Sunday, January 29, 2012

468. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

History: This is a novel written in 1862. The story has been filmed several times and made into a musical by the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and the librettist Alain Boublil, opening in 1980 in Paris. The English version was realised in 1985 and the Broadway version followed two years later. 
 Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was born to parents on either side of the Napoleonic/Royalist conflict of nineteenth century France. Hugo's father was an officer in Napoleon's army and his mother was a passionate Catholic, loyal to the king. Growing up largely with his mother, Hugo took her rather conservative views as his own. Life experience and personal reflection, however, would eventually bring him to the opposite side of the spectrum. By the end of his life Hugo was both beloved and reviled for his strong liberal views. As a young man, Hugo found success as a poet and playwright, turning to fiction in 1831 with his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was not until after many years of work that Hugo produced his greatest novel, Les Miserables, which debuted in 1862. Although Hugo's vocal protests against the mid-century French leader Louis Napoleon forced him to live in exile for many years, when he at last returned home in the 1870s, he was celebrated as one of the foremost creative spirits and political figures in France, an honor he holds to this day.
Plot: The story starts in 1815 in Digne. The peasant Jean Valjean has just been released from imprisonment in the Bagne of Toulon after nineteen years (five for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family, and fourteen more for numerous escape attempts). Upon being released, he is required to carry a yellow passport that marks him as a prisoner, despite having already paid his debt to society by serving his time in prison. Rejected by innkeepers, who do not want to take in a convict, Valjean sleeps on the street. This makes him even angrier and more bitter. However, the benevolent Bishop Myriel, the bishop of Digne, takes him in and gives him shelter. In the middle of the night, Valjean steals Bishop Myriel’s silverware and runs away. He is caught and brought back by the police, but Bishop Myriel rescues him by claiming that the silverware was a gift and at that point gives him his two silver candlesticks as well, chastising him to the police for leaving in such a rush that he forgot these most valuable pieces. After the police leave, Bishop Myriel then "reminds" him of the promise, which Valjean has no memory of making, to use the silver candlesticks to make an honest man of himself. Valjean broods over the Bishop's words. Purely out of habit, he steals a 40-sous coin from chimney-sweep Petit Gervais and chases the boy away. Soon afterwards, he repents and decides to follow Bishop Myriel's advice. He searches the city in panic for the child whose money he stole. At the same time, his theft is reported to the authorities, who now look for him as a repeat offender. If Valjean is caught, he will be forced to spend the rest of his life in prison, so he hides from the police.
Six years pass and Valjean, having adopted the alias of Monsieur Madeleine to avoid capture, has become a wealthy factory owner and is appointed mayor of his adopted town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. While walking down the street one day, he sees a gentleman named Fauchelevent pinned under the wheels of his cart. When no one volunteers to lift the cart, even for pay, he decides to rescue Old Fauchelevent himself. He crawls underneath the cart and manages to lift it, freeing him. The town's police inspector, Inspector Javert, who was an adjutant guard at the Bagne of Toulon during Valjean's incarceration, becomes suspicious of the mayor after witnessing his heroics. He knows the ex-prisoner Jean Valjean is also capable of such strength.
Years earlier in Paris, a grisette named Fantine was very much in love with a gentleman named Félix Tholomyès. His friends, Listolier, Fameuil, and Blachevelle were also paired with Fantine’s friends Dahlia, Zéphine, and Favourite. The men later abandon the women as a joke, leaving Fantine to care for Tholomyès' daughter, Cosette, by herself. When Fantine arrives at Montfermeil, she leaves Cosette in the care of the Thénardiers, a corrupt innkeeper and his selfish, cruel wife. Fantine is unaware that they abuse her daughter and use her as forced labor for their inn, and continues to try to pay their growing, extortionate and fictitious demands for Cosette's "upkeep." She is later fired from her job at Jean Valjean's factory, due to the discovery of her daughter, who was born out of wedlock. Meanwhile, the Thénardiers' letters and monetary demands continue to grow. In desperation, Fantine sells her hair, her two front teeth, and is forced to resort to prostitution to pay for her daughter's "care." Fantine is also slowly dying from an unnamed disease (probably tuberculosis). While roaming the streets, a dandy named Bamatabois harasses Fantine and puts snow down her back. She reacts by attacking him. Javert sees this and arrests Fantine. She begs to be released so that she can provide for her daughter, but Javert sentences her to six months in prison. Valjean, hearing her story, intervenes and orders Javert to release her. Javert strongly refuses but Valjean persists and prevails. Valjean, feeling responsible because his factory turned her away, promises Fantine that he will bring Cosette to her. He takes her to a hospital.
