Sunday, February 16, 2014

Keep Calm and Love On: Les Miserables

Victor Hugo's Les Miserables

Title: Les Miserables
Author: Victor Hugo
Original Publication Date: 1862
Original Language: French
Edition: Unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman Afee, based on the classic C.E. Wilbour translation
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1987

Everyone should read this book. But few do. And the reason is this: the book is 1463 pages long, and the storyline often pursues seemingly irrelevant threads that bear no apparent relation to the rest of the story. But, for the faithful, persistent reader who makes it all the way to the end, it is a wonderful and incredibly moving experience. (And, I would argue, each of the apparently unrelated tangents serve to deepen our understanding of the novel's world and its characters.)

But because I feel that a complete review of Les Miserables would have to touch on each different thread of the story and thus be ultimately impossible to write, I have chosen to focus on a single thread. This is the one theme which I found running through the whole book and unifying all of the novel's diverse characters and events: love.

"To love or to have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life. To love is a consummation" (1382).
If I could choose one statement from the book to sum up all of its characters and their various stories, I would choose this one. Many of Hugo's characters lead sad, lonely lives, but almost all of them have someone that they love, and this love is the one bright spot in their existence. In many cases, it is this love which redeems them and makes each individual character, if only for one moment, a hero.



Obviously, Fantine's life sucks. After her (loser) boyfriend abandons her, Fantine gives birth to his child and sells everything she owns (literally) to support that child. She starts by working at a factory, loses her job, sells her possessions, sells her teeth and her hair, and ends by being a prostitute. She starves, goes slightly crazy, gets sick, and dies. Her life was black, cold, and hopeless. But she loved. She loved Tholomyes (the father of her child), and she loved her daughter, Cosette. And these were the bright spots in her existence. When she lies dying in the hospital, under the care of Sister Simplice and the other nuns, Fantine speaks almost constantly of Cosette, and when she does, her face lights up and she is happy. She feels sure that, if she can just have Cosette beside her, she will recover her health. And when she hears that her daughter is coming, Fantine exclaims, "Here at last I see happiness near me" (203).


Jean Valjean:

Jean Valjean also loves Cosette. She makes his whole life wonderful and worth the living. Before she comes into his life, he has made the decision to be a good man, and is fulfilling this resolution very well. But his life is not particularly happy. He is lonely; he has no family and, though his people admire him as the Mayor, he has no real friends. But with Cosette, light and joy enter into his life:
To meet was to find one another. In that mysterious moment when their hands touched, they were welded together. When their two souls saw each other, they recognized mutual need, and they embraced.
...The coming of this man and his participation in this child's destiny had been the coming of God.
...Who can tell whether Jean Valjean was on the verge of discouragement and falling back on evil ways? He loved, and he grew strong again. Alas, he was as frail as Cosette. He protected her, and she gave him strength. Thanks to him, she could walk upright in life; thanks to her, he could persist in virtue. He was this child's support, and she was his prop and staff. Oh, divine unfathomable mystery of Destiny's compensations. (436-39)
This beautiful passage shows how Cosette's coming illuminates and redeems Valjean's life. Without her, he may have fallen back on his old ways and become once more an embittered criminal. But this does not happen, because Cosette happens instead. For both Valjean and Cosette, coming together is their saving grace. Their love for each other is what makes life beautiful and glorious.



Like Fantine, Eponine has it rough; her father is a scoundrel who seems to care nothing for his children, her mother cares but is also a scoundrel, and the family lives in abject poverty. As a result, Eponine is poor, uneducated, and devoid of morality. She has never been taught virtue and right, and so there seems to be no hope for her to become a better person than her parents are. There is no light in Eponine's life, until Marius comes. Marius brings light, and this light illuminates Eponine's dark existence, throwing its beams into every corner. She becomes beautiful, kind, brave, and virtuous. She helps a poor, despairing old man by watering his whole garden in the middle of the night; she leads Marius to Cosette even though it is contrary to her own happiness, and, once she had found Cosette's house, she guards it against her father and his band of thieves. And, of course, she takes the bullet directed at Marius. Now, despite all of this, Eponine is not perfect. She is still poor and uneducated, and she still entices Marius to the barricade in the hope that they will die together, but, undoubtedly, her life and her character have improved vastly as a result of her love for Marius. Her love is the light in her life which, once again, illuminates and redeems her existence.


