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! 🙂