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The Book Club

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

1. The epic that is Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables. Commonly known as “Les Mis” on Broadway or in theatres, Victor Hugo’s tale of the wretched or miserable ones (the lowest of the low in French society is supremely engaging and moving. The title of the novel is incorporated in the storyline in reference to the unfortunate and the infamous: “they are les misérables: the outcasts, the underdogs”. The tale focuses its exposition upon the fortunes of convict Jean Valjean, and seizes upon varying experiences or encounters in the latter’s life to dramatically articulate the woes and struggles of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society. Valjean’s journey is a perilous one, as he constantly put under pressure by the prejudices of his counterparts and the community, as well as his personal conscience. On a side note, given that the text was in French originally, judicious selection of the corresponding translated text is necessary. Norman Denny, the translator of the version of my book, contends excellently that “readability must be the translator’s first concern”; and quite logically, Denny’s edition has emerged as the definitive one in contemporary times.

2. Haunteville House, January 1, 1862. “While through the working of laws and customs there continues to exist of condition of social condemnation which artificially creates a human hell within civilisation, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; while the three great problems of this century, the degradation of man in the proletariat, the subjection of women through hunger, the atrophy of the child by darkness, continued unresolved; while in some regions social asphyxia remains possible; in other words, and in still wider terms, while ignorance and poverty persist on earth, books such as this cannot fail to be of value”.

3. An (over-)extravagance in writing and providence of information. Hugo has the tendency to lapse into lengthy expressions concentrated upon his thoughts on religion, history, politics, as well as society in general et cetera; and these discussions can stretch individually for a few pages. For the average reader who might not have a good understanding of the issues that plagued France or Paris, some of the propositions and information may prove to be too overwhelming. This is especially true when Hugo’s thoughts and assertions regarding the aforementioned have little or insignificant bearing to the plot at hand, and might leave the reader confused or bewildered. Denny articulates the frustrations the reader might experience in the reading of Hugo’s epic, contending that “the book is loaded down with digressions, interpolated discourses, passages of moralising rhetoric and pedagogic discussions”. Denny had rendered the chapters of “The Convent As An Abstract Idea” and “Argot” as appendices, on the premise that the content did significantly little to advance the plot.

4. Taking solace in Hugo’s power of expression. Even as the reader laments the tremendous effort needed to digest many of Hugo’s chapters, his power of expression is subtle, yet powerful; and cleverly employs proverbial phrases or proverbs to colour his paragraphs. Religious references are aplenty as well. For instance, playing on the historical aphorism “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, he wrote “We say to them: ‘You are robbing Hell of its pavements!’ To which they might reply: ‘That is why our barricade is built of good intentions’.

5. Cosette and Marius. Cosette and Marius both had to come through difficult times in their lives – though these hardships and struggles strengthen their character and resolve – and they gradually fall in love and eventually marry. While Cosette’s formative years and personality is largely shaped by Valjean’s care and concern, allowing her to emerge from poverty to become well-educated and desirous of love and independence; Marius develops more comprehensively only when he leaves his grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand. Cosette’s progression seems to be swayed largely by the individuals and circumstances around her, and appears to be considerably passive. On the other hand, Marius at times is presented to be oblivious to the people and events around him, which is seen in his treatment of Valjean after the latter’s confession to him, and how he callously treated Éponine throughout the novel, until her dying moments.

6. The misfortunes of Fantine; and denouncing the fundamental ills of societies. Although very little is said about Fantine’s history or background (we only know that she is an orphan, and poorly-educated), her innocence and lack of understanding allows her to be constantly taken advantage of, and eventually leads to her sad demise and death. After falling in love and impregnated by Tholomyès, she spirals tragically down the social ladder: first, constantly being exhorted by the Thénardiers (because of her love and sense of guilt towards Cosette), losing her job at the factory (as a result of a loud-mouth scribe who pens letters for her), trading her hair and two front teeth for money, and ending up in prostitution. Society’s bias and the cruel lack of support facilitate her decline, but it is her disadvantaged background that seems to be the true cause for all that has happened to her. Nonetheless, her persistent motherly love towards Cosette is heart-wrenching; and she contrasts greatly with the heartless opportunism best exemplified by the ruthless Thénardiers.

7. Bishop Myriel, Jean Valjean, and the theme of social inequality. The reader is immediately introduced to the selfless Bishop Myriel: of his acts of kindness and selflessness; however, the need for him to constantly worry about his parish and dedicate his personal finances to the workings of the community highlight the prevalence of social inequality. Valjean, who had committed the crime out of absolute necessity and love for his family, has not been properly endowed by society; but has been ruthlessly prosecuted. Having received the silverware and candlesticks from the Bishop, he seeks to shake off the past and establish himself as an honest and respectable member of society. In fact, in his acts of charity and generous development before – and when – he became Mayor, he emulated much of what the Bishop had done in his own life. At the end of the novel, Valjean emerges wonderfully as a man of conscience, honour and integrity. Many have also rightly pointed out the connection between light, salvation and religion.

8. The Thénardiers. In short, the Thénardiers are generally an evil family, which takes advantage of various opportunities for their personal benefits. Because of ill-management and their constantly bemoaning of how they have been disadvantaged by society, they care little for the lives of others, and have primary focus for themselves. Both husband and wife, blinded by money and pragmatism, cause their family to be fragmented (especially with the plight of Gavroche, and by chance, the other two boys). Éponine and Gavroche emerge as the honourable members of the family, and shows that a person’s actions and development can be independent of his or her family, especially when the family has not provided the necessary elements for respectable growth and maturity.

9. Javert’s dilemma. Javert is not an inherently evil person; his main problem is that his inflexibility and stern adherence to the law renders him incapable of questioning the established order (given his background, history and beliefs as a police inspector), and unaware of human emotions and sensibilities. His professional determination and resolve is admirable and positive for the general course of things, though his callousness contrasts greatly with the proliferation of human compassion; and his experience with Valjean at the barricade makes it impossible for him to reconcile the differences.

10. Valjean’s grave.

He sleeps; although so much he was denied,
He lived. And when his dear love left him, died.
It happened of itself, in the calm way
That in the evening night-time follows day
”.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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