Tag Archives: Prison

Back on the Chain Gang

“Jean Valjean had been recaptured. It will be appreciated if we do not dwell on the painful details.”

Why start now?

Sorry, just kidding.

I love how the newspapers credit Valjean’s unmasking to “the indefatigable zeal of the public prosecutor’s office” and not to M. Madeleine turning himself in. And Valjean is tried and convicted for armed highway robbery against a child. If being an ex-con to begin with hadn’t destroyed his reputation, that would have.

Thénardier and Boulatruelle know each other already in Montfermeil. And Boulatruelle recognizes Valjean from prison, but doesn’t name him. If they compare notes later on, that may be another factor in T. regretting the deal over Cosette.

I love multilingual puns. “…the sans-culottes revived, to the great horror of dowagers, under the name of descamisados…” Basically: the pantsless revived as the shirtless. (In both cases, they’re political factions.)

Returned to prison, this time for life, Valjean seizes a chance to save someone’s life, escape, and very publicly fake his own death all at once. He could probably have rested easy at this point. Even Javert has no reason to look. Captured, dead, case closed. Ironically, it’s Cosette’s disappearance from Montfermeil that tips Javert off that Valjean might still be alive (and on the loose). No good deed…

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Valjean and the Bishop

Some things I noticed, or thought about, while reading the about the Bishop of Digne and his encounter with Jean Valjean this time around.

First off, here’s what I wrote about last time: The Bishop and Part 2…4601. Suffice it to say that while the bishop does disappear afterward, he’s a fascinating character in his own right.

Donougher points out in her intro that the infamous galleys at Toulon weren’t actually in use as ships. They were decommissioned, basically convenient place to house prisoners without building new structures. To reduce confusion (as seen in all the ship-based opening scenes in various adaptations), she translates them as “prison hulks” rather than “galleys.”

Victor Hugo complains about how the crowd frequently mistakes success for merit. Five years ago, I remarked that it reminded me of criticisms of the internet and reality TV. Today it seems even more widely applicable.

The narrator goes out of his way to avoid naming Jean Valjean from his first appearance all the way through his arrival at the bishop’s house…even though the innkeeper drops his name a few pages in.

I’d wondered about the itinerary on Valjean’s passport, which I hadn’t noticed in the book, but figures in at least three movies. It turns out there is one line in his first conversation with the bishop mentioning that he is “under obligation to follow a fixed route.” A translator’s note about the yellow passport explains that the fixed route was standard at the time, as the ex-con’s passport was basically a specialized travel visa.

Valjean was nicknamed “the jack” in prison, not because of his name, but because he could lift so much. The French term for the tool the time was cric, unrelated to John/Jack.

Edit: The metal spike that he plans to use as a lockpick/weapon is translated as a miner’s candlestick! How appropriate!

A few chapters in, the wordiness is starting to grate a bit – I suspect Donougher is trying to stick closer to Hugo’s words where possible.

The extended man-overboard metaphor would be a great into to a Lovecraftian horror story.

The bishop’s forgiveness and generosity don’t trigger an instant conversion so much as they set up Valjean believing that change is possible. Stealing Petit-Gervais’ coin is the point where he reaches rock bottom and decides to change. The fact that he commits one theft very deliberately, and then another without even thinking, make for an interesting contrast, and tie in with ideas like the system 1/system 2 model of brain function. Valjean doesn’t flip a switch from “very dangerous man” to saint, he has to work to overcome 19 years of training.

On that first day, there are moments when Valjean wishes he’d been arrested and put back in prison, because “it would have been less disturbing” — just like Javert later wishes Valjean had killed him, because it would have been less embarrassing. (Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.) It’s not just he musical that tied these two conversions together, it’s there in the book as well.

Anyway, I seem to be reading at about the same pace as last year, though I think I’ll try to take fewer breaks and finish up sooner. The fact that I’m not writing as much commentary this time will help, I’m sure!

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Part 25: Gavroche and the Adventure of the Incognito Family

Gavroche and the Elephant of the Bastille

I thought I had remembered all of the Thénardier children. Éponine, of course. Azelma, who doesn’t appear in the musical but doesn’t really have much of a role in the book anyway. And finally (I thought), Gavroche, the lovable street urchin who’s treated as an orphan in the show but is a runaway (who occasionally goes back to visit) in the book.

There are actually two younger brothers, whom Hugo doesn’t name, making five in all. Mme Thénardier only has enough love for her daughters. Not Cosette, not her sons, not anyone else in the world.

