Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Javert is no longer a threat to Jean Valjean, Marius is alive and reconciled with his grandfather, and he and Cosette have a chance to be together. But happy endings don’t just happen, you still have to build them.

Boulatruelle, the rascal of Montfermeil, shows up one last time when he misses the chance to catch Jean Valjean digging up the last of his buried treasure – the candlesticks, and the rest of the money he earned as M. Madeleine. Apparently Boulatruelle was too drunk during the extortion attempt for the police to be able to prove intent.

Marius’ slow recovery (he’s got both a shattered shoulder and severe head trauma) actually saves him from prosecution. By the time he’s well enough to arrest (three months), the authorities just want to put the whole matter behind them and not re-inflame public opinion.

His convalescence takes place entirely at home, with house calls from the doctor. These days, he would have spent his months of coma/delirium in the hospital. Back in 1832, it’s probably just as well he didn’t, because this was before people understood germs and the need for sanitation.

M. Gillenormand doesn’t pay much attention to names, and manages to get Valjean’s alias wrong – “M. Tranchelevent” even after he’s been inquiring after Marius’ condition on a daily basis for four months, and even after researching this Cosette girl whom Marius seems so fond of.

He’s also so relieved to have Marius back that he abandons all his old political views in favor of everyone under his roof being happy.

Once Marius is well enough to be aware of his surroundings, he’s all set to have to fight to see Cosette…and his grandfather says, oh, yeah, her father stops by every day to check on you, now that you’re awake, you can see her tomorrow. They’re engaged by December, a February date chosen based on the doctor’s advice.

“Marius, my boy, you are a baron and you are rich. Don’t, I beseech, you, waste your time lawyering.” - G.


“No lengthy explanation is needed…” but here’s one anyway…

Valjean goes to a lot of trouble to separate Cosette from his own legal troubles (and her own murky past). He establishes a fake family history for her, claiming to be not her adoptive father but her biological uncle. The real Fauchelevent isn’t around to dispute the claim anymore, and the nuns never really paid attention to which Fauchelevent “brother” was Cosette’s father, so they’re happy to sign off on it. He also fakes an injury so that he can’t sign any papers related to the marriage, since doing so might invalidate them. Meanwhile the money from Madeleine’s factory is placed in a trust in Cosette’s name, bequeathed anonymously. It turns out she’s rich, although her father – uncle – whatever – isn’t.

Marius and Valjean never speak of their experiences at the barricade. Actually they don’t speak much at all, though every once in a while they find something to talk about, like the importance of free education.

As Marius recovers, he sets about looking for his father’s rescuer and his own, in order to pay his debts to them before starting life with Cosette. No luck on either account, as Thénardier has gone to ground (having been sentenced to death in absentia), his wife has died in prison, and no one recognized the man who brought Marius to the door with Javert – not even Gillenormand’s doorman.

The Wedding

I love when Hugo gets sarcastic, as when he describes wedding traditions. “The chastity and propriety of whisking one’s paradise into a post-chaise to consummate it in a tavern-bed at so much a night, mingling the most sacred of life’s memories with a hired driver and tavern serving maids, was not yet understood in France.” … “There was a strange belief in those days that a wedding was a quiet family affair…”

Another quote that makes me think Hugo would do well as a commentator today: “We do not see a Mardi gras like that any more. Since everything is now an overblown carnival, carnivals no longer exist.”

Mardi Gras

I can’t help but read this as meta-commentary: “Paris, let us admit it, is very ready to be amused by what is ignoble. All she asks of her masters is – make squalor pleasant to look at.” Certainly the parodies of the musical like to point this out: “Les Mousserables”’ “Mixed Emotions” rating, or Forbidden Broadway’s line about “Rich folks pay fifty bucks a shirt / that has a starving pauper on it.” The novel is a call for social change, but that element is a lot thinner when you remove it by 150 years and condense the story into a three-hour piece of entertainment, even when you make the effort to show things as gritty and painful as they did in the movie.

Azelma finally gets something to do! She and her father, the last surviving Thénardiers, spot the wedding procession, and her father sets her to research the couple.

Chapter title: “Jean Valjean still has his arm in a sling.” Ooh, how exciting!

Cosette’s dress is beautiful. So is Marius’ hair. Also, now that they’re married, Marius can stare at “the pink objects vaguely to be discerned beneath the lace of her corsage.” Hubba hubba.

Cosette jokes: “It’s true. My name is now the same as yours. I’m Madame You”

Out of curiosity, I checked the 1887 (Isabel Hapgood) translation of that line and noticed on the same page the following phrase: “their griefs were but so many handmaidens who were preparing the toilet of joy.” I know the word’s changed its meaning, but I just couldn’t stop laughing at “the toilet of joy.”

Théodule is of course at the wedding, which makes me wonder what he was up to during the revolt back in June. He’s stationed in the city, so he probably would have been involved in the fighting. Come to think of it, I’m surprised Hugo didn’t use the opportunity to show a view of the insurrection from the other side…or at least a conversation between cousins. I’m not sure we ever see him and Marius interact at all.

The old man who used to rant at the slightest provocation is now rambling about joy and love at, well, the slightest provocation. It’s a complete reversal.

G: “That in fact there are unhappy people is a disgrace to the blue of the sky.” – I’m not sure if he’s offended by the circumstances that make people unhappy or that the unhappy people exist.

Don’t get your hopes up for too happy an ending to Les Misérables, though. Even if you haven’t seen the play or movie, you know the title.

Pages covered: 1110-1139, more or less. A few bits of Valjean’s legal maneuverings are actually revealed a little bit later, in the conversation with Marius after the wedding, but this seemed like a better way to break things up. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.