This week I’m doing a multipart review of the excellent but very long Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Read about Volumes I and II here. Volume III focuses (though not immediately) on Marius, leaving Jean Valjean and Cosette out of the story for quite a while. This is where I think it helped the most that I knew the musical, or I would have been feeling very adrift!
Marius was raised in wealth, but fell out with his grandfather over his estranged father’s politics. Turning his back on his grandfather and his money, Marius lives in Paris in relative poverty, scraping along on some minimal scholarly work–but contented with that. And then one day at the Luxembourg Gardens he sees a beautiful young woman out with her father and is hopelessly smitten. They carry on a lengthy courtship of glances, until one day she ceases to come and Marius is plunged into the depths of despair.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Marius. He’s such a nice young man. I can’t dislike him–he’s so nice–but there’s not a whole lot I like about him either. I both accept and respect his dedication to his principles (a dedication I don’t quite believe in the musical), but at the same time, he follows that dedication with such utter lack of common sense that I shake my head a bit too. His most praiseworthy attribute in the musical is his revolutionary fervor, which just doesn’t exist in the book. On the other hand, his most blameworthy attribute, his blindness regarding Eponine, doesn’t really exist in the book either. But that brings me to two other plot threads…
Marius’ crowd of revolutionary friends do turn up in this book and I enjoyed getting more depth on them. At the same time, I was surprised by how shallow Marius’ connection to them was. He knows them, but he’s really not one of them. It gets more complicated with the barricade, but that’s Part IV. I was happy to see Enjolras, though, the leader of the group and one of my favorites from the musical.
Marius’ path also intersects with the Thenardiers, who have come to Paris and fallen on even worse times. Take away the humor from the Thenardiers, and you have instead examples of just how low people can sink, both in poverty and in moral character.
Two members of the Thenardier family particularly fascinate me. First, Eponine, the older daughter. I actually found her a more interesting character in the musical. There’s a spark of something in her, this sense that she could be so much more than her life has so far let her be. Oddly enough, I get less of that feeling from the book. I think it’s there, but she’s far more disreputable too. There also seems to be less of a relationship between her and Marius than the musical suggested, to the point that I can’t blame him for not returning her unrequited crush. It redeems him a bit, though I felt less for her.
I was just a little disappointed regarding Eponine, but I was thrilled with Gavroche. I can see why the musical never got into the fact that he’s the Thenardiers’ son–he has only the most tenuous of relationships. He emerges in the book just as I had hoped, a plucky, cheeky street urchin, keeping his head up and his confidence intact no matter what life hands him. I love Gavroche’s spirit, and I also love that even in his own poverty, he’s still generous. He gives to others even if it means he won’t eat that night himself, and he seems to do it instinctively. Love, love Gavroche!
You may be wondering at this point what ever became of Valjean, and you’d be justified in that wondering! I don’t think he’s mentioned by name in this entire Volume…although it doesn’t take much insight to match up Valjean and Cosette with another set of characters who do appear here…
I’m definitely not invested in Marius the way I was in Valjean, but that didn’t really interfere with my enjoyment of this section. The story was engaging even if I had mixed feelings about the main character.
Come back tomorrow for a review of the last section…one day more ’til the barricades arise. 🙂