les miserables

Les Mis Re-Read: Let’s take a moment to appreciate Cosette

In the musical, Cosette is not much of a character. She’s important to Fantine, Jean Valjean, and Marius, but she has so little personality that she’s hard to care about for her own sake – especially once she’s grown up. Cosette in the book is a different story. She’s developed more as an individual, instead of just Jean Valjean’s adopted daughter and Marius’ beloved.

Cosette is a child brought up without any love or kindness who tells lies without a second thought and spends what little free time she has chopping the heads off of flies with a toy sword. She works hard to make sure the inn always has plenty of water, knowing that if they run out, she will be sent out alone in the night to fetch more. She envies Eponine and Azelma for the simple fact that they’re allowed to be children, while she’s the same age and forced to work hard all day. Her childhood is so traumatic that she blocks it out almost completely once she grows up.

She grows into an awkward teenage girl brought up in a convent who has no knowledge of the outside world. She has received an education but has not been taught to think for herself – and yet she does anyway. She’s described as ugly, but she’s really not; she simply she pays no attention to her appearance and makes no attempt to dress fashionably. Jean Valjean arranges for them to leave the convent so that she won’t become a nun without knowing what she’s giving up. While he hopes she will choose to take her vows, she quickly sees enough of the world to know she would rather live in it than return to the convent, especially once she falls in love.

Cosette is a lot smarter than the people around her give her credit for. When she decides to start paying attention to fashion, she masters it easily. When she realizes that her father is spoiling her and neglecting himself, she convinces him to keep a fire going in his room by going to visit him frequently and gets him to eat better by promising to eat the same food as him. When Marius and Jean Valjean try to keep secrets from her, she walks right into the room and insists on joining their conversation. As she tells Jean Valjean:

“And now you must take my side against my husband … Be cross with him. Tell him I can stay here. You can talk in front of me. You must think I’m very silly. Business indeed, investing money and all that nonsense – as if it were so difficult to understand! Men make mysteries out of nothing …”

Cosette is compassionate. As a small child, she cut up flies with her toy sword for fun, but when she is older, she refuses to try to catch butterflies for fear of harming them. She is horrified when she sees a group of convicts being sent to the galleys of Toulon, the same place where Jean Valjean spent nineteen years. He assumes she would be disgusted to learn he was once one of them, but she would probably be more heartbroken for him than anything else. She is kind and gentle to everyone she encounters, even the Thenardiers, who at that point she does not remember or recognize.

She’s also braver than she seems. Even as a child, she was not afraid of the strange man in the yellow coat – Jean Valjean – and did not scream or cry when they were escaping the police together, keeping quiet as Valjean instructed her to. For a girl brought up in a convent, she is not afraid of the outside world and embraces it without losing her innocent nature. She doesn’t know what love is or what her feelings for Marius mean, but she figures it out on her own. She is not frightened to hear noises in the garden when she is left home alone, and Hugo describes her as “more like a lark than a dove”, with “a wild but courageous heart”. It’s true that she doesn’t put herself in danger the way many of the other characters do, but whenever danger is present, she faces it bravely.

les miserables

Les Mis Re-Read: Jean Valjean and Montparnasse

I mentioned this before when I talked about Patron-Minette, but one of the hidden gems of Les Miserables is the scene where Montparnasse, a thief and murderer, attempts to rob Jean Valjean in a dark alley. Valjean looks like a harmless old man, but he’s freakishly strong and a former criminal himself, and he quickly gets the upper hand. But what really makes this scene stand out is how he reacts.

When he stole from the Bishop, he did so in the middle of the night, and even the Bishop himself didn’t know about it until morning. But when Jean Valjean was caught, the Bishop pretended he had given away his silver and gives Valjean the silver candlesticks as well.

When Valjean catches Montparnasse trying to rob him, he shows him sympathy. He asks Montparnasse how old he is (only nineteen, younger than Valjean when he stole the loaf of bread), points out that he is healthy and able to work, and asks if there’s anything he can do to help. He instinctively assumes this young man is a younger version of himself, someone who only needs a little help to turn his life around and learn to live honestly. However, Montparnasse is not a younger Valjean. He is too lazy to work for a living and too cruel to care about the people he’s hurt.

At this point, Valjean launches into a lecture. While Montparnasse struggles to get away, he informs him that he will inevitably be caught and that the easy life of luxury he’s been living as a criminal will only result in his being sent to prison. He gives detailed accounts of the harsh conditions there, the hard work he was required to perform, the cruelty of the guards, and the difficulty of escaping. He could only know these things from personal experience, although it’s hard to say whether Montparnasse realizes this.

