Monday, February 11, 2013

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables


Opening Passage:
In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D.... He was an man of about seventy-five years of age, and had held the see of D.... since 1806. Although the following details in now way affect our narrative, it mau not be useless to quote the rumors that were current about him at the moment when he came to the diocese, for what is said of men,w ehther it be true or false, often occupies as much space in their life, and especially in their destiny, as what they do. M. Myriel was the son fo a councilor of hte Parliament of Aix. It was said that his father, who intended that he should be his successor, married him at a very early age, eighteen or twenty, according to a not uncommon custom in parliamentary families. Charles Myriel, in spite of this marriage (so people said), had been the cause of much tattle. He was well built, though f short stature, elegant graceful, and witty; and the earlier par to fhis life was devoted to the world and to gallantry.

Summary: There is a lot of book between the covers of Les Misérables, and it is therefore not surprising that the novel manages to be more than one thing at the same time. Perhaps the most complete account of the book would be to call it a prose poem whose theme is God and Progress (both are repeatedly highlighted as themes) in the lives of the Wretched, the people who, however guilty, are unfortunate in a greater measure than they are culpable; it is these who give the book its name. In this sense it has no digressions from one end to the other, not even the one in which he spends almost an entire book of Volume IV reflecting on the moral significance of sewers. Poetry has no digressions, even when written in prose, if the digressions contribute to its theme. And none of the apparent digressions, especially the most digressive of them, ever stray from the theme.

It is also, of course, the tale of an ensemble of characters, the most notable of whom is Jean Valjean, an escaped convict whose fortunes make up much of the book. When people speak of the story of the book, in fact, it is almost always in terms of Valjean and his interactions with Inspector Javert. In a sense this is curious, since the interactions do not form a large part of the book and, contrary to the way many people speak, while Valjean affects Javert's life considerably, Javert affects Valjean's life very little. Javert is not the major antagonist; he is hardly an antagonist at all. Javert is not Valjean's nemesis. Valjean has no nemesis in the story, but if he did, it would be Thénardier, not Javert. Nor is he even the person whose life is most affected by Valjean.

I think it is because Javert is, if anything, Valjean's alter ego, and because his death scene is the second best in the book (after Maboeuf's). Inspector Javert is a man of order, of law; he serves the law of man with an intensity and passion that is unmatched by anything else in the book except Valjean's attempts to do good to others. In Valjean he finds himself baffled, because Valjean is a living refutation of all his assumptions. He eventually comes to regard himself as caught in a dilemma from which he cannot escape. The law of man requires that Valjean be caught and punished. But Javert comes to think that to catch and punish Valjean would violate another law, the law of God. It is an intolerable dilemma for a man like Javert. If he arrests Valjean, he commits a crime; if he lets him go free, he commits a crime; the demand of duty in both cases is severe. Even recognizing the dilemma is progress for Javert, and his suicide is itself a sign of how much. He chooses rightly: he will not commit a crime against the God. By not sinning against God, he sins against the human law. But the law is not merely something Javert defends; it is the essential part of who he is. Justice must be done, and violations of law must be punished. So he punishes himself and commits suicide. In a few scenes we see an extraordinary depth in a man who had before mostly been seen only in half-glimpses.

It is also the most interesting interaction. Cosette and Marius, who occupy a much larger part of the book, are relatively bland. Many of the characters are hardly more than caricatures. The narrator does not merely tell the story; he as much as disavows the intent just to tell the story. He is preaching at us on the subject of progress and does not shy away from admitting it. The digressions from the story itself are extensive and filled with what must be every genre of moralizing. This is didactic sermon writ large, very large and very didactic. In introducing the book I talked about how its closest cousin is Atlas Shrugged, and despite one being avowedly altruistic and the other avowedly egoistic, they share a great deal, even to the extent of all the criticisms of Rand's book having almost exact parallels in early criticism of Les Misérables. And, in a sense, all the criticisms obviously have merit.

