Friday, September 27, 2013

Guest Post: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

This week's post comes from another guest and a very old friend, Joshua Grubb. I was excited when Josh offered to review Les Miserables for Vintage Novels--partly because I'd already read the book, but didn't remember it clearly enough for a review--and partly because I knew Josh would do a fantastic job of digging into the book's deeper themes. I so enjoyed reading his review, and hope you will be just as interested and edified as me!

Les Misérables: How miserable can you get?

Les Misérables (by translation, the unfortunates or miserable ones), was published in 1862 – after the French Revolution, the fall of Napoleon and the 1832 and 1848 revolutions. It tells the story of several ‘misérables,’ brought or kept in a low station by “a social condemnation, which… complicates [with human fatality] a destiny that is divine.” However, before discussing the ‘social condemnations’ and the ideas in this quote, a summary of the story would be in order.

*Spoiler Warning*

The book moves slowly at first, detailing the life and circumstances (in some detail) of M. Myriel, a philanthropic bishop, who aids Jean Valjean to escape ‘justice.’ Jean Valjean is a convict sentenced to the galleys on the evidence of the implacable police inspector Javert, who thinks he has stolen apples. Partly through the bishop’s help, Jean Valjean escapes the galleys and establishes quite a lucrative business by inventing a new, cheap method of making jet. Through his prosperity, he promotes the wellbeing of other ‘unfortunates’ in the region around his factory by providing well-paid jobs and through charity. One person that does not prosper, however, is Fantine, who is brought to prostitution in an attempt to provide for her daughter, Cosette. Cosette is being ‘cared’ for by the despicable Thénardiers (a family with two daughters and three sons, one of whom is called Gavroche), who cheat Fantine of her money and treat Cosette as a slave. However, Jean Valjean promises Fantine on her deathbed to care for Cosette. Before he can fulfil his promise, Jean Valjean is hunted out by Javert and is forced to leave his business, though he escapes justice and retires in seclusion on a fortune of six hundred thousand francs. While escaping, he manages to rescue Cosette from the Thénardiers and brings her up in comparative luxury.

The next character to appear on the scene is Marius, a young man with revolutionary sympathies.
This puts him at odds with his grandfather, a supporter of the old governmental regime, who consequently orders him to make his own way in the world. Marius does this in way similar to David Copperfield; that is, by hard work and late nights. However, he is arrested by love (at first sight), of the now beautiful Cosette, but unfortunately loses her in Paris, which cuts short his attempts to rise in the world. Apparently, the result of falling in love is to stop working, wander around the streets, get into debt, fall into despair, and then, when seemingly separated from your love forever, to attempt dying for revolutionary causes. Marius chooses to die fighting in a blockade during the 1832 revolution in Paris, with some other young bloods. Despite his efforts, however, he doesn’t manage to die, though he is badly wounded, because Jean Valjean rescues him in the famous flight through the Paris sewers.

Marius recovers and marries Cosette, and is reconciled with his grandfather, who decides that the Marius + Cosette idea is better than arguments about politics. Meanwhile, Javert commits suicide after realizing that supporting the law is not always right; this is deemed the best thing he could do after all his wickedness. The Thénardiers mostly die miserably, except for one daughter, Éponine, who dies heroically stopping a bullet aimed at Marius. Near the end, Jean Valjean informs Marius and Cosette of the secret of manufacturing jet, making them heirs to an immensely profitable industry. In addition, one character who doesn’t come into the plot much is the urchin Gavroche, who is supposed to show the spiritual (or intellectual) dwarfing of children. This ‘dwarfing’ is one of three problems Hugo is attempting to address, prostitution and poverty being the other two; later, we will see why he thought these were problems.

The above summary could give the impression that the storyline is quite strong and unbroken, but, unfortunately, this is not true. Hugo indulges in a deal of historical detail, which is partly responsible for breaking the story’s unity. For example (I love the fogginess and randomness of this passage; I read and wonder how Victor Hugo did it):
As he came to a street which struck him as being the Rue du Contrat Social, a shot from a musket coming nobody knows whence, passing at random through the obscurity, whistled close by him, and the ball pierced a copper shaving-dish suspended before a barber's shop. This shaving-dish with the bullet-hole could still be seen, in 1846, in the Rue du Contrat Social, at the corner of the pillars of the markets.