Later, Javert comes to see Valjean again. Javert admits he had accused him of being Jean Valjean to the French authorities after Fantine was freed. However, he tells Valjean that he no longer suspects him because the authorities have announced that another man has been identified as the real Jean Valjean after being arrested and having noticeable similarities. This gentleman's name is Champ Mathieu. He is not guilty, but is mistaken. His trial is set the next day. At first, Valjean is torn whether to reveal himself, but decides to do so to save the innocent gentleman. He goes to the trial and reveals his true identity, but Javert does not arrest him. Valjean then returns to Montreuil-sur-Mer to see Fantine, followed by Javert, who confronts him at her hospital room. After Javert grabs Valjean, Valjean asks for three days to bring Cosette to Fantine, but Javert refuses. Fantine discovers that Cosette is not at the hospital and fretfully asks where she is. Javert orders her to be quiet, and then reveals to her Valjean’s real identity. Shocked, and with the severity of her illness, she falls back in her bed and dies. Valjean goes to Fantine, speaks to her in an inaudible whisper, kisses her hand, and then leaves with Javert. Fantine's body is later cruelly thrown in a public grave.
Valjean manages to escape, only to be recaptured and sentenced to death. This was commuted by the king to penal servitude for life. While being sent to the prison at Toulon, a military port, Valjean saves a sailor about to fall from the ship's rigging. The crowd begins to call "This man must be pardoned!" but when the authorities reject the crowd's pleas, Valjean fakes a slip and falls into the ocean to escape, relying on the belief that he has drowned.
Valjean arrives at Montfermeil on Christmas Eve. He finds Cosette fetching water in the woods alone and walks with her to the inn. After ordering a meal, he observes the Thénardiers’ abusive treatment of her. He also witnesses their pampered daughters Éponine and Azelma treating Cosette badly as well when they tell on her to their mother for holding their abandoned doll. Upon seeing this, Valjean goes out and returns a moment later holding an expensive new doll. He offers it to Cosette. At first, she is unable to comprehend that the doll really is for her, but then happily takes it. This results in Mme. Thénardier becoming furious with Valjean, while Thénardier dismisses it, informing her that he can do as he wishes as long as he pays them. It also causes Éponine and Azelma to become envious of Cosette.
The next morning on Christmas Day, Valjean informs the Thénardiers that he wants to take Cosette with him. Mme. Thénardier immediately accepts, while Thénardier pretends to have love and concern for Cosette and how reluctant he is to give her up. Valjean pays 1,500 francs to them, and he and Cosette leave the inn. However, Thénardier, hoping to swindle more out of Valjean, runs after them, holding the 1,500 francs, and tells Valjean he wants Cosette back. He informs Valjean that he cannot release Cosette without a note from the mother. Valjean hands Thénardier a letter, which is signed by Fantine. Thénardier then orders Valjean to pay a thousand crowns, but Valjean and Cosette leave. Thénardier regrets to himself that he did not bring his gun, and turns back toward home.
Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris. Valjean rents new lodgings at Gorbeau House, and he and Cosette live there happily. However, Javert discovers Valjean's lodgings there a few months later. Valjean takes Cosette and they try to escape from Javert. They soon successfully find shelter in the Petit-Picpus convent with the help of Fauchelevent, the man whom Valjean rescued and who is a gardener for the convent. Valjean also becomes a gardener and Cosette becomes a student.
Eight years later, the Friends of the ABC, led by Enjolras, are preparing an act of anti-Orléanist civil unrest on the eve of the Paris uprising on 5–6 June 1832, following the death of General Lamarque, the only French leader who had sympathy towards the working class. They are also joined by the poor of the Cour des miracles, including the Thénardiers' oldest son Gavroche, who is a street urchin.
