Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Off the Deep End

Number 24601 becomes 9430I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Previously: After Fantine’s death, we spent 45 pages on the Battle of Waterloo. Now back to the story!

Completely skipped by the musical: Jean Valjean is recaptured, tried for robbing the chimney-sweep boy after his release, and sent back to prison. He offers no defense (he did take the coin), even though the prosecution claims he committed armed robbery with accomplices, which gets him the death penalty (though the king commutes it to life in prison). What he really did was step on a coin and refuse to move his foot.

With M. Madeleine gone, everything in Montreuil-sur-mer falls apart. All that prosperity is lost in local power struggles. He wasn’t making excuses when he worried what would happen to his workers.

“Before going further we must describe in some detail…” we just finished a 50-page digression! now what?

Regarding a local ne’er-do-well near Montfermeil, “Village women on their way through the wood at first mistook him for Beelzebub and then saw that he was Boulatruelle, which was scarcely more reassuring.” Update: Believe it or not, this seemingly one-off character shows up again later.

Hugo estimates the worldwide cost of gunfire salutes, which he considers a waste of ammunition, at 900,000 francs per day, “A detail in passing. Meanwhile the poor continue to die of hunger.”

Heh. Sans-culottes and descamisados.

“Look Down” in the movie, with the convicts pulling a ship into drydock, is probably inspired by this scene at the shipyards during Valjean’s second sentence. A crewman of a ship in for repair is caught on a rope hanging from the mast. Valjean volunteers to rescue him, then breaks his own shackle to do it. (No one notices how easy it was at the time.) After the daring rescue, Valjean himself falls into the ocean and is believed to drown.

There are some interesting bits in this sequence, but overall I don’t think it adds much that we don’t already know.

Pages covered: 325-337. You might also be interested in my review of the movie. Continue on to part 9 as Valjean rescues Cosette from the Thénardiers.