Yet the book has a power that is somehow not captured by any of the criticisms, however just, as seen by its enduring popularity and the enthusiastic readers it has collected in every generation since it was published. Hugo is a writer of power, able to tug at the heartstrings and to depict struggles of the heart with great facility. He will return from a long non-story discussion and, using the endless discussion of the Infinite, or of sewers, or of Napoleon as background, quickly in a single short scene, sometimes even just a few lines, perfectly capture some fundamental feature of human life. It is sermon, but it is sermon accompanied by exquisite tableaux. And we should not disparage sermon; contrary to common wisdom, everyone loves a good sermon. We are moralizing creatures, sermonizers by nature. Indeed, this is why moralizing in literature is dangerous, because human beings are so naturally inclined to sermon that we only love those that are far better than we ourselves could deliver. It is not that readers dislike sermonizing in their books; it is that good sermons are very difficult to find. But Hugo preaches a good sermon.

Favorite Passage:

Progress! this cry, which we raise so frequently, is our entire thought, and at the point of our drama which we have reached, as the idea which it contains has still more than one trial to undergo, we may be permitted, even if we do nto raise the veil, to let its gleams pierce through clearly. The which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and its details, whatever its intermissions, exceptions, and short-comings may be, the progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life, from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, and from nothingness to God. the starting-point is matter, the terminus the soul; the hydra at the commencement, the angel at the end.

Recommendation: Definitely the sort of book you should read at least once in your life. But prepare for a long haul.


  1. MrsDarwin7:40 AM

    I am still in the midst of the long haul, being partway through the fourth volume. I find the quality of Hugo's more poetic prose (to use your phrase) to require enough attention that it's hard to read with distractions such as the noise of kids watching a movie in the other room, or I lose the thread of what he's saying and have to locate the beginning of the sentence again to see where we started. In that respect Hugo reminds me a bit of reading Faulkner, though Hugo has a more scholastic feel, perhaps, since his longer sentences are often vast lists, whereas Faulkner has a more stream-of-consciousness feel. I will confess -- mea culpa! -- that I made it twenty pages into Hugo's history of Waterloo and skimmed the rest until our characters appeared again, but in my defense I was trying to catch up to the reading schedule after a five-day-late start.

    The characters come off as caricatures precisely because Hugo gives the reader so much information about them, I think. They're drawn out beyond the realm of the human and slightly enigmatic into fully-realized ideals in the mind of Hugo, and so they lose the slightly jumbled, mixed-motive quality of real people. But there are touches that humanize. One description I've held onto through reading of Valjean's supernatural drive is the account of how, when he was being sent off to the galleys, he wept and kept repeating that he had been a wood-cutter. That single instance of confusion added a welcome touch of weakness to his character.

    Marius and Cosette are indeed bland. I chuckled through the beginning of his great exposition on love (it was too long to laugh all the way through), which is perhaps unlike any effective love note ever written -- probably because Marius was in love with love at that point, instead of actually being in love with Cosette (how could he be in love with Cosette herself? He didn't know anything about Cosette herself).

    Boy, Hugo has a masterful grasp of action! Thenardier's escape from prison, Valjean in the clutches of Thenardier's gang, Valjean's journey as M. Madeleine to reveal himself to the court as prisoner 24601 -- I was on the edge of my seat.

    In contrast with Hugo's wide-ranging philosophical discussions, the human side of the story has a slightly claustrophobic feel. Reading Les Miserables, I get the impression that there are only fifty in people in Paris -- perhaps one hundred in all of France! -- and that they all know each other. :)

  2. branemrys2:03 PM

    While I did try to read it without any skipping, I cannot, to be honest, guarantee that my eye did not roll a bit more quickly over parts of the Waterloo section than can justifiably be called 'reading'.

    Is suspect though, that the digressiveness mixes well with the mastery of action you note: you spend some time rambling, then BAM! Then you ramble a bit more, and BAM!

    And now that you mention it, this could be another reason Javert is so memorable: he's connected to much of the action, and we usually only see him when something big is happening.

  3. MrsDarwin4:18 PM

    So now that you've read the Long Form, are you going to go see Les Mis lite in theaters, or are you Hugo-ed out?

  4. branemrys5:41 PM

    I'm pretty sure I'll wait until it comes out in Redbox. But I've been thinking that since the movie first came out.


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