If I want to read historical fiction about unfortunates, I read Les Misérables. If I want to read about shaving bowls with bullet holes in them, I am not certain what I would read, but it wouldn’t be Les Misérables. I have amused myself with the idea that you could put this paragraph into a Stephen Leacock story and no one would notice. History is important and interesting in a historical novel, but it should add to the story; if it doesn’t, don’t put it in, especially the history of shaving bowls.


However, more provoking are the essays and paragraphs that appear on various and diverse subjects, principally philosophy and history. They describe, among other things, life in a convent, argot (=slang), the wonderfulness of revolutionary thinkers and Paris (that ‘ceiling’ of the human race), perspectives on Waterloo, preparations for the 1832 revolution, justice and, of course, the Revolution in all its manifestations. These digressions obscure the plot and make reading somewhat hard-going; Hugo should have woven these discussions into the story instead of having chapters on them.


Despite such guff, some portions of the book are well written. Victor Hugo has a gift for painting scenes; they are masterfully drawn, though with a tendency to sentimentality, and some are unforgettable. The Battle of Waterloo is described almost romantically: there is a kind of futile heroism over the whole battle, which is, I presume, how Napoleon’s supporters must have felt after the battle. The depictions of human squalor are equally memorable, especially the description of the Thénardiers’ poverty. However, the flight through the Paris sewers is probably the best part (despite the essays on sewers), because there is some action to drive the scene; action is not a big part of Le Misérables. Even the barricade scene is not particularly thrilling, because every bullet appears to be laden with some heavy philosophical principle.


These distractions are due to Hugo’s worldview and his goal in writing Les Misérables: to promote his solution to the current social injustice. Because Hugo was a deist and a free thinker, he had a materialistic approach to life, which means he tells rather than shows his ideas; this does not make for good storytelling. Hugo’s ideas could be shown in a story (although it would not be easy), but since they involve so much direct application, they are much better suited to a non-fiction discussion of some sort. However, two themes unite most digressions with the story line, these being social oppression and how man can fix it. Particularly, Hugo is challenging the old social order and its injustices in favour of the new revolutionary order and its supposed impartiality; his premise is that human progress will eliminate social injustice.


Hugo defines progress as the growth and improvement of human thought and accomplishment. For instance, Jean Valjean, by inventing a new manufacturing process, creates a thriving new industry, thus boosting the living standard of people near the factory. Destitution is nearly eliminated, through the judicious actions of the enlightened: “encourage the rich, and protect the poor.” When Javert turns up to arrest Jean Valjean, not only is the injustice emphasised, but also the fact that poverty will return to the people relying on his factory. The poor slow human progress; therefore, anything that increases poverty is morally wrong. To take another example, the work of monasteries and nunneries is praised for the good they did in the past – but that step of progress is over. The elevation of man’s conscience as the highest law is the next step; we have risen above religion. The form of human progress does not seem to matter, provided it is an ‘improvement’ on the last invention. In consequence, and unlike certain other descriptions of the revolution (e.g. A Tale of Two Cities), the atrocities of the revolution are not regarded as innately horrible. Instead, the focus is on the ideological side of things: 
What was the aim of those bristling men who in the demiurgic days of revolutionary chaos, ragged, howling, wild, with tomahawk raised, and pike aloft, rushed over old overturned Paris? They desired the end of oppressions, the end of tyrannies, the end of the sword, labour for man, instruction for children, social gentleness for woman, liberty, equality, fraternity, bread for all, ideas for all...They were savages, yes; but the savages of civilisation...In contrast with these men, wild, we admit, and terrible, but wild and terrible for the good, there are other men, smiling, embroidered, gilded, beribboned, bestarred, in silk stockings, in white feathers, in yellow gloves, in varnished shoes, who, leaning upon a velvet table by the corner of a marble mantel, softly insist upon the maintenance and the preservation of the past, the middle ages, divine right, fanaticism, ignorance, slavery, the death penalty, and war, glorifying politely and in mild tones the sabre, the stake, and the scaffold. As for us, if we were compelled to choose between the barbarians of civilisation, and the civilisees of barbarism, we would choose the barbarians.

