Les Miserables: The first three months

As I proceed through the Chapter-a-day Readalong of Les Miserables, I thought it might be good to check in every quarter or so rather than leaving it all till the end of the year (when I might have forgotten all about what happened in January).

These months took us through the first part, “Fantine,” which spends a long time setting up the main characters and conflict of the novel. First there is a thorough exposition of a character who plays a very brief role in the actual story, but who provides its moral compass: the Bishop of Digne, a saintly man whose goodness Hugo has the difficult task of making both interesting and fully human. To my mind, he succeeds brilliantly, painting a loving portrait from many sides of a truly compassionate soul, who never seeks to beat anyone down with his faith, but fills himself with its warmth so that he can give of its abundance to others. Hugo was criticized by some for creating such a positive image of a churchman, but the Bishop is only incidentally a man of the church; his religion is humanity, and thus a true Christianity.

There were many beautiful quotations in this section; here’s one of my favorites:

“What more could an old man need when he divided whatever spare time his life allowed, he who had so little spare time, between gardening of a day and contemplation of a night? Surely this small enclosure, with the sky as a ceiling, was enough to enable him to worship God by regarding his loveliest works and His most sublime works, one by one? A little garden to amble about in, and infinite space to dream in. At his feet, whatever could be grown and gathered; over his head, whatever could be studied and meditated upon; a few flowers on the ground and all the stars in the sky.”

Then we go to the seeming opposite, a recently released convict who seems completely hardened in his evil and will stop at nothing to get revenge for his perceived wrongs. This is of course Jean Valjean, the novel’s protagonist, who has a life-altering encounter with the Bishop and turns to a new path of helping others. But his past still pursues him in the form of Inspector Javert, who is so hardened in his righteousness that in him good turns to evil. He is the true opposite of the Bishop, rather than Valjean, who represents our human struggle between extremes. Brought together through the fate of the pathetic Fantine, who has been abandoned by her lover and fallen on hard times, the two come to a crisis in which Valjean’s hidden past comes to light and he has to flee again.

There the first part ends — and after this absorbing, dramatic and character-rich tale, we abruptly switch to an extended essay about the battle of Waterloo, the famous “digression” that Hugo completed at the very end of his work on the novel (just in time for part two to be published). I’m struggling with the descriptions of battlefields and military leaders and tactics, which make my eyes cross, though sometimes Hugo’s vision of this event as the turning point of the nineteenth century breaks through and I see something of its significance. Once we get back to the main story, which takes place 50 years later, I’ll be interested to see how Waterloo still continues to play a role.

Until this section, I had no problem reading my chapter a day, and was always eager to find out what happened next, to meet a new character, or to read some of Hugo’s evocative descriptions and rich meditations on human nature and society. Though I’m sorry I can’t read in the original French, I find the Julie Rose translation to be gorgeously written. I may try reading another translation at some point for comparison.

If you’re reading along, how’s it going? Or if you’ve read Les Miserables at some point in your life, what did you think? Any thoughts about different translations?

18 thoughts on “Les Miserables: The first three months

  1. Yes! I’m with you on this weird Waterloo digression… it doesn’t make much sense, so far, and although Hugo clearly thinks it’s important enough to the story to blather on about it for 19 chapters, I remain miffed. There are some poetic portrayals (such as his line about a great man needing to be moved aside so that a great century could emerge), but I do find myself skipping days more often now that I know that more battle scenes await. What on earth could any of it have to do with the main storyline? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!


    1. What I notice about the Waterloo part is how easily it could have gone the other way, and how little we are actually in control of our fate. Makes you think about people who pride themselves on winning elections, for example.


      1. That’s a very good point, as he does talk about fate quite a bit. It’s interesting to see that he says God has judged Napoleon and “impeached him in Heaven.” I discovered the other day that the Catholic church actually banned Les Mis (until 1959), which also makes the religious commentary in the book all the more interesting to me.


  2. I read Les Miserables with the rest of Victor Hugo, when I was twelve and thirteen. I’m sure there are things I missed, but it was all very dramatic, and that fed my pre-teen soul.
    I like the way you describe Javert, “so hardened in his righteousness that in him good turns to evil.” That seems to me to describe way too many evangelicals these days, and all of the Forced Birthers who call themselves Pro Lifers but are unwilling to provide any kind of help for a baby once it’s born.


    1. That is exactly what Javert would do. Real life requires empathy and compassionate action from us, not rigid ideals — and that’s what Hugo’s drama is all about.


  3. I’m thinking of doing something similar with the unabridged version of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It’s definitely a dip-in doorstop – although, with all my other reading commitment, I fear it will be more like a chapter-a-month. Anyhow, you seem to be doing splendidly with Les Miserables. I’m enjoying following your progress.


  4. I reread this a few years ago. I thought that it was absolutely brilliant. I have a sneaking admiration for military history. Thus I enjoyed the Waterloo Digression while at the same time recognizing it as one of the most bizarre things contained in classic literature.


    1. Whereas I am completely befuddled by descriptions of battles, even those that occur in my favorite fantasy novels) so I’m glad this part will be over soon. But I can see it’s brilliant for those who love military history.


  5. I am with you on they eye-crossing! There are some interesting messages in the Waterloo section as you point out, but I am not that interested in military strategy and I have trouble actually perceiving much of the action. But I will soldier on!

    I am reading the Norman Denny translation which is fine by me. But it is interesting when Nick has pointed out certain translation points on his blog just how different these translations can be.


    1. I’m hopeless at visualizing military action, so I might as well just skip over those descriptions.

      Different translations can be SO different! Comparing them can be an interesting way of questioning what the author’s meaning actually was — which is something beyond language, ultimately.


  6. I was enjoying the book until the Waterloo section. I’m afraid I’m not getting a whole lot out of this part, but there’s only a few more chapters and then we return to the main story. One thing that really saddened me was that Fantine never got to see Cosette again. Somehow I thought Jean Valjean would save the day here too and make that happen.

    My translation reads that Napoleon was ” denounced in the infinite”. It is interesting to see the different translations.


    1. I know, that was terribly sad. One thing I find interesting is that Hugo creates these extremely tragic/melodramatic situations but keeps them from being too maudlin and sentimental. His wider view of the historical and political situation is a factor there, I think, so Waterloo fits in that way — even though I’m not that interested in the details of the battle.


  7. Normally battle scenes are my least favourite thing too, but reading just one chapter a day made it do-able. Amongst all the war stuff, each chapter has that one insight or Hugo commentary that made it interesting.

    Seeing how propaganda looks & sounds the same whichever side you’re on in is fascinating too.


    1. The small chunks helped to make it palatable for me too. And there were some very thought-provoking passages.

      The whole question of “sides” is one I think Hugo is challenging in the book as a whole, and one reason I think it’s still so timely. Can we really afford to pit one ideology against another any more? Can anyone claim to have a complete divine moral right to conquer and oppress other people? Shouldn’t we be taking up the cause of humanity against all the forces that would slay and destroy it, rather than fighting each other? Hugo is dramatizing these questions in so many ways, large and small.


  8. How I wish I had joined in this read-along! I’m focusing on France this year, and I love the pace of the read-along. Sounds like a good, readable translation. Thanks for the update.


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