One of the students, Marius Pontmercy, has become alienated from his family (especially his grandfather M. Gillenormand) because of his liberal views. After the death of his father Colonel Georges Pontmercy, Marius discovers a note from him instructing his son to provide help to a sergeant named Thénardier who saved Pontmercy's life at Waterloo – in reality Thénardier was looting corpses and only saved Pontmercy's life by accident; he had called himself a sergeant under Napoleon to avoid exposing himself as a robber. At the Luxembourg Gardens, Marius falls in love with the now grown and beautiful Cosette. The Thénardiers have also moved to Paris and now live in poverty after losing their inn. They live under the surname "Jondrette" at Gorbeau House (coincidentally, the same building Valjean and Cosette briefly lived in after leaving the Thénardiers' inn). Marius lives there as well, next door to the Thénardiers.
Éponine, now ragged and emaciated, visits Marius at his apartment to beg for money. To impress him, she tries to prove her literacy by reading aloud from a book and by writing "The Cops Are Here" on a sheet of paper. Marius pities her and gives her some money. After Éponine leaves, Marius observes the "Jondrettes" in their apartment through a crack in the wall. Éponine comes in and announces that a philanthropist and his daughter are arriving to visit them. In order to look poorer, Thénardier puts out the fire and breaks a chair. He also orders Azelma to punch out a window pane, which she does, resulting in cutting her hand (as Thénardier had hoped). The philanthropist and his daughter enter—actually Valjean and Cosette. Marius immediately recognizes Cosette. After seeing them, Valjean promises them he will return with rent money for them. After he and Cosette leave, Marius asks Éponine to retrieve her address for him. Éponine, who is in love with Marius herself, reluctantly agrees to do so. The Thénardiers have also recognized Valjean and Cosette, and vow their revenge. Thénardier enlists the aid of the Patron-Minette, a well-known and feared gang of murderers and robbers.
Marius overhears Thénardier's plan and goes to Javert to report the crime. He then goes back home and waits for Javert and the police to arrive. Thénardier sends Éponine and Azelma outside to look out for the police. When Valjean returns with rent money, Thénardier, with Patron-Minette, ambushes him and he reveals his real identity to Valjean. Marius recognizes Thénardier as the man who "saved" his father's life at Waterloo and is caught in a dilemma. He tries to find a way to save Valjean while not betraying Thénardier. Valjean denies knowing Thénardier and tells that they have never met. Valjean tries to escape through a window but is subdued and tied up. Thénardier orders Valjean to pay him 200,000 francs. He also orders Valjean to write a letter to Cosette to return to the apartment, and they would keep her as a hostage until he delivers the money. After Valjean writes the letter and informs Thénardier his address, Thénardier sends out Mme. Thénardier to get Cosette. Mme. Thénardier comes back alone, and announces the address is a fake. It was during this time that Valjean manages to free himself. Thénardier decides to kill Valjean, and he and Patron-Minette close in on him. Marius is in desperation on what to do. He then remembers the scrap of paper that Éponine wrote on earlier. He throws it into the Thénardiers’ apartment through the wall crack. Thénardier reads it and thinks Éponine threw it inside. He, Mme. Thénardier and Patron-Minette try to escape, only to be stopped by Javert. He arrests all the Thénardiers and Patron-Minette (except Claquesous, who escapes during his transportation to prison; Montparnasse, who stops to run off with Éponine instead of joining in on the robbery; and Gavroche, who was not present and rarely participates in his family's crimes, a notable exception being his part in breaking his father out of prison). Valjean manages to escape the scene before Javert sees him.
