Thursday, 3 September 2015

Les Misérables Read-Through #2: Chapters I.i.11 - I.ii.6

Jean Valjean illustration
To my shock, horror and glee I am enjoying Les Misérables quite a lot. Although I'm not even 10% in I feel like I've gotten a good feel for the novel and for Hugo's writing. I also haven't hit a wall yet, which I was quite honesty expecting to happen around the 100 page mark. Whenever I read a book I am uncertain about I give it a 100 pages to convince me. For most authors that's enough to get out of the rough first few chapters, to set up a good story and get some proper characterization going. I have run into books which have failed the '100-page Test' and those become DNFs, but I'm glad to report Les Misérables will not be one of those.

The title of this post has gotten a little bit more complicated than I expected it to. The previous post was originally just titles Chapters 1-10, but then during my reading now I realized that not only is Les Misérables split into five volumes but those volumes are also split up into separate books which have their own chapter count. As such I have decided to go with a system similar to how one references quotes in plays. The capital Roman numeral refers to the volume, the small Roman numeral to the book and then the number refers to the actual chapter. So Chapter I.i.11 means the eleventh chapter in the first book ('A Just Man') in the first volume ('Fantine'), whereas I.ii.6 is the sixth chapter in the second book ('The Fall'), still in the first volume. This is a 100 Classics read for the Classics Club.

Plot Summary:
In the previous post I close-to complained about nothing really happening despite a good 80 pages being filled with words. Well, that has definitely changed! At the end of this section of the book the plot has most definitely been introduced. Since I already know the story, having seen the film, I was expecting not to be surprised by much of the happenings in the novel. However, just like the previous ten chapters were full of new and unexpected information, so are these next ten. Where Hugo initially put a lot of time and words into making sure we understand how holy and good M. Myriel is, he suddenly seems to decide to show him from a more human side. It was interesting to see how the meeting with the member of Convention did change him.

Key to these ten chapters was the introduction of Jean Valjean, which occured pretty much dead centre in the fifteenth chapter. It would be fair to say that the way Hugo describes him doesn't immediately make me think of Hugh Jackman. Valjean comes across very rugged, sometimes rude, less self-conflicted and more angry. His story, however, is greatly expanded upon and I really enjoyed reading about his actual life. The reason his characterisation in the film always annoyed me so was because everyone kept hammering on about the piece of bread but there was never any true context given to it. Hugo takes a lot more time, naturally, but also seems to know what to tell and what to leave open to guessing. He sketches a very interesting portrait and for the first time in my life I am interested in knowing more about Jean Valjean.

Feel of the Chapters:
Whereas initially it all seemed to be very light and calm, the tone of Les Misérables takes a determined nose-dive down once an actually miserable character is introduced. In reading how he is treated by those around hi, how he suffers and how he responds to M. Myriel, the presence of Jean Valjean does a lot to darken the general atmosphere. Although I enjoyed the lighter and more sarcastic style of writing I find Hugo's darkness a lot more fascinating. Hugo really delves into his characters at times and, somehow without passing judgement, reveals their right- and wrongdoings.

General Thoughts:
  • Hugo as a narrator is incredibly present. I have already said so in the previous post but it keeps surprising me how big a part of the story he is. It was especially interesting when it came to discussing Jean Valjean's escape attempts and life as a convict because Hugo kept referring to "other sources" which would verify his tale. 
  • The despair of Jean Valjean's story really comes across in Les Misérables the novel, rather than Les Misérables the film. In the film they move through his backstory so quickly that it is practically irrelevant, whereas here you can really feel the burden that Valjean carries with him. His punishment, in the sense of his sentence, is something that really follows him around and against which no one is willing to protect him. It's very well done.
  • I have touched on it a little bit already but I am surprised by how kind and understanding Victor Hugo is towards his miserable characters. Although he does not propose major changes or anything like that, he is very understanding of the fact that people are forced into actions by their circumstances and that society isn't a very friendly place for some. 
  • Old school French passport
  • I am now really looking forward to the introduction of Javert, I think once the novel moves away from M. Myriel, our kind bishop, the story will pick up more pace and become a bit more intense and interesting.
Something Interesting:
The yellow passport that Jean Valjean carries around intrigued me. So I decided to look into it since I wondered why Jean Valjean would willingly show it off to anyone, thereby dooming himself to be judged. Back in the day, France required people to carry around internal passports so they could move between cities. The yellow passport was reserved for convicts which presented them as criminals, even if they'd served their sentence, and thereby made them outcasts. What this passport really shows is the ease with which people judge others based on a name that follows them and I think this is something that is still current. Just look at the refugees from Syria right now, who are judged as immigrants etc. without people taking their actual circumstances in consideration.

Favourite Quotes:
'Ignominy thirsts for consideration.' Ch. 3 (Book 2)
This is so very true! When you're being shamed by some one it means a lot when someone else takes the time to be considerate or kind to you. Many of us have had to learn this in high school, unfortunately, but it's also an important thing to know since you can really make a difference in someone's life.
'There's a sacred horror beneath the porches of the enigma; those gloomy openings stand yawning there, but something tells you, you, a passer-by in life, that you must not enter. Woe to him who penetrates thither!' Ch. 13 (Book 1)
I felt like this quote really captures how the mood of the book has changed. We're now talking about the horror and the woe of a normal ife, rather than describing idyllic trips around the mountains by a bishop. Also, the phrasing of this quote is beautiful.

I'm really enjoying Les Misérables now that the intensity has increased a little bit. Victor Hugo isn't only writing an interesting story, he is also painting a fascinating portrait of France.

2 comments:

  1. How interesting! I saw the newer movie with Hugh Jackman... and was bored out of my mind!! I've thought of giving the book a try, but I wasn't really sold on it. I'll just live vicariously through you! I hope you continue to enjoy it!

    Tracy @ Cornerfolds

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    1. Same here, the movie is soo boring! And I simply couldn't believe that the story itself was that dull as well so I decided to give the actual novel a try! I'll keep you updated on my progress ;) Thanks for commenting!

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