Tag Archives: Paris

Derailing Javert’s One-Track Mind

One of his anxieties was that he was being made to think… In thinking, there is always a degree of inner conflict, and it angered him to have that inside him.

The scene is very still, taking place after midnight on a gloomy, starless night in a quiet part of town, where everyone has long since gone to sleep. Unlike the discordant song in the musical, it reads as silent…but the spot where Javert stops to think is above river rapids, swollen by the rain the day before. Stillness above, turmoil below — just as Javert shows no outward sign of the battle raging inside him.

Javert has always been a strict, by the book, no mercy, criminals and suspects deserve all the punishment they get kind of guy. He doesn’t need to think, just follow regulations. Cruelty doesn’t faze him, it’s just part of enforcing the rules. Kindness? Please.

When Jean Valjean spares his life, and Javert finds himself sparing Valjean’s freedom, he grows a conscience. He’s confused.

Suddenly he has to justify his actions to himself. He can’t just rely on hierarchy and dehumanization, he actually has to consider the human face and individuality of the people he’s locking up. And he thinks of several (minor) ways to improve humane treatment of prisoners.

Javert believes his cruelty in law enforcement is justified by authority and hierarchy and order, and he figures God agrees with him because earthly government is part of the same hierarchy. It’s only when, decades into his career, he’s confronted with the undeniable humanity and goodness of someone he’s persecuted that Javert starts to realize that his way of enforcing the law might actually be, in some cases, immoral.

Javert can’t handle that.

He can’t handle uncertainty.

He can’t deal with the fact that he was wrong.

He’s not prepared to consider each case individually.

He’s definitely not prepared to figure out which duty to follow when two come into conflict.

He’s used to following one track. Now there’s a fork, and he can’t decide which path to take.

Jean Valjean is faced with a number of these difficult life-altering choices. He weighs his options, puts off the decision until the last moment, and jumps head-first onto one path or the other.

Javert is broken by having to face a decision between two paths.

So he chooses neither.

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Into the Dreaded Sewers

It’s a running joke that, according to Victor Hugo, Paris has the best of everything. And while Paris has the worst, most horrific sewers (up to this point), Hugo actually goes so far as to say that Paris has the best sewage. As he complains about how we flush all that fertilizer out to sea, he actually describes “Parisian guano” as “the richest of all.”

I can’t help feeling this extended description of what it’s like to sink into quicksand is a metaphor…

Incidentally, Wikipedia suggests that if you don’t flail about, you’re unlikely to sink completely in quicksand because it’s denser than the human body. Of course it can trap you long enough to dehydrate, get caught by the tide, eaten by wolves, etc. Though Hugo points out that in the sink holes of the sewers, density varies wildly.

“The man folded his arms and gave the grating a look of reproach. A look proving insufficient, he tried giving it a push.”
— Javert vs. the sewer grate.

Cataloguing Marius’ injuries: Except for a broken collarbone, they’re mostly shallow – there’s just a lot of them. His lengthy convalescence and fever are probably due to infection. Hazards of the sewer as an escape route.

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On The Barricade

I finished reading the final battle on the barricade a little after noon on June 6. It happens…a bit after noon on June 6. That was kind of weird.

I don’t have a lot new to say about it compared to last time. Just a few notes.

The digression to the 1848 barricades is shorter than I remember. I also really like contrast between the chaotic, throw-everything-on-the-street barricade and the perfectly engineered stone wall with silent snipers.

Enjolras, after a scouting mission determines that no help is coming and they’re all going to die, gives a stirring speech about the glorious future their deaths will usher in. He’s painfully optimistic about the 20th century.

Combeferre’s story about the starving orphan whose autopsy he attended is one of the hardest things to read in a book full of people experiencing horrible things. (Every stage and movie adaptation I’ve seen downplays how awful things are for the characters.)

