Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

You Say You Want A Revolution

Street OratorLes Misérables is divided into five parts, most of them named after characters: Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Jean Valjean. Then there’s Part Four: “The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis.”

Victor Hugo starts this section by establishing the political context of the years 1830-1832, including the July Revolution, in which the restored monarchy reasserted itself, only to be told “no” and kicked out. Rebuilding, he says, was a task for the wise, but the revolution was co-opted by the “merely clever,” who voted to install a new king, Louis-Philippe. The result was a sort of half-revolution that left a lot of problems unresolved. He then goes on to talk about Louis-Philippe, trying to separate the king from the man where possible.

Meanwhile, problems piled up for the next few years.

The wisest, calmest and most far-sighted go slowly to work, but by the time they produce their rendering the job has long been done and twenty different versions are on sale in the marketplace. Each interpretation gives birth to a political party, each contradiction to a political faction; and each party believes that it has the sole authentic gospel, each faction that it has its own light to shed.

Hugo discusses the problems of the production of wealth and its distribution, suggesting that both must be solved to produce a healthy economy. As he sees it, England in his time had solved the first problem, but not the second, while communists claimed to have solved the second problem at the expense of the first. “Proper distribution does not imply an equal share but an equitable share. Equity is the essence of equality.” If, one day, you manage to solve both problems, well then, “you will worthy to call yourself France.” (France has the best economic struggles!)

By mid-1832, Paris is buzzing with open ferment, people casually stockpiling ammunition, attending meetings, making alliances, creating secret lines of communication but as often speaking openly. The ABC students are in the thick of it but far from the only ones making plans.

The whole section is rather tedious to get through, but it does a much better job than anything in the stage version or the movie at really establishing the scope of the revolt. It’s not just one group of idealistic students who imagine popular support that doesn’t exist. It’s widespread unrest, and they had good reasons to believe that when they rose up, they could succeed.

At one point Enjolras starts sending his lieutenants out to recruit various guilds and workers, and has one last group to recruit. He was thinking of sending Marius, but he doesn’t show up anymore. Grantaire volunteers. “But you don’t believe in anything?” “I believe in you.” *bats eyelashes* (OK, no eyelashes). Yeah, he’s desperate to prove himself. Or…maybe not. Enjolras checks up on him later and he’s playing dominoes with the marble-workers he was supposed to recruit.

Next: the aftermath of that attempted robbery.

I’m back at commentary after a two-month break! I read a few other books, took two trips, and had a busy time at work, plus I changed my note-taking scheme so that I read a lot faster, but had to spend a lot more time composing my remarks. At this point I’m reading about 200 pages ahead of my commentary.

Pages covered: 703-738. Image by Zier, from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.