Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Argot, F-- Yourself

Translator Norman Denny pulled two chapters out of Les Misérables, feeling that they digressed too much from the theme and story of the rest of the book, and placed them in appendices. One was the chapter on convents. The other, set immediately after Thénardier’s prison break, dealt exclusively with argot, the thieves’ slang and jargon of the day. When I first read the book in high school, I took the excuse to skip these out-of-sequence chapters and consider myself “done” when I reached the end of the story, but I always felt like I’d cheated a bit. Add in the fact that I developed an interest in how languages interact (yes, before I started dating a linguistics student), and I figured I ought to get to at least this chapter someday, but I never quite got around to it.

This time around, I was determined to read everything. Even the convents and argot.

And…well…I wasn’t missing much.

Victor Hugo spends a ridiculous amount of time justifying the fact that he’s even discussing the matter, because apparently he and other authors had been condemned for daring to inflict such vulgarity on the readers. He goes on for five pages, twice as much as he spent justifying his use of the word merde at Waterloo. He admits that it’s distasteful, like a “repellent animal…dragged out of its cloaca” (by which I hope he isn’t using the anatomical meaning) but insists that it’s necessary to study it in order to form a complete picture of society.

“Nothing can be more depressing than to expose, naked to the light of thought, the hideous growth of argot”…including, apparently, all the other horrible awful stuff that happens to people in this book. I suppose to a French writer the bastardization of the French language might be more depressing than Cosette’s forced drudgery as a child, or Fantine’s desperate slide into poverty and prostitution, or the starved child Combeferre describes when trying to convince those rebels who have children to leave the barricade instead of dying with the rest of them. I mean, come on…this is The French Language we’re talking about!

Really, though, the chapter is less about the jargon itself than it is about the way social ills twist it. It’s the distortion that matters, not the resulting language, and the cause of that distortion: those very themes that Hugo has been exposing throughout the book. In a sense, he’s talking about the same thing, only without filtering them through fictional characters.

There’s a lot of social philosophy in here (much more than there is linguistics), but it’s the same philosophy that he repeats elsewhere: types of revolutions, the idea that the French Revolution was the singular event that would drive humanity toward a golden age in the next century, and so on. At one point he spends a paragraph laying out his core social policy in a nutshell.

Graffiti amid the rubble

Toward the end he ponders: Will the future ever arrive? I look at my pocket computer that instantly connects me to a worldwide network of information…on which I read headlines and news articles about political debates that haven’t been settled in 50 years, crime, wars, poverty, exploitation…In the chapter on convents, Hugo talks about the need to discard those elements of the past that are no longer useful (or never were), but there are so many problems in this novel that we’re still dealing with.

It’s been 151 years since Hugo asked that question, and I can’t answer it.

I guess he’s right: This line of thought is more depressing.

Pages covered: 1214-1232. Image: Photo taken on a recent trip to San Francisco during which I managed to read about 150 pages of the barricade siege.