Tag Archives: Waterloo

Return to Waterloo

The Waterloo section of Les Misérables is infamous for being fifty pages long, even though only four pages relate to the plot. (Thénardier has a track record of mistaking Pontmercys for dead.)

It starts out fascinating. “The narrator” visits the battlefield decades later, and ties the ruins to the fighting and dying that happened there. It really draws you in, and then flashes back to the battle itself.

But an entire page full of rhetorical questions about Napoleon’s mental faculties at the end of his career? Really? (Really.)

I know the pronunciation and meaning are different, but I still find it amusing that Napoleon’s reserve cavalry was commanded by Grouchy.

Look, it’s all the things that interfered with Napoleon’s battle plan, in a full-page run-on sentence!

Another translation variation: Hugo’s take is that Waterloo was pre-ordained for continuity with the rest of the century, much like Grantaire’s theory of revolutions. So Napoleon had…

  • angered (Wraxall)
  • embarrassed (Hapgood)
  • become troublesome to (Denny)
  • become an inconvenience to (Hapgood)

…God. That’s a lot of variation in scope.

How meta: a translator’s footnote on a quote by Wellington, regarding the original French word Hugo used, and Hugo’s footnote regarding the original English word the general actually spoke.

The lengths to which Hugo goes to disparage Wellington as mediocre are impressive. He’ll grant heroism to the English soldiers, but not their general. He seems personally offended that anyone likes Wellington, and repeatedly credits luck and divine intervention for Napoleon’s loss.

As the chapter goes on, and Hugo switches from talking about the battle to talking about what it meant in his philosophy, it becomes more and more of a slog. A lot of the Waterloo section is commentary and opinion, not just relating the story of the battle. A lot.

Once he gets back to the story, it becomes a riveting (if short) tale set in the aftermath of battle. The descriptions are amazing.

Thénardier is trying to steal Marius’ father’s ring when he accidentally rescues him. I imagine that’s where the musical got the idea of him stealing Marius’ ring as the physical proof tying Valjean to his rescue.

Interesting side note: When I went looking for photos of the battlefield, I discovered that in 2015, Belgium issued a 2€ commemorative coin for the twentieth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. France objected, because they might end up circulating in France and upset people. So Belgium melted 180,000 coins and reissued them as 2½€ coins that are only valid within Belgium, thereby ensuring that no one French would come in contact with the coins (at least not in their home country).

One more thing: Since reading this section, I’ve discovered The Les Misérables Reading Companion, a podcast by a Professor of French who, once a week, talks about a new section of the book in an effort to make it more accessible, and encourage you to read along. Last night I finally listened to an episode. The latest episode is, coincidentally (or is it?), about Waterloo! I definitely recommend the podcast, and I plan on catching up with it over the next week or two.

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Part 7: Waterloo

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.

Aftermath

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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