After Éponine’s release from prison, she finds Marius at "The Field of the Lark" and sadly tells him that she found Cosette’s address. She leads him to Valjean and Cosette's house at Rue Plumet, and Marius watches the house for a few days. He and Cosette then finally meet and declare their love for one another. Thénardier, Patron-Minette and Brujon manage to escape from prison with the aid of Gavroche. One night, during one of Marius’ visits with Cosette, the six men attempt to raid Valjean and Cosette's house. However, Éponine, who was sitting by the gates of the house, threatens to scream and awaken the whole neighbourhood if the thieves do not leave. Hearing this, they reluctantly retire. Meanwhile, Cosette informs Marius that she and Valjean will be leaving for England in a week’s time, which greatly troubles the pair.
The next day, Valjean is sitting in the Champ de Mars. He is feeling troubled due to seeing Thénardier in the neighbourhood several times. Unexpectedly, a note lands in his lap, which says "REMOVE." He sees a figure running away in the dim light. He goes back to his house, tells Cosette they will be staying at their other house at Rue de l'Homme Arme, and reconfirms with her about moving to England. Marius tries to get permission from M. Gillenormand to marry Cosette. His grandfather seems stern and angry, but has been longing for Marius' return. When tempers flare, he refuses, telling Marius to make Cosette his mistress instead. Insulted, Marius leaves. The following day, the students revolt and erect barricades in the narrow streets of Paris. Gavroche spots Javert and informs Enjolras that Javert is a spy. When Enjolras confronts him of this, he admits his identity and his orders to spy on the students. Enjolras and the other students tie him up to a pole in the Corinth restaurant. Later that evening, Marius goes back to Valjean and Cosette’s house at Rue Plumet, but finds the house no longer occupied. He then hears a voice telling him that his friends are waiting for him at the barricade. Distraught over Cosette gone, he heeds the voice and goes.
When Marius arrives at the barricade, the "revolution" has already started. When he stoops down to pick up a powder keg, a soldier comes up to shoot Marius. After, a man covers the muzzle of the soldier's gun with his hand. The soldier fires, fatally shooting the man, while missing Marius. Meanwhile, the soldiers are closing in. Marius climbs to the top of the barricade, holding a torch in one hand, a powder keg in the other. He yells at the soldiers "Begone! Or I’ll blow up the barricade!" After confirming this, the soldiers retreat from the barricade.
Marius decides to go to the smaller barricade, which he finds empty. As he turns back, the man who took the fatal shot for Marius earlier calls Marius by his name. Marius, and the reader, discovers that it is actually Éponine, dressed in men's clothes. As she lies dying on his knees, she confesses that she was the one who told him to go to the barricade, in hoping that the two would die together. She also confesses to saving his life because she wanted to die first (although she does not provide further explanation to this). The author also states to the reader that Éponine anonymously threw the note to Valjean. Éponine then tells Marius that she has a letter for him. She also confesses to have obtained the letter the day before, originally not planning to give it to him, but decides to do so in fear he would be angry at her in the afterlife. After Marius takes the letter, Éponine then asks him to kiss her on the forehead when she is dead, which he promises to do. With her last breath, she confesses that she was "a little bit in love" with him, and dies. Marius fulfills her request and goes into a tavern to read the letter (in consideration that it would be inappropriate to read it beside her corpse). It is written by Cosette. He learns Cosette's new whereabouts and writes a farewell letter to her. The letter is delivered to Valjean by Gavroche. Valjean, learning that Cosette's lover is fighting, is at first relieved, but an hour later, he puts on a National Guard uniform, arms himself with a gun and ammunition, and leaves his home.
Valjean arrives at the barricade and immediately saves a man's life, though he is still not certain if he wants to protect Marius or to kill him. Marius recognizes Valjean upon seeing him. Enjolras announces that they are almost out of cartridges. Overhearing this, Gavroche goes to the other side of the barricade to collect more from the dead National Guardsmen. While doing so, he is shot and killed by the soldiers.
