Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Righteousness vs “Righteousness”

Les Misérables: The BookLast time we followed the mysterious Monsieur Madeleine’s rise to prominence in Fantine’s hometown. By the time she returns, it seems that everybody loves Monsieur Madeleine.

Well, almost everyone.

Javert is not impressed.

Inspector Javert is described using the wolf/sheepdog metaphor, as a dog born to wolves. Outcast, he decides he can never join society, but can either prey on it or protect it. His instinct for order leads him to the latter.

Continuing the animal metaphor, Javert laughing is “a rare and terrible occurrence…Javert unsmiling was a bulldog; when he laughed he was a tiger.”

He’s been investigating “M. Madeleine” for quite some time, though it causes severe cognitive dissonance between his two key beliefs: government officials can do no wrong and criminals can do no right. (M. Madeleine has pretended not to notice.)

Javert hints at his suspicions to Valjean before he lifts the cart off of Fauchelevent, (“I’ve only known one man with the strength to do this…”) but Valjean does it anyway, because he’s just that kind of guy.

Fantine Gets Screwed Over

Fantine’s dismissal is far less personal than in the play: a local busybody/moral guardian finds out about her child and exposes her secret. She even gets severance pay, it’s just not enough to cover her debts. No one will hire her because of her reputation, and she can’t leave town and start fresh because she owes too much here. She probably would have been all right just being fired from the factory, if it weren’t for the whole town ostracizing her. Even then, she manages to cut back enough and find just enough work to hang on all summer, but winter and mounting debts do her in.

And then the Thénardiers start demanding more and more money. They write to her saying that Cosette is freezing and needs 10 francs for a woolen dress. She sells her hair and buys a dress. They’re furious because, of course, they wanted the money, and give the dress to Éponine. The next time they write, they claim she’s deathly ill and needs 40 francs for medicine or she’ll die within a week. Fantine sells her incisors for that – not exactly practical for a show where she has to sing. Finally, at the end of her rope, she receives a demand for 100 francs or they’ll turn Cosette out on the street. She figures she’s already sold the rest…

I wonder what the “moral guardian” would say if she knew that her action had increased the number of prostitutes in town.

Somewhere in this section I had to look up 1800s French currency and figure out how centimes, sous, napoleons and francs were related. The first hit was someone on Yahoo Answers who was reading Les Mis and wanted to know the same thing.

Fantine’s Arrest

Bamatabois isn’t a repulsive customer – he’s just harassing Fantine for the hell of it until he dumps a snowball down her back and she snaps.

Javert really can’t handle anything that challenges his assumptions, such as the Mayor commanding him to let some prostitute go free after she hit a citizen.

By this time, Fantine’s so bitter that she has the same problem. She’s come to blame M. Madeleine for the year or more of hell, so when he tells Javert to free her, she thinks she’s misheard, and Javert must have had a change of heart.

As they argue over Fantine’s jail sentence, Javert claims jurisdiction…then M. Madeleine cites regulations. Repeatedly, until he completely shuts Javert down.

The way M. Madeleine addresses Fantine after he pardons her, and the way she reacts to the sudden change of fortune, strongly mirrors the way the bishop pardoned Valjean. (Except the part where Fantine faints immediately afterward, but Hugo has been hinting at her having consumption since she left Paris.)

Pages covered this week: 164-190. Continue on to part 5 as Javert confronts M. Madeleine with his suspicions. Sort of.