Now get this: Remember Magnon, Gillenormand’s ex-servant who gets him to pay for her two children by claiming they’re his? Her children die in an epidemic of croup, and the Thénardiers agree to let her have their small boys so that she’ll keep getting her stipend. M. Gillenormand doesn’t notice when he visits, whether because he’s not paying attention or because he’s just old. Continue reading

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Part 21: Just a Lark

The Lark's FieldI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about the revolutionary mood of 1832 Paris, or read on!

Marius is utterly despondent after witnessing the attempted robbery. Cosette’s gone again, and he still doesn’t know her name — in fact, it’s worse, because he thought he knew it, but it turns out he doesn’t after all. He had to choose between his true love’s father and the man who saved his own father, and learn that the latter was vile and repulsive. Even now he can’t bring himself to testify against Thénardier, and actually sends him money in prison (even though he has to borrow it from Courfeyrac). He’s also stopped working and fallen into a vicious circle.

I love this scanning error in the Kindle edition: “It is her own thoughts that are reaching meh!”

Marius fails at telepathy.

At one point he wanders into a picturesque field that “because the place is worth seeing no one visits it.” But it’s called the Field of the Lark, and since he’s learned Cosette’s old nickname, he seizes on it as a sign. So from then on, whenever he gives up staring at the blank piece of paper he’s supposed to be writing on, he goes there.

Aftermath of a Robbery

You’d think Javert would be pleased at having captured most of the gang, but he’s troubled by one loss: “The prospective victim who escapes is even more suspect than the prospective murderer.” He’s already forgotten Marius except as “that little nincompoop of a lawyer who had probably been scared out of his wits.”

Montparnasse and Éponine apparently have…something going on. He escaped capture because he left early, “more in a mood to amuse himself with the daughter than play hired assassin for the father.” In a later chapter, he’s described as “perhaps [Thénardier’s] unofficial son-in-law.” It’s not clear how far it goes, though he’s more interested than she is. In any case, it’s odd that Hugo dances around this, considering how frank he is about, for instance, Fantine’s relationship with Tholomyes.

Remember how I joked that Claquesous was a vampire? He escapes on the way to prison, mystifying the police escort. “He had simply vanished like a puff of smoke, handcuffed though he was.” Yeah, vampire. Or maybe Batman. (Javert wonders if he’s a double agent, though of course he disapproves of the practice.)

Of course, they don’t let a “trifle” like being in prison keep them from running their criminal enterprise. They send messages back and forth between prison yards and out of the prison hidden inside lumps of bread, tossed over the wall. One of them gets wind of a likely house to rob in the Rue Plumet (sound familiar?), contacts Magnon (M. Gillenormand’s former servant from 200 pages ago!), who sends Éponine to check it out. Éponine takes one look at it, and sends back a coded message about a biscuit, meaning it’s not worth the effort. But she knows someone else very interested in the inhabitants of that house.

Lost and Found

It takes Éponine a while to track Marius down. First she locates his old friend Père Mabeuf, the gardener and book-lover who knew his father. He’s fallen on hard times, and gotten old besides. The girl helps the old man draw water from the well, an interesting reversal of Valjean and Cosette’s first meeting.

He calls her an angel. “‘I’m no angel,’ she replied. ‘I’m the devil, but it’s all the same to me.’” Her self-image needs some help.

After he answers her question about Marius, he turns around and she’s gone. Later that night as he’s drifting off to sleep, he wonders if she was a goblin. Or maybe she’s Batman. She’s certainly got the voice.

Though since she finds Marius at the Rivière des Gobelins, maybe Mabeuf was right.

Since Marius has last seen Éponine, she’s been worked over by both poverty and puberty. It’s a bit awkward, and it’s kind of surprising that Marius even notices. She starts rambling about this that and the other thing, while he answers her occasional questions with monosyllables.

She mentions that Mabeuf called him a baron. “You can’t be a baron. Barons are old. They go and sit in the Luxembourg, on the sunny side of the château, and read the Quotidienne at a sou a copy.” I guess this trope is older than I thought.

When she finally tells him “I’ve got the address,” he’s suddenly ecstatic. And Éponine? “She withdrew her hand and said in a tone of sadness that would have wrung the heart of any beholder, but of which Marius in his flurry was quite unconscious: ‘Oh, how excited you are!’”

Next: Catching up at the Rue Plumet

My commentaries seem to be covering smaller and smaller chunks of text. I don’t know how much is the story getting denser, how much is the greater presence of interesting characters, how much has to do with it being so much easier to highlight a passage and come back to it later instead of commenting as I read, and how much is just seeing more connections because I’ve read more of the story so far.

Pages covered: 739-755. Image by Lynd Ward from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Part 8: 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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