Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Return to Waterloo

The Waterloo section of Les Misérables is infamous for being fifty pages long, even though only four pages relate to the plot. (Thénardier has a track record of mistaking Pontmercys for dead.)

It starts out fascinating. “The narrator” visits the battlefield decades later, and ties the ruins to the fighting and dying that happened there. It really draws you in, and then flashes back to the battle itself.

But an entire page full of rhetorical questions about Napoleon’s mental faculties at the end of his career? Really? (Really.)

I know the pronunciation and meaning are different, but I still find it amusing that Napoleon’s reserve cavalry was commanded by Grouchy.

Look, it’s all the things that interfered with Napoleon’s battle plan, in a full-page run-on sentence!

Another translation variation: Hugo’s take is that Waterloo was pre-ordained for continuity with the rest of the century, much like Grantaire’s theory of revolutions.

So Napoleon had…

  • angered (Wraxall)…
  • embarrassed (Hapgood)…
  • become troublesome to (Denny)…
  • become an inconvenience to (Hapgood)…

…God. That’s a lot of variation in scope.

How meta: a translator’s footnote on a quote by Wellington, regarding the original French word Hugo used, and Hugo’s footnote regarding the original English word the general actually spoke.

The lengths to which Hugo goes to disparage Wellington as mediocre are impressive. He’ll grant heroism to the English soldiers, but not their general. He seems personally offended that anyone likes Wellington, and repeatedly credits luck and divine intervention for Napoleon’s loss.

As the chapter goes on, and Hugo switches from talking about the battle to talking about what it meant in his philosophy, it becomes more and more of a slog. A lot of the Waterloo section is commentary and opinion, not just relating the story of the battle. A lot.

Once he gets back to the story, it becomes a riveting (if short) tale set in the aftermath of battle. The descriptions are amazing.

Thénardier is trying to steal Marius’ father’s ring when he accidentally rescues him. I imagine that’s where the musical got the idea of him stealing Marius’ ring as the physical proof tying Valjean to his rescue.

Interesting side note

When I went looking for photos of the battlefield, I discovered that in 2015, Belgium issued a 2€ commemorative coin for the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. France objected, because they might end up circulating in France and upset people. So Belgium melted 180,000 coins and reissued them as 2½€ coins that are only valid within Belgium, thereby ensuring that no one French would come in contact with the coins (at least not in their home country).

One more thing

Since reading this section, I’ve discovered The Les Misérables Reading Companion, a podcast by a Professor of French who, once a week, talks about a new section of the book in an effort to make it more accessible, and encourage you to read along. Last night I finally listened to an episode. The latest episode is, coincidentally (or is it?), about Waterloo! I definitely recommend the podcast, and I plan on catching up with it over the next week or two.