Later, Valjean saves Javert from being killed by the students. He volunteers to execute Javert himself, and Enjolras grants permission. Valjean takes Javert out of sight, and then shoots into the air while letting him go. As the barricade falls, Valjean carries off the injured and unconscious Marius. All the other students, including Enjolras, are killed. Valjean escapes through the sewers, carrying Marius' body on his shoulders. He manages to evade a police patrol. He eventually finds a gate to exit the sewers, but to his disappointment, the gate is locked. Valjean suddenly hears a voice behind him, and he turns and sees Thénardier. Valjean recognizes him but his composure is calm, for he perceives that Thénardier does not recognize him due to his dirty appearance. Thinking Valjean to be a simple murderer, Thénardier offers to open the gate for money. He then proceeds to search Valjean and Marius' pockets. While doing this, he secretly tears off a piece of Marius’ coat so he can later find out his identity. Finding only thirty francs, Thénardier reluctantly takes the money, opens the gate, and Valjean leaves.
At the exit, Valjean runs into Javert, whom he persuades to give him time to return Marius to his family. Javert grants this request. After leaving Marius at M. Gillenormand’s house, Valjean makes another request that he be permitted to go home shortly, which Javert also allows. They arrive at Rue de l'Homme Arme and Javert informs Valjean that he will wait for him. As Valjean walks upstairs, he looks out the landing window and finds Javert gone. Javert is walking down the street alone, realizing that he is caught between his strict belief in the law and the mercy Valjean has shown him. He feels he can no longer give Valjean up to the authorities. Unable to cope with this dilemma, Javert commits suicide by throwing himself into the Seine.
Marius slowly recovers from his injuries and he and Cosette are soon married.
Meanwhile, Thénardier and Azelma are attending the Mardi Gras as "masks." Thénardier spots Valjean among the wedding party heading the opposite direction and bids Azelma to follow them. After the wedding, Valjean confesses to Marius that he is an ex-convict. Marius is horrified by the revelation. Convinced that Valjean is of poor moral character, he steers Cosette away from him. Valjean loses the will to live and takes to his bed.
Later, Thénardier approaches Marius in a disguise, but Marius is not fooled and recognizes him. Thénardier attempts to blackmail Marius with what he knows of Valjean, but in doing so, he inadvertently corrects Marius' misconceptions about Valjean and reveals all of the good he has done. He tries to convince Marius that Valjean is actually a murderer, and presents the piece of coat he tore off as evidence. Stunned, Marius recognizes the fabric and realizes that it was Valjean who rescued him from the barricade. Marius pulls out a fistful of five hundred and one thousand franc notes and flings it at Thénardier's face. He then confronts Thénardier with his crimes and offers him an immense amount of money if he departs and promises never to return. Thénardier accepts the offer, and he and Azelma travel to America where he becomes a slave trader.
As Marius and Cosette rush to Valjean's house, he informs her that Valjean saved his life at the barricade. They arrive to see him, but the great man is dying. In his final moments, he realizes happiness with his adopted daughter and son-in-law by his side. He also reveals Cosette's past to her as well as her mother's name. Joined with them in love, he dies.
Review:   This book is rightfully considered one of the greatest novels of all times.It is difficult to condense the wonders of “Les Miserables” into a single article — this story has it all: love, redemption, revolution, good versus evil and much more. It takes at least 2 months to read.
This is a book about everything – right and wrong, love and hate, war and peace, goodness and evil, rich and poor. The characters are very believable, and in fact developed extremely well. Hugo doesn’t just throw random characters in, any one has his place, and is described sufficiently well for the reader to relate to him. This is true about other facets of the book as well: although being very long, you won’t find needless things in it. Everything has a reason, and Hugo knows how to collect facts and bring them together in a masterful way, sometimes surprisingly.
Les Miserables is, amongst other things, famous for its digressions. These are things that Hugo just felt like writing about and unapologetically shoe-horned into the book. I have endured a 60 page digression on the Battle of Waterloo, 40 pages on convents, 20 pages on sewers, and all kinds of long chapters on various things that are not important to the story. Perhaps it would be easier to forgive Hugo these digressions if he didn’t place them right in the middle of the action, usually leaving Valjean teetering on the brink of catastrophe, closely pursued by Javert. Based on the quality of his writing, I certainly do, because it is incredible.
Opening Line: In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D—— He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D—— since 1806.
Closing Line: The thing came to pass simply, of itself, as the night comes when day is gone.
Quotes: “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”
“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!”
“You ask me what forces me to speak? a strange thing; my conscience.”
Rating:  Awesome.

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