George Grant succinctly sums this view up, saying in effect ‘we will kill you, so that you will know what living is’ and Charles Dickens put a new spin on the revolutionary catch-phrase: ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity or death.’ But if the ‘civilisees of barbarism’ are for preserving the atrocities of the old order, what are the atrocities of the new? More blood has been shed in the name of ideologies than was ever shed by the old order in Europe. Just as jarring and disturbing is Victor’s praise for the heroes of revolution:
The Encyclopaedists, Diderot at their head, the physiocratists, Turgot at their head, the philosophers, Voltaire at their head, the utopists, Rousseau at their head: these are four sacred legions. To them the immense advance of humanity towards the light is due.

Little comment is needed on this quote, as most of you will know about Voltaire and Rousseau - the other two were not much better (particularly Diderot). Robespierre, Marat & co. are also mentioned with varying degrees of appreciation, but all these ‘heroes’ are praised (regardless of their personal lives or official actions) for desiring to create an enlightened utopia. But such trifles as bloodbaths and the slip-ups of these thinkers do not seem to matter to Victor Hugo. I find this ironic, considering Hugo is trying to address social injustices! The difference in Hugo’s mind is that the revolution and revolutionaries represented the development of man into an angel (“Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end”), but the old order did not. Social injustices are therefore not fundamentally wrong, but only insofar as they hinder man’s advance, which must continue regardless of cost: the end justifies the means.

As before mentioned, Hugo perceives three main barriers to the utopian dream: poverty, slavery (particularly prostitution and the criminal law) and intellectual stunting. These are barriers indeed when you realize Hugo thought man’s conscience and mind were ultimately good and pure, but were corrupted by outside means: “law and custom… artificially creates hells on earth.” Therefore, the activities and inadequacies of the church, but particularly the justice system and the state are blamed for social calamities. The solution is supposedly by destroying Ignorance, the main cause of a corrupted conscience and, by inference, social problems.

This idea is shown by the characters being victims of external circumstances and only extricating themselves through a philosophical or moral breakthrough; each character’s story is a journey towards enlightenment. For example, penal justice brings Jean Valjean into slavery and poverty, but through his inventiveness, he becomes rich. In addition, due to his philosophy (“there are … no bad men; there are only bad cultivators”), he ensures his wealth is distributed throughout the community. This pattern of social harmony being achieved by obeying the dictates of conscience (as revealed through tortured soul-searching) is apparent in nearly every character: Jean Valjean wants to kill Marius because of his love for Cosette, but doesn’t, as he realises this will cost Cosette her happiness; Marius’s grandfather discovers family harmony is better than politics; Javert commits suicide after realizing his wrongdoing; Gavroche dies for the revolution after being enlightened (in a limited sort of way) as to its nobleness. Hugo, being a deist, thought God was represented through man’s conscience; conscience is therefore the highest justice. If people could but discover this truth, man would not need law.
Vision Forum's impish response to the recent movie...

Overall, Les Misérables tells the same kind of story Charles Dickens told. But unlike Dickens, the storytelling is not well handled. Dickens got the social problems and solutions across without essays or philosophical self-examination. Although this humanist touch cripples the book’s effectiveness as a story, it does give us a glimpse of how revolutionaries saw life in post-revolutionary France. Victor Hugo was trying to advance mankind and usher in a sparkly utopia; he did not directly wish to sort out social injustices. Unfortunately for Hugo, he did not recognise a personal God or original sin, and so his ideas will not ultimately solve any problems, social or otherwise. Les Misérables is a triumph of humanism. It is not a triumph of literature and I do not know why it should receive the title of ‘classic.’
I have not seen any of the numerous film or musical adaptations of Les Mis, though I hear the music is great. But for an excellent evaluation of the most recent movie, I highly recommend Toby Sumpter's blog post, Les Mis Ain't the Gospel. --Suzannah

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