Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Escape from Montfermeil

Little Cosette and the broomI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to Valjean’s second prison sentence, or read on.

Getting Cosette away from the Thénardiers takes 45 pages. The other day I was flipping through The Complete Book of Les Misérables (Edward Behr) and noted a comment from one of the show’s writers that the book wasn’t really that complex. I scoffed, but you know, they’re right. It isn’t complex. It’s just ridiculously detailed.

We learn a bit more about the Thénardier family. In addition to Éponine and Azelma, whom Mme Thénardier dotes on, there’s an infant son she neglects. (IIRC he later turns out to be Gavroche, though I’m not sure the timeline fits. Update: yes, it’s him.) Mme Thénardier “talked like a gendarme, drank like a coachman, and treated Cosette like a gaoler.” Her husband’s business philosophy in “Master of the House” is practically lifted from this chapter – they just made it rhyme. Strangely, despite all this detail, Hugo hasn’t mentioned either adult Thénardier’s first name.

They really aren’t comic relief in the book. They’re sleazy, they’re odious and disgusting, and while there are comedic and ironic elements to them, they inspire more revulsion than laughter. If Javert is the noble villain, they’re the base ones.

Fetching water from the well is a BIG DEAL, especially at night with no lights (remember the last time you went out in the woods at night far from well-lit streets? Imagine that without a flashlight), especially for a little girl who’s been brought up to fear everything…and pointed to a bucket larger than she is. She can barely move it empty.

This is not the way Cosette wanted to spend Christmas Day.

Oh look, another mysterious stranger who will eventually be revealed as Jean Valjean. This is getting to be a pattern. “The stranger” is in the woods to check on where he buried his savings, then to head into town to look for the inn. He helps this poor little girl, then asks her name. Cosette’s tale of her home life is…not what he had been led to expect.

I love this chapter title: “Awkwardness of accommodating a poor man who may turn out to be rich.”

Valjean in the book is very deliberate. He rarely takes a big action without looking at the situation and thinking it through. He spends an hour at the inn observing how the Thénardiers treat Cosette vs. their own children, intervening on her behalf several times. But when there’s an immediate threat to someone, he reacts instinctively: the cart, the mast, or Madame Thénardier threatening to beat Cosette.

Cosette gets in trouble for playing with Éponine’s discarded doll. (Yes, discarded. Éponine and Azelma have tossed it aside to dress the kitten.) Valjean solves the problem by buying her the fancy doll she’s been staring at all day when she could get outside.

Ah, Thénardier! “A room where one merely goes to bed costs 20 sous, but a room where one retires may cost 20 francs.”

Cosette sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs. Beauxbatons would have been around at the time according to Harry Potter canon. But I suspect Thénardier would cook and serve the owls.

Hugo twice mentions little Cosette’s habit of sticking her tongue out, and is very apologetic about having to mention it both times. At least he doesn’t take two pages like he did to justify swearing during Waterloo.

In addition to being more deliberate, book-Valjean is a shrewder negotiator than musical-Valjean. He waits until the next morning and then, while settling the bill, steers the conversation toward her and eases up to “what if I took her off your hands?”

As for the Thénardiers, M. does all the bargaining himself. This turns out to be a mistake. When he shows his wife the 1500 francs, she criticizes him for the first time ever, saying simply, “Is that all?”

Thénardier goes after them as they leave town, demanding a signed note from Fantine. Oh, you mean like this one? He’s disappointed to actually get it. He was hoping to be bribed.

After 30 pages calling him “the stranger,” Hugo admits that “the man in the yellow coat,” is Jean Valjean.

In other news, the extended movie soundtrack is out today. Strangely enough, I’m not sure I want to pick it up. While I liked the movie overall, I still haven’t listened to the highlights album. It just seems like something would be missing to try to separate the sound and visuals from each other in this version.

Pages covered: 338-384. Continue on to the chase through Paris.