“Have pity on yourself,” Valjean begs him. He doesn’t ask for pity for himself. He doesn’t try to discourage his would-be attacker from robbing him. In fact, he gives Montparnasse his purse once he’s done lecturing him – no doubt hoping he will do with it what Valjean did with the Bishop’s silver.

What he doesn’t do is turn him over to the police. He has caught one of the most dangerous criminals in Paris in the act of committing a crime, but he seems to feel nothing but pity for him and tries his best to convince him to change his ways. By this point in the story, he has not only benefited from the Bishop’s mercy and successfully turned his own life around, but has gone on to play the role of the Bishop in other people’s lives as well.

les miserables

Les Mis Re-Read: Victor Hugo Needed a Good Editor

Don’t get me wrong. Les Miserables is incredible. But it’s also about twice as long as it should be, filled with pointless digressions about barely-relevant tangents. The history of the Parisian sewer system. The life story of the Bishop of Digne. A detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo. A detailed description of the Gorbeau house. An essay about King Louis-Philippe, exploring the idea that even a good king does not make monarchy a good form of government.

In most books – most well-written modern-day books, at least – character backstories, details of the setting, themes, messages, and author’s opinions are all woven together into the plot. They are background and subtext, surfacing only when they become relevant. Authors almost always know more about their settings and characters than they reveal in their work, and may be influenced by personal opinions but tend to bury their novel’s themes rather than stating them outright. With Victor Hugo, there is no such subtlety.

I’ve found that, over the three times I’ve read Les Miserables, I’ve become strangely fond of the character-based digressions. Go ahead and tell me about the Bishop’s many good deeds, or introduce me to a dozen student revolutionaries, or give me the details of Fantine’s last date with Cosette’s father before he abandoned her. Tell me about Javert’s criminal parents and Jean Valjean’s sister’s starving children. I tend to care more about characters than plot when I read a book, so if you give me a reason to care about the characters (which Les Miserables definitely does), I’m more than happy to learn more about them. But that’s the thing. I care now, when I’ve read the book twice before, seen the movie several times, and listened to songs from the musical on repeat. I have trouble seeing how anyone could get through even the Bishop’s part at the beginning of the book if they don’t already know and love the story.

I have much more trouble with the chapters detailing historical background info, and especially the parts where Victor Hugo starts giving his own opinions, as if he were writing a book of essays instead of a novel. A lot of it has very little connection to the book’s actual story. However, some of it is not only relevant but important – and it would be so easy to work those relevant ideas into the main story and simply let readers draw their own conclusions. For instance, the first 30 or so pages of Volume IV discuss the early 1830’s, the reign of King Louis-Philippe, and Victor Hugo’s simultaneous admiration of this one particular king and opposition to monarchies, no matter how good the individual king might be. All of which could be summed up in an exchange of dialogue in the Café Musain or even the Barricades, with a more moderate member of the group playing “devil’s advocate” – perhaps Combeferre, who did so before when they debated Louis XVIII’s Charter – , and Enjolras taking the stance that no monarchy can ever be good. For instance:

Combeferre: The Revolution of 1830 was progress. We must not deny that.

Enjolras: And yet we still have a king on the throne. We still have a monarchy.

Combeferre: All things considered, he’s not a bad king. Things have been better since he took the throne. The people have had more freedoms.

Enjolras: Yes, but can there be such a thing as a good king? Only under a republic can the people have true freedom.

Combeferre: Agreed. The small progress we’ve made is not enough.

Enjolras: So we’ll keep fighting until France is free once more.

See how simple it is to let the characters have that discussion and let the audience form their own opinion about it, replacing a 30-page digression with a few lines of dialogue?

What about the Battle of Waterloo? The only thing there that really affects the main story is the encounter between Thenardier and Colonel Pontmercy. Later, Marius discovers that his father fought at Waterloo and that a man by the name of Thenardier saved his life. The Thenardiers’ inn is known as the Sargent of Waterloo Inn, and the sign shows one man carrying another across the battlefield. How easy would it be, in the long description of Thenardier’s dishonesty, to mention he was only trying to rob what he thought to be a corpse?

And is it really necessary to know who the Gorbeau house was named for? Or the entire history of the Paris sewers? Really?