Here’s a rare case where I like Denny’s translation over Donougher’s. Regarding Valjean’s pattern of shooting helmets instead of heads, Combeferre says he “does good deeds with a gun” (Donougher), which doesn’t get the same idea across as saying that he “does kindness with bullets” (Denny).

Most of the named characters die in lists. Bullet points, if you will. Only a few get individual send-offs: Mabeuf, Éponine and Gavroche. They hear Jean Prouvaire being executed after he’s captured. And at the end, Enjoras and Grantaire face a firing squad together.

There’s a lot of philosophical commentary about urban warfare, civil war, revolutions that have or don’t have the support of the populace, and how revolutions are sometimes necessary in preserving the long-term life of society over the short-term life of the individual. It’s presented as supporting material for the June Rebellion. But it’s the other way around.

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Hitting the Fan

There’s a gripping description of Paris under siege as Marius walks from the streets where shops are open, to where shops are closed, to where a nervous crowd mingles, to the army staging area, to the dark, silent, empty streets controlled by the insurgency. Then, steps away from the barricade, he stops, sits down, and spends several pages of internal monologue trying to decide whether he’s doing the right thing. It’s weird, but it doesn’t seem as long this time through.

Speaking of people sitting and not acting: Pere Mabeuf has basically gone catatonic, staring at the floor all evening until he hears Enjolras shout for help restoring the fallen flag. He mechanically walks out, grabs the flag, climbs up…and is promptly shot and killed. It’s one of many cases where Hugo stops showing us the inner workings of a character’s mind and only shows him from the outside. We can only guess: Is he thinking clearly, but in despair? Is his inner turmoil as complex as Marius’ a few pages earlier? Or is he simply acting on autopilot?

Once Mabeuf’s body is carried inside (after Enjolras uses him as an inspiration symbol), everything happens fast:

  • Multiple casualties among named characters
  • The barricade is almost taken
  • Marius arrives, guns blazing
  • Gavroche discovers (in the worst way possible) that Javert hadn’t loaded his gun
  • Marius saves both Gavroche’s and Courfeyrac’s lives (for a few hours, anyway)
  • Éponine throws herself in front of a bullet aimed at Marius
  • Marius drives off the attackers by threatening to blow up the barricade, with everyone on it, himself included.

All of this happens in a space of a couple of minutes.

And then the waiting sets in again.

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Commandeering the Tavern

Grantaire skips out on the insurgency to get drunk. Joly and Laigle are with him. Joly has a cold, but is drinking anyway. (Grantaire feels slighted that Enjolras didn’t invite him to the revolution, and declares he won’t go to his funeral. Truer words…)

Have I mentioned lately how much I like Donougher’s translation?

‘Sbeaking of revolution,’ said Joly, ‘abbarently Barius is badly in love.’
‘Do we know who with?’ asked Laigle.
‘Doh.’
‘No?’
‘Doh, I said.’

Enjolras and the rest walk by on their way to find a spot to build a barricade, stop to chat, and figure, hey, it’s a nice defensible spot, why not make our stand here? Much to the consternation of the tavern owner, the widow Hucheloup.

I find myself wondering whether they would have been quite so casual in commandeering the tavern if the owner and staff weren’t all women. I’m sure they would have still done it, but I suspect they would have gone about it differently.

Admittedly they seize a passing cart and a horse-drawn bus for building the actual barricade. But there’s no description of how they treat the carter or the bus driver (though they’re at least polite to the passengers and let the horses loose). Grantaire and Joly harass the widow and the waitresses until Courfeyrac and Enjolras step in and tell them to knock it off.

Only Courfeyrac even attempts to console Mme. Hucheloup as they tear apart her home and business, and he’s extremely bad at it, suggesting it’s her chance to get back at the city for fining her over minor code violations. She’s not convinced.

(Incidentally, Grantaire has moved on from wine and is drinking a mixture of stout, brandy and absinthe. No wonder he sleeps through the entire siege.)

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