Tag Archives: Religion

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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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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Part 2…4601

Les Misérables: The BookI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years, and providing a running commentary on Twitter at KelsonV @ReadingLesMis. This post is reworked from this week’s comments. Read on, or start with part 1.

The Bishop of Digne continues to be the focus of an extended character study, one which also describes conditions in the French countryside in the early 1800s.

After chapters of M. Bienvenu seeming perfect, we see him confront his own prejudices as he talks with a dying Revolutionary (as in The French Revolution a generation before) who lives outside of town, shunned by the population as a regicide and probably an atheist. The old man convinces the Bishop of the noble aims of the Revolution, and asks whether the abuses were really worse than the abuses they fought against. Bienvenu comes to respect him even without a miraculous deathbed conversion (he says something about the universe having a self, which must be God, but that’s a long way from standard Christian theology). That’s a much more even-handed treatment of atheism than I expected to find in an 1862 book with heavy religious themes, especially after the snark directed at a materialist a few chapters before.

“Without going deeply into matters with which this book is only indirectly concerned…” Why let it stop you this time?

Hugo’s thoughts on those who join a cause only after it is sure to succeed: “We can respect the struggle only when it is dangerous…only those who fight from the beginning deserve the final victory.”

He then goes on to rant about the difference between success and merit, and the crowd’s inability to tell them apart. I swear I’ve read this same rant about the Internet, business, and reality television more times than I can count.

Valjean, At Last!

On page 71, Jean Valjean makes his first appearance as he arrives in Digne. Note that we’re still in “Part 1: Fantine,” and there’s still no sign of her. The costume designer for the movie clearly read this description of him after his release from jail.

Two inns kick him out because he’s an ex-convict, so Valjean asks for lodging at the prison. They won’t take him because he’s an ex-con, and tell him he needs to get himself arrested. He ends up in the doghouse — literally — and even the dogs force him out.

The bishop’s sister and their servant are arguing over rumors of a dangerous stranger in town, and whether they should bolt the door, when Valjean knocks. Awkward.

His reputation having preceded him, Valjean gives up on keeping his status quiet, and blurts out his whole story as soon as he opens the door. After a whole chapter being tight-lipped and vague, everything just tumbles out and he just starts rambling. Come to think of it, everyone the Bishop meets seems to talk at length. He must have that effect on people.

And now we get to Valjean’s past as the provider for his widowed sister and her seven children. A bad winter left them with no food, no money, and no work, and that’s when he breaks a windowpane, steals a loaf of bread and gets sentenced to five years hard labor. His sister and her family vanish long before he gets out of prison. He gets one letter, and then nothing. The loss sheds some light on him taking in Cosette.

Victor Hugo really wants you to understand Jean Valjean’s state of mind after 19 years in prison — or lack thereof, as it’s basically turned him into a desperate, caged animal. You also get some idea of what Valjean was like before his prison sentence, something missing from the show.

Then Hugo shifts gears and starts telling about a ship and a man being swept overboard. It takes a few paragraphs to become clear that this isn’t a POV shift, but a metaphor for what happened to Valjean’s soul when he was abandonded by society.

The theft of the silver, almost automatic in the musical, is a tense, suspenseful scene as Valjean wrestles with indecision.

You’ve got to love the bishop’s wit: An exchange the next morning: “Where’s the silver basket?” “Here you are.” “But it’s empty!” “So it’s the silver you’re worrying about? I can’t tell you where that is.” (Interestingly, it’s his idea to tell the police that he gave it to Valjean, not something he picks up and runs with as in the musical.)

It takes Valjean a whole day after he leaves Digne to process what’s happened, finally understanding when he realizes that he’s absent-mindedly stolen a coin from a small boy and that his first impulse is to find him and return it. “…in robbing the boy, he had committed an act of which he was no longer capable.” Valjean went for a long walk, met himself, and realized he didn’t like himself much.

At page 118 of Les Misérables, I’ve finished what, in the musical, is the prologue. Whoa. It is like a Wheel of Time book!

Update: thoughts from my next read-through.

Continue to Part 3 to meet Fantine, Cosette and the Thénardiers.

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