It’s not that I don’t like Les Mis. It’s an excellent story with a lot of worthwhile things to say, and it’s far easier to re-read than it was to read it the first time. But it’s easy to get lost in the endless chapters devoted to tangents and author commentary. Victor Hugo needed an editor with the guts to tell him to cut his word count in half.

les miserables

Les Mis Re-Read: Convoluted but Worthwhile

In the musical, Marius and Cosette’s first meeting, the Thenardiers’ attempt to rob Jean Valjean, and Javert’s first encounter with Valjean in years are all crammed into one short scene on the streets of Paris. It’s understandable that they would need to cut down on the long, convoluted series of events in the novel, but that scene has infuriated me ever since I first read the book, because there’s just so much more there. For example:

  • Marius and Cosette do not fall in love at first sight. Granted, they still fall in love without having talked much, but they at least do encounter each other many times over a period of several months before he realizes he’s falling for her. In fact, the first time he sees her, he thinks she’s ugly. By the time the Thenardiers attempt to rob her father, Marius has been pining after her for ages but still doesn’t know her name.
  • The Thenardiers are dangerous and evil, rather than comic relief. In the musical, it’s difficult to take them seriously after all the silliness. In the book, it’s clear that they really could kill Jean Valjean if Marius and Javert don’t intervene. On the other hand, their extreme poverty is emphasized as well. In the musical, they just keep showing up again, flitting from one ugly situation to another. They’re poor, but not much attention is paid to that. In the book, they’re far more despicable and taken more seriously, but they are also without food to eat or warm clothing in winter, and Marius pities them even after he realizes they’re criminals.
  • Javert’s work as a policeman extends far beyond hunting Jean Valjean. In the musical, he’s so frustrated to realize Valjean has gotten away from him again that he lets one of the most dangerous gangs in Paris go free. In the book, he suspects the identity of their victim but still arrests the Patron-Minette gang members and their accomplices, who later escape from prison. He still wants to capture Jean Valjean, but it’s not so much of a single-minded obsession that he won’t also enforce the law.
  • Marius and Javert work surprisingly well together. Javert is quick to call Marius a coward when he backs out of their plan, but before that, he told him that he seemed brave and honest. Marius seems to respect Javert as well and wants to stop his friends from killing him at the barricade, although he doesn’t speak up until it’s seemingly too late. He believes Jean Valjean to have killed someone he respected and holds this against him until he finds out what really happened.
  • Marius’ divided loyalties take center stage. He overhears the Thenardiers’ plans and goes to the police, and he agrees to help Javert catch them in the act. However, when he discovers their last name and realizes Monsieur Thenardier is the man who “saved” his father’s life at the Battle of Waterloo, he can’t bring himself to give the signal. The whole thing is complicated further because he wants to protect Cosette, who he’s already falling in love with. Almost every other character in Les Mis has something they believe in strongly, but Marius is often conflicted and quick to change his mind.

And that’s just scratching the surface. That’s just what I could come up with off the top of my head. It’s a long and unnecessarily convoluted section, but one that involves a lot of worthwhile characterization.

les miserables

Les Mis Re-Read: Contrasting Criminals

The protagonist of Les Miserables is a former criminal on the run from the law, who is nevertheless a good person and only committed his crime because his sister’s children were starving. However, the novel does not assume that all people are inherently good or that all crimes are the result of desperate circumstances. Jean Valjean is an example of a good man forced into crime, contrasted with the Patron-Minette gang, who are unrepentant criminals guilty of far more than simply stealing to survive. Each member of the group is Valjean’s opposite in some way.

Gueulemer is a large man with “muscles of steel”. Valjean is likewise extraordinarily strong, but he uses his strength to save a life by lifting a cart off of a man trapped beneath it in the mud, while Gueulemer is described as a “casual murderer” and uses his strength to harm others.

Babet is a small, clever man who makes his way in the world by scheming and cheating. Like Jean Valjean, he once had a family and since lost contact with them. However, while Valjean was forcibly separated from his sister and her children, and attempted unsuccessfully to find them again, Babet had lost track of his wife and children “the way one mislays a handkerchief”.

Claquesous avoids answering questions about himself and refuses to tell anyone his real name. Both he and Valjean – who goes by aliases throughout the novel and trusts very few people – clearly have something to hide. It’s later revealed that Claquesous is working as a spy for the police. Valjean’s secret, on the other hand, is that he’s a wanted criminal – which makes it all the more astonishing that Valjean still ends up looking like the better of the two.

