Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Stealth Courtship

Marius struts past Jan Valjean and CosetteI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about Marius and the job market, or read on.

At last, Marius and Cosette meet! Well, sort of. Long-distance flirting is all they can manage, and they still haven’t spoken a word to each other after weeks.

After pages and pages of reading about Marius Pontmercy, we finally get a description of him. Though I could do without reading about his “sensitive nostrils.” (It could be worse; in the 1887 translation you can get on Project Gutenberg, they’re “passionate nostrils.”)

Girls stare at Marius, but he thinks they’re laughing at his shabby clothes, so he becomes very shy and avoids them. Courfeyrac starts calling him Monsieur l’abbé.

I remember this quote sticking in my head the first time through the book:

His feeling for his father had by degrees become a religion and like all religions had receded to the background of his mind.

Marius notices Jean Valjean and Cosette frequenting the same park as him for over a year, but pays them no mind until he stops going for a while, then comes back and she’s hit puberty. Even then, he doesn’t really notice until one day Marius’ and Cosette’s eyes meet. *ZAP!*

Suddenly he’s very self-conscious. The next day, he starts wearing his best clothes when going to the park, making sure he gets seen by her, and then starts thinking, huh, maybe the gentleman might think I’m acting a little odd.

One day they walk by his bench, and she glances at him. He’s overcome…but also worried because his boots are dusty and he’s sure she must have noticed.

They steal glances at each other, flirting from a distance. Marius starts hiding behind trees and statues so that he and Cosette can see each other but Valjean can’t see him. About this time Valjean starts getting suspicious and starts changing their routine to see if Marius will follow.

One time Valjean drops his handkerchief. Marius finds it, convinced that it must be hers, and concludes that the initials U.F. mean her name is Ursula. Throughout the whole section, we only have Courfeyrac’s nicknames for them: Monsieur Leblanc (because of his hair) and Mademoisele Lanoire (because she usually wears black, or did when she was younger).

The couple’s first quarrel: arguing through glances over the fact that the wind lifted up her skirt and exposed her leg. Someone could have seen! No one did, but someone could have!

Marius is new to dating (if you can call it that), and aside from their subtle flirtations in the park, he’s basically stalking her. Finally Valjean catches him at their house, and they stop going to the park. Within a week they’ve moved. Brilliant plan, Marius.

Next up: The Paris Underworld.

Pages covered: 603-618. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.