Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Parts IV and V

Les Mis (2)We’re coming down to the final stretch in Les Mis.  If you missed them, you can go back and read the first and second reviews.  Today, I’ll be looking at the last two volumes, when the barricade arises.

This section begins with romance and then moves to revolution.  Marius and Cosette’s relationship takes leaps forward compared to the previous section–by which I mean they actually start talking to each other!  After a blissful interlude, however, circumstances separate them, seemingly forever, and Marius decides that he has nothing to live for.  Conveniently for him, a very good opportunity to get himself killed comes swiftly along.

The revolutionaries finally come into their own in this part of the book.  Paris rises in rebellion and the book focuses in on Enjolras and his band, building and holding the barricade at the Rue Saint-Denis.  They rally around to fight the good fight, while Marius turns up mostly by accident and plunges in.  Inspector Javert is in the midst, revealed as a police spy, and before too long Jean Valjean joins in too…for reasons I felt were never adequately explained.

This is certainly the bloodiest part of the book, and probably the most exciting (although it gets stiff competition from an earlier sequence when Javert was stalking Valjean).  Hugo demonstrates his ability to make even inaction interesting, as they wait on the barricade for each next engagement–and the engagements come with all their drama too.

A few spoilers here, although nothing that the musical won’t tell you…  Gavroche’s death is almost identical in the book as in the musical, and is heartrending in both.  Eponine’s death in the book was more of a disappointment to me.  It’s quick, and it’s largely ignored by everyone, including Hugo.  At pretty much every point of Eponine’s arc, I prefer what the musical did.

But the rest of the barricade sequence is excellent, and I didn’t even mind that they retreated eventually into the cafe.  The movie made it look like a pell-mell retreat, but in the book they fight every inch.

After the barricade falls and a few more trials are gone through, there’s a brief interlude where we actually seem to be heading for a happy ending.  But I didn’t trust Hugo to take us there…and he didn’t.  I won’t get into the particulars but the last section is heartbreaking, and I think the blame falls largely on the heads of Valjean and Cosette.

I love Valjean–he’s a wonderful man–at least until the last hundred pages or so, and then I just don’t know whether I want to cry over him or shake him.  He has a very strong streak of self-sacrifice throughout the entire book, and most of the time it’s immensely admirable.  At the end, though, it begins to approach the point of masochism, self-denial for very little purpose.  There’s an argument for what he does, but it’s flimsy.

Valjean clearly grasped two thirds of the “greatest commandments.”  He has “Love thy God” and he constantly demonstrates “love thy neighbor,” but he never got the idea of that last phrase, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  The concept of self-forgiveness seems to have escaped him.  I still love him–but Hugo maybe takes it all just a little too far by the end.

As for Cosette–I don’t love Cosette.  She’s such a flighty, childish little nothing.  She has nothing to do in the musical, and scarcely anything more to do in the book, long as it is.  She’s sweet and she’s pretty and Hugo (and Marius) keeps referring to her as an angel, but she never does anything demonstrably angelic.  Cosette has all the refinement to present herself well, and appears perfectly demure and modest and all that, but that’s the extent of her talents.  I suppose if the ability to modestly lower one’s eyes makes one an angel, then by all means, call her that.  But by criteria of actively doing good for others…I find Gavroche far more angelic.

Heartbreaking (and somewhat frustrating!) as the end of the book is, this is still a wonderful read.  I spent longer on this book than I’ve spent on any one book in years, but it was absolutely worth it.  The characters and the world they inhabit are vivid and alive and drew me in completely.  Highly recommended–if you have some time! 🙂

4 thoughts on “Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Parts IV and V

  1. Jean Valjean joins in too…for reasons I felt were never adequately explained.
    He’s there to save Marius because his daughter is in love with him and he loves his daughter that much. Also he probably felt guilty about wanting Marius dead, lol.

    Yeah Gavroche dies singing in the book, too. I found it interesting. (Fun fact (Actually miserable fact): In the original French musical, the song that became “Little People” was called “La Faute à Voltaire” and used lyrics from the song he was singing in the book. During his death scene in the original musical, he sings the exact same words he was singing in the book and cuts off at the same place.)