Montparnasse has perhaps the least in common with Jean Valjean. As a young man, Valjean was quiet and gentle, willing to work hard to provide for his loved ones, and had not yet committed a crime. In one scene late in the novel, Montparnasse attempts to pick Valjean’s pocket. Valjean seems to see a younger version of himself, offers to help him, and warns him about the harsh penalties he will face if he’s caught. However, all Montparnasse wants is to be a thief, and Jean Valjean can’t talk him out of it.

les miserables

Les Mis Re-Read: Les Amis de l’ABC

About halfway through Les Miserables, the reader is introduced to a group of young student revolutionaries who meet in a café in Paris. Their name – the Friends of the ABC – is a pun in French that doesn’t translate well into English. Basically, they’re calling themselves the friends of the oppressed while pretending that their only purpose is to promote education for children. Victor Hugo gives long descriptions of several members of the group, although only a few of them have any real effect on the story. Their purpose is to represent the rebellion in a way that Marius – an outsider to the group who never quite believes in their cause – cannot. Of all Victor Hugo’s digressions, I have to admit, this is one of my favorites.

The young rebels are so human. They are not perfect. They are flawed. Enjolras is too harsh, Grantaire is too cynical, and Courfeyrac is outright compared to Tholomyes, although he’s said to be the better of the two. They have the quirks and even the weaknesses of any young men. When I first read Les Mis, as a freshman in college, they seemed like people I might run into in my classes or living down the hall in the dorm. But they’re so passionate and genuine. They believe so strongly that they can change the world for the better, and they’re willing to put their lives on the line to do it.

I don’t, in general, believe that problems in society should be solved through violence. But then again, I’m fortunate to live in a 21st century democracy and not a 19th century monarchy. A part of me has to admire the rebels in Les Mis for believing so strongly in freedom and equality in a time when such things were considered treason and being willing to die for their beliefs.

les miserables

Les Mis Re-Read: Families and Parents

It’s easy to overlook the importance of parenthood in Les Miserables. Fantine is defined by her love for Cosette and desire to provide for her, and Valjean rescues her from the Thenardiers’ cruelty and raises her as his own. However, Cosette is not the only character in the story whose parents play an important role.

Jean Valjean was born into a peasant family. He was named for his father, who was also Jean Valjean, while his sister and mother are both known as Jeanne. Funny, right? But this lack of individuality is significant. They are unremarkable and easily forgotten, and by the time Jean Valjean gets out of prison, even he is unable to find them again. It was being born into this class – along with the subsequent deaths of his parents and his sister’s husband, making him the sole provider for her seven children – that led him to become a thief in the first place.

Javert was born in prison. His mother was a fortune-teller, and his father was a convict. He grew up surrounded by crime and made a conscious decision to become a prison guard and then a police inspector rather than a criminal.

The Thenardiers’ children, like Javert, have grown up surrounded by crime. They each choose a different path. Gavroche leaves home and lives on the streets, most likely stealing to survive but avoiding the more twisted crimes of the Patron-Minette gang and maintaining some of his innocence. Eponine falls in love and sees Marius as a potential way out of the life she’s forced to live, although he does not love her in return. Only Azelma, a minor character who is not included in the musical, seems to have no qualms at all about her parents’ way of life and remains with her father until their very last appearance, where they move to America to become slave traders.

Marius was raised by his grandfather, a committed royalist, but his father fought in Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Waterloo. After his father’s death, he learns more about him and develops increasingly radical political beliefs, which cause him to join a group of student rebels who he eventually fights with at the barricade. He reconciles with his grandfather near the end of the book, but he does not re-adopt his grandfather’s royalist beliefs.

Most of the other rebels – university students in a time and place where many people were illiterate – come from well-off families. The changes they are fighting for would benefit the lower classes more than the rebels themselves. They are, in terms of wealth and social status, basically the equivalent of Tholomyes and his friends; it is their ideals that set them apart.

Nearly every character in Les Mis is shaped by their parents in some way, but this doesn’t mean that they all follow in their parents’ footsteps. In fact, nearly every character becomes, or attempts to become, something very different from their parents. The grandson of a royalist becomes a revolutionary. The son of criminals becomes a police inspector. The illegitimate daughter of a prostitute marries into high society. The son of honest peasants becomes a criminal and the criminal becomes a wealthy philanthropist. Their early lives are shaped by their families, but their choices are often the opposite of those made by the people who raised them.