Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Paris Has the Best Street Urchins

GavrocheI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, or read on.

Now that Valjean and Cosette are safely established at the convent, we move on to “Part Three: Marius” and jump ahead several years.

Of course, we don’t start with Marius. Just as “Part One: Fantine” opened with the Bishop and “Part Two: Cosette” opened with the Battle of Waterloo, this section starts with street urchins. Marius isn’t even one of them.

Paris has the best street urchins, or at least they did back in the good old days. Victor Hugo presents a fascinating, idealized description of the typical Paris urchin, then goes on to present the urchin as a microcosm of Paris, which he sees as a microcosm of – and the center of – the world. Let’s just say this won’t be the last time Hugo expounds on the wonders of Paris.

Harpers Ferry and John Brown are mentioned in a list of leaders and movements inspired by the revolutionary spirit of Paris. I remember reading that the novel was popular among Confederate soldiers (sometimes known as Lee’s Miserables), but the rare references to America fall into two categories: historical “Yay revolution!” or contemporary “Boo slavery!” [Update: Now I know why they weren’t put off by the abolitionism.]

There’s a lot of talk about the transition between city and country, in-between places that are both but neither (briefly discussed in other chapters). That’s something I’m not super-familiar with, having grown up in southern California in the 1980s. The sprawling suburbs stopped abruptly at a big industrial farm (most of which is gone now), and if we went hiking or camping, we drove from solid city to solid country, and skipped right past the transitional areas.

Anyway, after a while we get a brief introduction to Gavroche, mostly relying on the description of the standard urchin. He occasionally visits his family, who don’t really care for or about him… in the same dreary Paris tenement where Valjean first hid out with Cosette. The family name is given as Jondrette, but there are a few hints to suggest who they really are. (I find it interesting that in the musical, Gavroche re-introduces the Thénardiers after the time jump, given that in the book he’s part of the family, if only by birth.)

Adding to the coincidences: Their next door neighbor is a penniless student named Marius, whom we’re told will be the next subject of concern. Except that he isn’t. The next chapter is about Marius’ grandfather.

Pages covered: 495-511. Image of Gavroche “after an original by Émile Bayard,” from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.