    I wondered if you might like what the movie did with the fall of the barricade more once you’d read the book. They were fighting all the way there, too. You could see them when they were chopping down the stairs and throwing bottles down at the guards when they had no ammunition left. I also remember you were disappointed in Enjolras’s death in the movie. Do you like it more now, or are you still disappointed? I thought it was a great merging of elements from the book and the musical.

    Valjean clearly grasped two thirds of the “greatest commandments.” He has “Love thy God” and he constantly demonstrates “love thy neighbor,” but he never got the idea of that last phrase, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The concept of self-forgiveness seems to have escaped him.
    I love this! I love the way you put this! That’s him.

    Basically, if I can try to explain it, he feels he can’t live with Cosette. He was never her father, he was only her guardian. As long as she was happy with him and needed him, he was OK with that. But now she’s happy with someone else and she doesn’t need him anymore, and it makes him so despondent. It was his life’s purpose to make Cosette happy. Now that she’s happy, he has no purpose. Nobody needs him. He finds it hard to continue living. He doesn’t want to live with the Pontmercies because he’d have to lie to them. To lie to them every day and forever be afraid that one day, some policeman would knock on their door and take him away. And for all that he loves Cosette and she loves him, she doesn’t really know him, and he can’t tell her and I think that hurts him. He told Marius about his past, but he didn’t tell the whole truth, so Marius is understandably afraid. I mean… here is a man who was in the galleys. He thinks Valjean murdered Javert. (We know the truth, but Marius doesn’t.) But Valjean loves Cosette so much he can’t stand not to see her. Marius is afraid of Valjean and afraid for his wife and passive-aggressively pushes Valjean out and sort of lies to Cosette about why he’s not coming back. A lot of people blame Marius for this, but I find it hard to. He’s protecting his family from a confessed criminal, and though Valjean is a good man, Marius doesn’t know this and thinks he stole Madeleine’s fortune and killed Javert. Who knows who else he killed? Who knows why he was in the galleys in the first place? When Marius finds out the truth, he feels terrible about it. He also berates Valjean for not telling the whole truth. Well. It’s all just a big case of miscommunication, which is really a shame. Valjean has something of a martyr complex, yeah. And that part where he makes shorter and shorter trips to Cosette’s house? I wanted to get out there and DRAG him to the house. Grab him by the shoulders and shake him and tell him to be happy because he deserves to be happy. The trouble is… he just doesn’t think he deserves to be happy. And he has a lot of emotional problems. 😦

    I love Cosette. 🙂 She’s cute and she’s funny and witty. She’s basically the only light in this whole story. She had a really bad, abusive childhood and Hugo says this is why she developed something of a passive nature. But despite the terrible way that her life started, she still grew up to be a good, gracious, generous person. A past like that can really make you mean and bitter… like… well… like Valjean after prison. But he saved her and she saved him. Without Cosette, Valjean would have fallen back into his pit of hatred and probably would not have been able to come back out this time. Cosette saved him. When they’re at Rue Plumet, she keeps his books. She goes out with him often to bring food and clothing to the poor. When they stopped going to the Luxembourg gardens, she suffered in silence on Valjean’s account. When Valjean comes home with a nasty burn wound, she takes care of him and sees to his healing all by herself because he refuses to see a doctor. She puts up with all of Valjean’s oddities and loves him still; she even gets him to be less of a martyr. When Valjean suddenly announces they’re going to England, she’s grief stricken, but ultimately chooses her father over Marius. When Marius is hurt after the barricade, there’s not much she can do, but she makes wrappings for him and Valjean delivers them everyday and after she’s finally allowed to see him, she nurses him back to health and helps him through his PTSD. I don’t think Marius could have gotten better without her.

    Ah I’m glad you liked it. 🙂 It is a long read, but yes, definitely worth it.