Grantaire is introduced as a craven, skeptical drunkard ("a rover, a gambler, a libertine, and often drunk" [657]). He hangs out with the Friends of the ABC but believes in none of the things they stand for. His life is meaningless, except for one thing: Enjolras. The narrator tells us, "Grantaire admired, loved, and venerated Enjolras" (658). Their relationship is described as follows, in one of my favorite passages from the book:

Still, this skeptic [Grantaire] had fanatacism. This fanaticism was not for an idea, nor a dogma, nor an art, nor a science; it was for a man: Enjolras. Grantaire admired, loved, and venerated Enjolras. To whom did this anarchical doubter ally himself in this phalanx of absolute minds? To the most absolute. In what way did Enjolras subjugate him? By ideas? No. Through character. A phenomenon often seen. A skeptic adhering to a believer is as simple as the law of complementary colors. What we lack attracts us. Nobody loves the light like a blind man. The dwarf adores the drum major. The toad is always looking up at the sky. Why? To see the bird fly. Grantaire, crawling with doubt, loved to see faith soaring in Enjolras. He needed Enjolras. Without understanding it clearly, and without trying to explain it to himself, that chaste, healthy, firm, direct, hard, honest nature charmed him. Instinctively, he admired his opposite. His soft, wavering, disjointed, diseased, deformed ideas hitched onto Enjolras as a backbone. His moral spine leaned on that firmness. Beside Enjolras Grantaire became somebody again. On his own, he was actually composed of two apparently incompatible elements. He was ironic and cordial. His indifference was loving. His mind dispensed with belief, yet his heart could not dispense with friendship. A thorough contradiction; for an affection is a conviction. This was his nature. There are men who seem born to be the opposite, the reverse, the counterpart. They are Pollux, Patroclus, Nisus, Eudamidas, Ephestion, Pechméja. They live only on condition of leaning on another; their names are sequels, only written preceded by the conjunction "and"; their existence is not their own; it is the other side of a destiny not their own. Grantaire was one of these men. He was the reverse of Enjolras.

We might almost say that affinities begin with the letters of the alphabet. In the series O and P are inseparable. You can, as you choose, pronounce O and P, or Orestes and Pylades.

Grantaire, a true satellite of Enjolras, lived in this circle of young people; he existed within it; he took pleasure only in it; he followed them everywhere. His delight was to see these forms coming and going in the haze of wine. He was tolerated for his good humor.

Enjolras, being a believer, disdained this skeptic, and being sober, scorned this drunkard. He granted him a bit of haughty pity. Grantaire was an unaccepted Pylades. Always treated rudely by Enjolras, harshly repelled, rejected, yet returning, he said of Enjolras, "What a fine statue!" (657-59)
Towards the end of this passage, Hugo makes several references to Greek mythology to illustrate his point. At the end of the first paragraph, the names mentioned (as you can probably gather) are names which always appear in conjunction with another name. For example, Castor and Pollux were two brothers who loved each other deeply and who always appear together. In the second paragraph, the Orestes and Pylades referenced were a pair of companions from Greek mythology, noted for their deep friendship and love for each other.

Basically, Grantaire's love for Enjolras is what makes his life worth living and what brings meaning to his existence. And then....

*****************SPOILER ALERT*******************

Everyone at the barricade DIES! Well, OK, except for two people. But you should really know that if you've ever seen the play, watched the movie, or even heard about it.

***************BIGGER SPOILER ALERT******************

In death, Grantaire finally achieves heroism through his love for Enjolras. With the barricade invaded and all of its defenders fallen, Enjolras stands in the upper room of the wine shop surrounded by soldiers ready to shoot him. Throwing away his gun, he tells them defiantly, "Shoot me" (1250). At this moment, Grantaire, who, in a mood of dejection brought on by Enjolras' disdain for him, drunk himself into unconsciousness a while ago and has been sleeping under the table, wakes up. He takes in the situation with one glance, and then:
Relegated as he was to a corner and as though sheltered behind the billiard table, the soldiers, their eyes fixed upon Enjolras, had not even noticed Grantaire, and the sergeant was preparing to repeat the order: "Take aim!" when suddenly they heard a powerful voice cry out beside them, "Vive la République! Count me in."

Grantaire was on his feet. 
The immense glare of the whole combat he had missed and in which he had not been, appeared in the flashing eye of the transfigured drunkard.

He repeated, "Vive la République!" crossed the room firmly, and took his place in front of the muskets beside Enjolras.

"Two at one shot," he said.

And, turning toward Enjolras gently, he said to him, "Will you permit it?"

Enjolras shook his hand with a smile.

The smile was not finished before the report was heard.

Enjolras, pierced by eight bullets, remained backed up against the wall as if the bullets had nailed him there. Except that his head was tilted.

Grantaire, struck down, collapsed at his feet. (1252)
How symbolic and poetic that Enjolras, the believing idealist, dies standing up straight, while Grantaire, the depraved drunkard who believes in nothing - except for Enjolras - collapses at the feet of the man he has worshiped. And yet, in this moment, Grantaire ceases to be a depraved drunkard. He is a hero who believes in something enough to die for it. And despite his cries of, "Vive la Republique," the thing he believes in is not the Republic; it is Enjolras. Through his love, Grantaire is transformed and redeemed. He has found the pearl in the dark folds of life.

And so, as each of these characters struggle along in the dark, cold, and barren tunnel of their life, they discover the truth which Jean Valjean voices in the final pages of the novel, "There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another" (1461). Or, as Marius writes to Cosette, "If no one loved, the sun would go out" (935). The characters of Les Miserables love fiercely, devotedly, and faithfully, amid all their pain and suffering. And their love redeems them, because, "to love another person is to see the face of God." Through their love, Fantine, Valjean, Eponine, Grantaire, and all of the other characters who love, find the doorway to God.