Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Poor, Poor Marius

Les Misérables and CoffeeIn this chapter: Marius in poverty; quotes on books; and a cranky old man whose complaints are timeless.

I’m roughly at the halfway point! This project is taking even longer than I expected, partly because I have a lot less time to read than I’d like, partly because I’ve got other books I want to read too, and partly because taking notes for this commentary does slow things down. On the plus side, it’s also motivation to pick the book up again when I’ve lost momentum, as I have the last couple of weeks.


When we last discussed Les Misérables, Marius Pontmercy had fallen out with his grandfather when he learned he’d been lied to about his father, and had fallen out with his student friends when he realized his politics were too naive for their company.

Marius On His Own

Marius in poverty fares better than Fantine does. For one thing, he doesn’t start off in debt (in fact he very carefully avoids debt). For another, he’s not ostracized by potential employers when work is available. And of course he doesn’t have the Thénardiers demanding exorbitant sums every few weeks.

Somehow he still manages to get his law degree. How does he pay for school? He also learns German and English, and finds meager work translating and writing. He’s certified as an advocate, but he can’t stand to be around lawyers anymore. After a few years he’s managed to settle into a comfortable working poor existence.

He’s still looking for the elusive Thénardier who saved his father’s life and, presumably, must be a great, saintly man. He has no idea that he’s moved in next door. Interestingly, he saves them from eviction at one point by digging into his emergency stash to pay their back rent.

Contemplation, dreaming and the 1830 revolution calm Marius’ political opinions. “To be exact, he no longer had opinions, but only sympathies.”

Hugo compares poverty in early adulthood as a crucible, concentrating willpower and contemplation without idle distractions. I suppose it depends on how dire your straits are and whether you have hope to escape it. It certainly doesn’t track with the stories you read in the news…or the rest of the book.

Booking It

And now a bit about Monsieur Mabeuf, the man who unwittingly revealed the truth about Marius’ father and set in motion his transformation. There are some great quotes in this section.

Like everyone else he had a label, since at that time nobody could live without one, but his ‘ism’ was of a non-committed kind: he was not a royalist, a Bonapartist, a chartist, an Orleanist, or an anarchist – simply a book-ist.

Also a botanist, which was a big part of his friendship with Colonel Pontmercy.

He never left home without a book under his arm, and often came back with two.

Regarding his housekeeper:

She had never desired any man or been able to live without a cat.

And on reading:

To read aloud is to assure oneself that one is reading, and there are persons who read very loudly indeed, as though positively proclaiming the fact.

Grumpy Old Man

Marius’ grandfather won’t attempt reconciliation, but misses him terribly. “Old people need love as they need sunshine; it is warmth.” His temper suffers for it.

His aunt, on the other hand, is too shallow to care. “In the end she thought far less about him than about the cat or parrot which she doubtless possessed.”

“…as so often when he read the newspaper, was soon simmering with fury.” Talk about universal truths.

“You only have to breathe the air in the streets to be driven half insane.” It’s easy to forget that smog goes back to the dawn of the industrial revolution (which M. Gillenormand clearly doesn’t like either). Further, really, if you look at smoke from heating fires in cities.

M. Gillenormand rants at length about youngsters with their goatees, dressing sloppily and talking coarsely. (But enough about 90s grunge.) Also about those liberal colleges and the media. And, just for good measure, about a play written by Victor Hugo.

Theodule (Marius’ cousin) has been carefully agreeing with everything the old man says. Finally Gillenormand notices, pauses in his diatribe, and turns to him, saying simply: “You’re a damned fool.”

Pages covered: 584-602. Next: Marius meets Cosette (sort of).