Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

(From) Drinking to Revolution

Grantaire holds court in a tavern, the barricade goes up, Javert is discovered (and is not alone!) and Marius has a very different experience making his way into the combat zone than his friends did.

CorintheEveryone’s marching off to build a barricade…and now it’s time to describe the neighborhood in detail, including the entire history of the tavern Corinth next to where they end up building it. Because Victor Hugo, that’s why.

It’s a different tavern than the students’ usual meeting place as revolutionaries, but it is one of their regular hangouts. The proprietor until recently, Pere Hucheloup, had been an excellent cook (who “may have been born to be a chemist”), though since his death, the place has gone downhill – especially the food. Courfeyrac had once written on the door: “Revel if you can and eat if you dare.” In short, it’s the 19th century Barth’s Burgers.

Grantaire’s One-Pub Pub Crawl

On the morning of the revolt, Laigle and Joly are hanging out at Corinth. “The two friends lived, ate, and slept together, sharing everything, even the girl Musichetta from time to time.” Oh, myyy…

Grantaire shows up, so of course they spend the day drinking. He spends all his time rambling about drink, and reality, and revolution, and somewhere along the line it seems like he’s actually thinking about what he’s saying. Then he comes up with the idea that revolutions are God’s patches for continuity glitches. Hey, it makes more sense than Superboy punching the walls of time.

None of them want to leave. Grantaire’s pissed that Enjolras didn’t show up himself to ask, and Joly doesn’t want to go out in the rain. “I swore to go through fire, but not water. I don’t want to make my cold worse.” So of course when the rest of the group shows up, they figure, hey, why not set up right here? *headdesk*

Enjolras: Go home, Grantaire, you’re drunk! Graintaire: I will not be moved!

Enjolras goes on to accuse Grantaire of being “incapable of believing or thinking or willing or living or dying.” Grantaire merely replies “You’ll see,” then proceeds to sleep through the entire siege.

It actually is a good spot: Narrow, winding streets, the two-story tavern providing a staging area. They set up a huge barricade on the widest street, the Rue de la Chanvrerie, a lower one on the side street, the Rue Mondétour (literally “my detour”), and leave a tiny alleyway open for messengers.

Just as this barricade is only a small part of the rebellion, the students are only a small part of the defenders. They’re in charge, but there are about fifty men at this point, workmen of all sorts and ages, armed with whatever weapons they could scrounge up. They’re expecting to face thousands of soldiers – yes, Thermopylae is mentioned.


Javert doesn’t actually have a chance to do anything. Gavroche recognizes him as soon as he walks in the door. His ID lists him as “Javert, Inspector of Police, aged 52.” Does he even have a first name? Enjolras explains they’ll shoot him “two minutes before the barricade falls” because they can’t spare the ammunition. “You could use a knife,” Javert suggests. I don’t think this is the time for problem-solving, Inspector. Enjolras is offended by the suggestion.

Javert also isn’t the only infiltrator. Hugo cites the fact that crowds, however high-minded their purpose, tend to attract violent men (this bit made me think of the Occupy protests), and a man called Le Cabuc shows up, tries to start a fight and shoots one of the townspeople who lives on the street. At this point, Enjolras steps in, declares that “Murder is an even greater crime here than elsewhere,” and executes him on the spot. Yes, with a gun, mere moments after telling Javert he can’t waste the ammo – because he has to make the point to maintain discipline.

Interestingly enough, Le Cabuc turns out to have been an undercover police agent and probably Claquesous. This would explain why he always wears a mask and mysteriously escapes from custody. Knowledge of his identity must be above Javert’s pay grade. (I still like my vampire theory, though.)

Marius’ Death Wish

I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes at Marius. But then so do his friends, so I suppose it’s okay. After Éponine’s message, he decides he might as well go to the barricade. He told Cosette he’d die without her, and dammit, he’s going to keep his word!

And hey, he’s still got Javert’s pistols from four months ago (not sure why he’s carrying them today), so he’s already armed. You’d think the police would keep track of them better.

To the Rue Saint Denis

Marius’ journey to the barricade is really interesting. He starts in areas with ordinary Parisian activity, then walks through restless crowds, then through army staging areas, and finally deserted streets. Streetlamps have been put out. People are hiding in their homes. No one is out and about. “Marius enters the Darkness” isn’t just metaphorical, but literal.

It’s downright creepy, and gives you a very different impression than the focus on the barricade allows. You get a little of the same sense later, in the flight through the sewers, but the anticipation here gives you a real appreciation of the state of the city.

It’s also a far cry from his friends’ cheerful off-to-war march earlier in the day.

An interesting point: They all know that the next day will settle the matter one way or another: Either the revolution will take hold and grow, or it’ll be quenched immediately.

Marius comes to the barricade by way of the alley, and a step before he would be spotted by sentries, he stops, sits down, and starts thinking about his father, honor, and the nature of war. It’s his turn to die for his country…only he’s going to be fighting against his own country. Oops. But then isn’t all war civil war, of brother against brother? And yet isn’t war needed to stir up the crowd when it lapses into compliance? And of course it’s even more important to overthrow tyrants in France. Because France.

Hugo states that humans have “the strange gift of being able to reason almost coldly in the most desperate extremity, so that in desolation and utmost despair, in the travail of our darkest meditation, we may still view our situation with detachment and weigh arguments.” Modern research suggests otherwise, that in periods of extreme or prolonged stress, we lose detachment and our reason is impaired. But if Hugo believes it, it certainly explains why so many of his characters get to monologuing.

Pages covered: 915-952. Images by Brion and Lynd Ward from unidentified editions of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.