Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Barricades of Future Past (Plus Cannon Geekery)

And now we’re into the last of the five main divisions of Les Misérables: Part Five: Jean Valjean. Naturally, it starts with a history lesson. Not about 1832…but about 1848, reasoning that his 1860s audience would be more familiar with the barricades of the June 1848 revolt.

I was reading this and thinking, “Another digression? Now? Eh, I guess it’s still thematic.” I turned the page, and read the sentence, “Where the theme is not lost sight of there can be no digression.” Well, then, there you go!

Hugo contrasts the two main barricades of that event: One in the Saint-Antoine neighborhood, massive, three stories high and seven hundred feet long, a jumble of anything that could be scrounged up and manned by a passionate leader, the other in the Temple neighborhood, built seemingly overnight of paving-stones lined up with the precision of a mason, and defended silently…but with ruthless efficiency.

Victor Hugo refers to himself in a number of places, but always obliquely – except here, when describing the silence of the no-man’s land in front of the Temple barricade: “I remember seeing a butterfly flutter up and down that street. Summer does not abdicate.” It surprised me enough when I first read the book that I remembered it, and it’s not a translation error. The original French reads “Je me souviens d’un papillon blanc qui allait et venait dans la rue.”

Back to the Past

Marius’ time as leader lasts about five minutes before he discovers he has something to lose after all, and sinks into paralyzing despair.

Enjolras “possessed the especial virtue of a leader, in that he always did what he said he would do” – if only!

Joly on cats: “After all, what is a cat?..It’s a correction. Having created the mouse God said to himself, ‘That was silly of me!’ and so he created the cat.”

By two in the morning, the original force of fifty is down to thirty-seven.

There are a few references to other barricades, mainly the one at Saint-Merry, where, on the second day, the leader responds to cries for food with “What for? It is now three – by four o’clock we shall be dead.” Not great for morale, but he’s got a point.

That morning, however, they’re optimistic, expecting sympathetic regiments to come over to their side, then the rest of Paris…until it becomes clear that the populace has lost interest.

Let us not waste lives

When they decide to send the fathers home to be with their families, no one wants to leave, fearing dishonor. It takes a direct order from Enjolras, a horrendously depressing story by Combeferre about what happens to orphans in poverty (I was reading this while out of town on a business trip and I wanted to run back to the hotel and start up a video chat with my son now) and finally a plea from Marius before they finally start “denouncing” each other as family men.

They settle on five men to leave…but there are only four army uniforms to help them get past enemy lines. They immediately start arguing again, each demanding to be the one to stay behind, until a fifth uniform drops on the pile. Jean Valjean had arrived. (I assume he had something on under it.) Marius vouches for him, or at least says that he knows him, which is enough from the man who single-handedly saved the barricade.

There aren’t any women at the barricade in the book, except for the tavern’s owner and two waitresses who hide in the basement until they have a chance to flee. Well, and Éponine for about ten minutes, but she’s in disguise. I think it’s a good move to add them (especially in a stage production to give the ensemble actresses something to do in the second act), because it gives you a stronger sense that it’s the people fighting, not just some rich guys who picked your neighborhood to stage a riot.


Enjolras makes an extended speech – which would probably take longer than any song in the show to say aloud – about the kind of world they’re trying to build. I like this set of analogies: “We have tamed the hydra, and its new name is the steamship; we have tamed the dragon, and it is the locomotive; we have not yet tamed the griffin, but we have captured it and its name is the balloon.”

Of course, he also says “Citizens, our nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy.” His optimism is almost cute.

Marius is so depressed he’s projecting his death-wish on everyone else. It’s the only explanation he can think of for why M. Fauchelevent has come to the barricade.

Valjean walks into the tavern just as the rebels are transferring Javert from being tied to a post to a table so that he can lie down for a while. He stares. Javert looks back and simply says, “So here we are!” I think one of the keys to making the character of Javert work is that there has to be something admirable about him: Even if he’s set against the story’s hero, even if he goes too far in his quest for justice, he’s still mostly on the right side, he’s good at what he does, and as long as events don’t contradict his worldview, he tends to take things stoically. Of course, when they do, he’s at a complete loss.


Interesting note: “Left-handed men are invaluable: they can fill places unsuited to the rest.”

CannonCombeferre and Bossuet start geeking out over artillery when the soldiers bring out a cannon at dawn: “It’s one of the new model bronze eight-pounders.” They discuss the alloy proportions, grooving and hooping methods, how to balance force vs. accuracy, etc. All while the soldiers are getting ready to fire a cannon at the barricade. Though as it turns out, it just embeds itself in the jumble.

Gavroche’s return at the same moment “made more impression” than the cannonball. Marius is annoyed that he came back, after he went to such an effort to send him to safety, but gets suspicious about Gavroche’s return and “Fauchelevent’s” arrival. Gavroche, not wanting to get in trouble, lies through his teeth, and Marius lets the matter drop, figuring hey, he doesn’t know anything about the man’s politics.

It’s interesting to compare the way Marius and Valjean dance around each other without acknowledging each other to the way they (don’t) interact in the musical, where Marius doesn’t know Valjean at all and Valjean doesn’t recognize Marius until he hears him mention Cosette.

The soldiers find a way to use the cannon after all: They load it with canisters of grapeshot and aim high so that it ricochets off the walls and down into the defenders’ side. Resourceful and very effective, killing two and wounding three.

The artillery sergeant has “a gentle face and the look of intelligence appropriate to that formidable, predestined weapon which, by its very perfection of horror, must finally put an end to war.” Really? Hugo’s naivete has shown itself before, but this just takes the cake. Though I suppose even as late as World War I, people were calling it the war to end all wars.

Enjolras aims at the sergeant. Combeferre remarks that he seems a decent fellow, he’d hate to kill him. “He could be your brother.” “He is.” Combeferre takes the remark as metaphorical, but something about the bluntness of the statement, and the fact that Enjolras sheds a tear as he presses the trigger, makes me wonder. (Update: I’d forgotten, but Enjolras is introduced as an only child. It’s too bad, because I liked the otherwise perfect ambiguity of this scene.)

Valjean demonstrates his marksmanship not by shooting a sniper, but by shooting the cords holding a mattress over the window of a sixth-story apartment. He then runs out into the firing zone, picks it up, and brings it back so they can set it up to prevent ricochet attacks. Bossuet finds it hilarious that a mattress should be so effective against cannon, a “triumph of submissiveness over aggression.” Which is an interesting remark considering that it’s Valjean accomplishing the deed, and he’s set himself up in purely a support role.

Pages covered: 987-1015, a bit under half of “War Within Four Walls,” the longest chapter in the book (even longer than Waterloo). Image by Lynd Ward from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery. Next: running out of ammo.