Tag Archives: Montreil-sur-Mer

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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Off the Deep End

Number 24601 becomes 9430I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Previously: After Fantine’s death, we spent 45 pages on the Battle of Waterloo. Now back to the story!

Completely skipped by the musical: Jean Valjean is recaptured, tried for robbing the chimney-sweep boy after his release, and sent back to prison. He offers no defense (he did take the coin), even though the prosecution claims he committed armed robbery with accomplices, which gets him the death penalty (though the king commutes it to life in prison). What he really did was step on a coin and refuse to move his foot.

With M. Madeleine gone, everything in Montreuil-sur-mer falls apart. All that prosperity is lost in local power struggles. He wasn’t making excuses when he worried what would happen to his workers.

“Before going further we must describe in some detail…” we just finished a 50-page digression! now what?

Regarding a local ne’er-do-well near Montfermeil, “Village women on their way through the wood at first mistook him for Beelzebub and then saw that he was Boulatruelle, which was scarcely more reassuring.” Update: Believe it or not, this seemingly one-off character shows up again later.

Hugo estimates the worldwide cost of gunfire salutes, which he considers a waste of ammunition, at 900,000 francs per day, “A detail in passing. Meanwhile the poor continue to die of hunger.”

Heh. Sans-culottes and descamisados.

“Look Down” in the movie, with the convicts pulling a ship into drydock, is probably inspired by this scene at the shipyards during Valjean’s second sentence. A crewman of a ship in for repair is caught on a rope hanging from the mast. Valjean volunteers to rescue him, then breaks his own shackle to do it. (No one notices how easy it was at the time.) After the daring rescue, Valjean himself falls into the ocean and is believed to drown.

There are some interesting bits in this sequence, but overall I don’t think it adds much that we don’t already know.

Pages covered: 325-337. You might also be interested in my review of the movie. Continue on to part 9 as Valjean rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers.

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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.”


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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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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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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