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?