sain-Denis.”

Victor Hugo starts this section by establishing the political context of the years 1830-1832, including the July Revolution, in which the restored monarchy reasserted itself, only to be told “no” and kicked out. Rebuilding, he says, was a task for the wise, but the revolution was co-opted by the “merely clever,” who voted to install a new king, Louis-Philippe. The result was a sort of half-revolution that left a lot of problems unresolved. He then goes on to talk about Louis-Philippe, trying to separate the king from the man where possible.

Meanwhile, problems piled up for the next few years.

The wisest, calmest and most far-sighted go slowly to work, but by the time they produce their rendering the job has long been done and twenty different versions are on sale in the marketplace. Each interpretation gives birth to a political party, each contradiction to a political faction; and each party believes that it has the sole authentic gospel, each faction that it has its own light to shed.

Hugo discusses the problems of the production of wealth and its distribution, suggesting that both must be solved to produce a healthy economy. As he sees it, England in his time had solved the first problem, but not the second, while communists claimed to have solved the second problem at the expense of the first. “Proper distribution does not imply an equal share but an equitable share. Equity is the essence of equality.” If, one day, you manage to solve both problems, well then, “you will worthy to call yourself France.” (France has the best economic struggles!)

By mid-1832, Paris is buzzing with open ferment, people casually stockpiling ammunition, attending meetings, making alliances, creating secret lines of communication but as often speaking openly. The ABC students are in the thick of it but far from the only ones making plans.

The whole section is rather tedious to get through, but it does a much better job than anything in the stage version or the movie at really establishing the scope of the revolt. It’s not just one group of idealistic students who imagine popular support that doesn’t exist. It’s widespread unrest, and they had good reasons to believe that when they rose up, they could succeed.

At one point Enjolras starts sending his lieutenants out to recruit various guilds and workers, and has one last group to recruit. He was thinking of sending Marius, but he doesn’t show up anymore. Grantaire volunteers. “But you don’t believe in anything?” “I believe in you.” *bats eyelashes* (OK, no eyelashes). Yeah, he’s desperate to prove himself. Or…maybe not. Enjolras checks up on him later and he’s playing dominoes with the marble-workers he was supposed to recruit.

Next: the aftermath of that attempted robbery.

I’m back at commentary after a two-month break! I read a few other books, took two trips, and had a busy time at work, plus I changed my note-taking scheme so that I read a lot faster, but had to spend a lot more time composing my remarks. At this point I’m reading about 200 pages ahead of my commentary.

Pages covered: 703-738. Image by Zier, from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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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…


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.


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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Les Misérables: WaterlooI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to part 6, or read on.

Previously: Fantine dies, Cosette is still stuck with the Thénardiers, Javert’s a jerk, and Valjean exposes himself.

Let me rephrase that: Valjean reveals his secret identity.

Anyway, Victor Hugo figured this was the perfect time to stop and spend forty-five pages on the Battle of Waterloo. As much as I snark about Hugo’s digressions and long-windedness, and tangential as it is to the rest of the book, this chapter really is fascinating.

He starts by recounting his own visit to the battlefield nearly fifty years later, describing what it’s like now (well, then). The style of the time allowed him to refer to himself, but only in third person and not by name: “the traveler” or “the author of this tale.”

The flashback structure sets up an effective contrast between the peaceful farm of Hugo’s day and the carnage of snipers, cannon balls, soldiers scaling a wall with their fingernails, a burning chapel and a well full of skeletons before it moves on to the main portion of the battle.

It’s easy to think of Napoleon as being serious and impassive. Hugo points out his sense of humor and high spirits at Waterloo — well, the beginning of it.

If the Temeraire books retell Waterloo (and I doubt they will, since the history of the war has diverged so much at this point), it’ll be vastly different just having aerial views of the battlefield. So much depends on tiny patches of cover as seen from the ground, in particular a sunken lane that Napoleon’s cavalry charge doesn’t see until the front lines fall into it. (Plus, well, dragons.)

It turns out Victor Hugo could get away with “merde” as long as it was historical. He then spends two pages describing how sublime it was that this particular French officer, Cambronne, chose that single word to reply to his chance to surrender. I shit you not.


At one point he describes the English and German memorials at the site, adding, “There is no French memorial. For France the whole plain is a graveyard.”

It’s interesting to see a French perspective of Waterloo try to reconcile the defeat of the French army with the idea that it was a victory for civilization. Hugo takes the opinion that Napoleon’s defeat was pre-ordained by God because the “tide of the nineteenth century” required his removal from the stage. This conveniently absolves the English and German commanders of greatness, though he stresses that the common soldiers were great, even if Wellington was a mediocre leader who by all rights should never have triumphed against Napoleon’s genius.

He goes on to say that Waterloo, in itself, represented the revenge of the old guard, counter-revolutionary forces, but that changes in the political landscape prevented them from reasserting themselves completely afterward, creating a post-war Europe with greater liberty than before, even under the old leadership.

Forty pages on, we’re back to the story as we meet Thénardier looting the bodies of dead French soldiers. One of them isn’t dead yet: Sgt Pontmercy, whom the future innkeeper pulled out of the pile of dead bodies at the critical sunken lane in order to rifle through his pockets, accidentally saving his life.

That one scene is the only part of “Waterloo” that factors into the rest of the story as anything but historical background, but it’s important for Marius’ interactions with the Thénardiers. Not long after I read the book the first time, I caught a glimpse of a student’s essay written as a character study of Thénardier. Because the class was reading an abridged version, the later misrepresentation of his actions at Waterloo was taken at face value. It significantly altered the character by giving him a noble past that he never actually had.

Pages covered this week: 279-324. You might also be interested in my review of the movie. Next up: Valjean returns to prison in Part 8.

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