Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Meanwhile, Back at the Rue Plumet…

The Mysterious House on the Rue PlumetI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to read about the Marius, Éponine and the gang after the robbery, or read on!

It’s been about 250 pages since we last saw anything from Jean Valjean’s or Cosette’s point of view, when they entered the convent. We’ve seen them through Marius’ eyes only.

Now we finally come back to their perspective, picking up with Valjean’s decision to leave the convent. Basically, he was so happy there that it troubled his conscience (sort of like the first Matrix being paradise, but humans wouldn’t accept it), and it came down to whether he would be right to steer Cosette into the life of a nun without letting her experience the world outside and all its possibility first so that she could make an informed choice.

Well, not quite. If comes down to the fact that he’s afraid if he did that, she’d come to resent him, and that’s the final straw.

So he finds that house in the Rue Plumet, set well back from the street behind a huge, overgrown garden, with a secret entrance to the grounds running between the neighborhood’s walls that lets out in another part of town entirely (it was built for someone who wanted to visit his mistress in secret). “Only the birds had observed this curiosity, which doubtless was the subject of much interested speculation among the sparrows and finches of a century ago.”

He also rents two apartments elsewhere in Paris, to cover his tracks and provide a bolt-hole. That explains how they move so quickly when Marius follows them home: they’re at one of the decoy apartments at the time.

Valjean’s alias of M. Fauchelevent gets called up for the Garde Nationale, and to avoid attracting attention, he has to join. In case you’re wondering where he got that army uniform for the barricade.

“In the events that have already been related the reader will no doubt have been even more quick to recognize Jean Valjean than was Thénardier.” Gee, you think so?

Valjean has a small case that he always keeps with him whenever they move, and won’t let Cosette see in it. “The little case had always intrigued Cosette because of the odour of embalming which emanated from it.” I feel like that’s a clue, but I just can’t place it. Update: It’s the first clothes he bought her as a child.

The butterfly effect wasn’t coined for another century, but Hugo is approaching an element of chaos theory here: “Who can predict the course of a molecule? How do we know that the creation of worlds is not determined by the fall of grains of sand?”

Life at Rue Plumet

Cosette barely remembers her childhood. She has no memory of her mother at all, and even the Thénardiers have faded to figures of nightmare. Now that she’s grown, Valjean feels uncomfortable talking about Fantine, as if doing so would introduce a gap between them.

Valjean makes sure Cosette’s life is as cushy as possible in the nice, if isolated, house, but he stays in the rustic cottage on the grounds with no fire, eats coarse food, and otherwise deprives himself, because of reasons.

No, really: Cosette asks, “Father, why do you eat that horrid bread?” and he replies, “For reasons, my dear.”

I Feel Pretty…

Cosette and the mirror

Everyone at the convent kept telling Cosette she was plain, and only Valjean ever disagreed. Then one day, she realizes that she really is pretty, and suddenly becomes obsessed with it.

In less than a month little Cosette, in her solitude off the Rue de Babylone, was not merely one of the prettiest women in Paris, which is saying a great deal, but one of the best dressed, which is saying even more.

And after living isolated for so long, she’s ready to get out there and discover boys, although she hasn’t quite figured out that’s what she wants yet. Her time at the convent has both primed her for romance and ensured she doesn’t know about it.

And then she sees Marius at the park.

Rules for Dating My Daughter

We’ve already seen the courtship from Marius’ point of view. Now we see it from Cosette’s and Valjean’s. This chapter covers a lot of familiar ground, but it’s critical to make it absolutely clear that Cosette has feelings for Marius as well, and he’s not just stalking some random woman in the Luxembourg gardens and imagining that she’s subtly flirting back.

Hugo makes the interesting point that this courtship at a distance is all that Cosette was ready for at this point. And even though she’s still trying to figure out what this “love” thing is, she instinctively knows she needs to hide it from her father.

She’s right: there is no way Valjean is going to let some punk take away his daughter, the only good thing in his life, leading to an amusing game of cat and mouse as he tries to confirm his suspicions and deflect Marius.

One day, while in the park, Valjean idly makes a comment about the man on the bench across the way. Cosette essentially says “Who, him?” Oh no, I’ve pointed him out to her!

Cosette keeps her feelings hidden, and Marius makes an ass of himself over and over. Hugo says it’s a rule that in these sort of courtships, “the girl never falls into any trap and the young man falls into all of them.” Valjean is convinced that Cosette has no clue who Marius is, so he starts looking daggers at Marius while Marius is making goo-goo eyes at Cosette. At one point, Valjean glares at Marius in a way that “even he could not fail to notice.”

It’s like an eye conversation. Marius’ eyes (shouting): I LOVE YOU! Cosette’s eyes (whispering): I love you too. Valjean’s eyes (whispering coldly): Stay the hell away from my daughter.

Thinking about it, Marius always has a severe case of tunnel vision. He follows his grandfather until he learns that his father was actually a good guy, then he forswears his grandfather and focuses on making good on the relationship with the father he never knew, then he meets Cosette and it’s all over. No wonder when he thinks she’s gone forever, he finally pays attention to his friends…in the war zone.

She Ended Up Sad

When Marius follows them and Valjean decides to move, Cosette is sad…but can’t admit it, or say why. She’s hidden her feelings about Marius so well that Valjean doesn’t even make the connection. And of course now there’s that wall between them, so after years of happiness together, they end up suffering silently, side by side, pretending to be happy for each other’s sake.

Valjean is finally happy again after his injuries from burning himself with that chisel cause him to be so sick that Cosette has to care for him, and they end up reconnecting while he recovers. “Oh, most fortunate wound!” …Really?

As for his attackers, “They were now in prison, and therefore, he assumed, no longer able to harm anyone.” You assume too much. One of them’s going to mug you in the next chapter. Or at least try…

Pages covered: 756-790. Images by Lynd Ward from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.