    1. Ah, so much discussion here!

      Yeah, I got that Valjean was saving Marius because Cosette loved him–but I felt like there was a crucial bit of narration left out, when Valjean must have decided that Marius was a good idea for Cosette…he was so anti-Marius, why the sudden turn? (or am I mixing this up with bits of movie versions? I must admit, I have Liam Neeson in my head as I try to remember exactly how Valjean felt about Marius earlier on…)

      I love that Gavroche dies singing. I mean…I hate that he dies, but I love that he dies that way.

      I have to rewatch the movie, now that I’ve read the book. I haven’t seen it again since reading, so I’ll have to see how things feel different. I own it–but I think I’m going to wait a bit, because I have a ticket for the play for next Saturday…

      I understand Valjean’s thought process, I think. It’s just–SO over the top. Maybe what ultimately bothers me is that he doesn’t just tell Marius and Cosette the entire truth. He tells Marius just enough to freak the poor guy out, and he tells Cosette nothing at all–and that BOTHERS me. If he doesn’t think she can handle the truth, well, whose fault is that? He did raise her, after all! I know what you’re going to say–he’s so ashamed of his past that he doesn’t want Cosette to know the truth–which is where we come back around to Valjean’s problems with self-forgiveness. Sigh. And I love him, and want to shake him at the same time.

      You give Cosette a lot more credit than I did! You do make a good case for all the nice things she does but, I don’t know…I suppose it’s the passivity that gets me. Even when she does good things, it feels more like Valjean or circumstances pushing her along, rather than anything SHE is really taking ownership of. True, she did help both the men in her life–but it seems like Hugo mostly reduces that to her being this radiant, angelic presence that aids them through her innate goodness and purity, rather than much that she actually DOES.

      And yes. Worth it.

      1. Haha, Valjean hated Marius. In fact, Marius provoked in him the first feelings of anger and hate that he’d felt since he’d gotten Cosette, and it surprised him. He didn’t hate Marius because he was wrong for Cosette, though, it was because he knew Marius would come and take Cosette from him. He’s jealous, I guess you could say. So he gets that letter from the barricade and he thinks, “Oh great! The boy is going to die and I won’t have to worry about it!” He thinks like this for a while and then all it says is that he considered everything he just said and he became gloomy. One supposes that he realizes that these are actually not very nice thoughts to have; it’s not very nice to wish death upon someone. And before Gavroche arrived, he’d just seen the words that Cosette had written to Marius in her blotter. So he knows she loves him too, and… he just makes a decision to go. I don’t think even he knows what specifically he thinks he’s going to accomplish there or if he’s even going to have the courage to save Marius given the chance. But he has to try. Same with when he went to Arras. He did not want to go, but he made every effort to get there and he didn’t have the courage to do what he needed to do until almost the end of the trial. He just knew he had to try.

        Ahaha, you do know what I’m going to say; that actually makes me smile. Yes, I don’t think the reason Valjean didn’t tell Cosette was because he didn’t think she could handle it… it’s that he himself couldn’t live with her knowing. He had not the courage to tell her. He probably thinks about that time they were out walking and saw a chain gang pass by and Cosette was so scared of those men. It left an impression on him and he didn’t want her knowing that he was once like that. Personally, I think Cosette would have handled it with grace and probably would have asked him enough questions and wouldn’t stop until she’d drawn the entire truth out of him and then they could have lived a happy life together growing strawberries and Valjean could have lived to see his grandchildren and… it’s just soooo miserable. (With this book, you really do get what it says on the tin!)

        AAAAHHHH I hope you have a good time at the show! (The US Tour cast, yes?) This is my favorite cast and my favorite production and I’m real excited for you. 🙂

  2. dianem57

    Based on your cumulative reviews of this book, all I can say is that I guess there’s a reason some books become classics and are read for many generations. Hugo seems to have hit the mark well with the themes in this story and the plot that keeps it going to the end (despite some detours into history which may not be of interest to a modern reader). Sounds like the book is well worth the time it would take to read it. You have shown that one shouldn’t be intimidated by the length of some of the great classic works. Will you be tackling “War and Peace” anytime soon? 🙂

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