Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Valjean and the Bishop

Some things I noticed, or thought about, while reading the about the Bishop of Digne and his encounter with Jean Valjean this time around.

First off, here’s what I wrote about last time: The Bishop and Part 2…4601. Suffice it to say that while the bishop does disappear afterward, he’s a fascinating character in his own right.

Donougher points out in her intro that the infamous galleys at Toulon weren’t actually in use as ships. They were decommissioned, basically convenient place to house prisoners without building new structures. To reduce confusion (as seen in all the ship-based opening scenes in various adaptations), she translates them as “prison hulks” rather than “galleys.”

Victor Hugo complains about how the crowd frequently mistakes success for merit. Five years ago, I remarked that it reminded me of criticisms of the internet and reality TV. Today it seems even more widely applicable.

The narrator goes out of his way to avoid naming Jean Valjean from his first appearance all the way through his arrival at the bishop’s house…even though the innkeeper drops his name a few pages in.

I’d wondered about the itinerary on Valjean’s passport, which I hadn’t noticed in the book, but figures in at least three movies. It turns out there is one line in his first conversation with the bishop mentioning that he is “under obligation to follow a fixed route.” A translator’s note about the yellow passport explains that the fixed route was standard at the time, as the ex-con’s passport was basically a specialized travel visa.

Valjean was nicknamed “the jack” in prison, not because of his name, but because he could lift so much. The French term for the tool the time was cric, unrelated to John/Jack.

Edit: The metal spike that he plans to use as a lockpick/weapon is translated as a miner’s candlestick! How appropriate!

A few chapters in, the wordiness is starting to grate a bit - I suspect Donougher is trying to stick closer to Hugo’s words where possible.

The extended man-overboard metaphor would be a great intro to a Lovecraftian horror story.

The bishop’s forgiveness and generosity don’t trigger an instant conversion so much as they set up Valjean believing that change is possible. Stealing Petit-Gervais’ coin is the point where he reaches rock bottom and decides to change. The fact that he commits one theft very deliberately, and then another without even thinking, make for an interesting contrast, and tie in with ideas like the system 1/system 2 model of brain function. Valjean doesn’t flip a switch from “very dangerous man” to saint, he has to work to overcome 19 years of training.

On that first day, there are moments when Valjean wishes he’d been arrested and put back in prison, because “it would have been less disturbing” – just like Javert later wishes Valjean had killed him, because it would have been less embarrassing. (Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.) It’s not just the musical that tied these two conversions together, it’s there in the book as well.

Anyway, I seem to be reading at about the same pace as last year, though I think I’ll try to take fewer breaks and finish up sooner. The fact that I’m not writing as much commentary this time will help, I’m sure!