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into the parisian underworld

Thoughts on Fantine

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I'm catching up! :) I just finished book three of Cosette's section, when Jean Valjean rescues her. Thank God-Hugo really knows how to wring your heart, doesn't he? But first I wanted to share my thoughts on the Fantine section. It's going to be long, but I've divided it by character. I hope everyone else shares their impressions as well!

First off, the bishop is just so adorable (although I don't like the way he makes his sister and her companion live as difficult a life as he does-it doesn't strike me as very charitable). I really liked this passage about him:
What more was needed by this old man, who divided the leisure hours of his life, where he had so little leisure, between gardening in the day time and contemplation at night? Was this narrow enclosure with the sky for a background not space enough for him to adore God in his most beautiful, most sublime works? Indeed, is that not everything? What more do you need? A little garden to walk in, and immensity to reflect on. At his feet something to study and meditate on; a few flowers on earth and all the stars in the heaven.
Obviously, materialism was just as present in France in the early 1800s as it is in America today, but I feel that this kind of passage, indeed most of the bishop's description, could serve as a kind of mediation for people who have lost sight of what's important. It's not so much that we should all do what the bishop does; more that we should try to figure out what feeds our souls, and then put it before everything else. So it might be family, or doing good in this world, or going on long walks. But we all need things like that! Also, the bishop's amazing compassion of virtual strangers (I've already said what I think about his behavior towards his sister) helps remind us that we can all do things like that, if on a lesser scale. I loved this quote, from the bishop but a suitable aphorism, I think, for people who prefer to solve things without violence:
"There is a bravery for the priest as well as for the colonel of dragoons. ...Only, ours should be peaceable.
I want to be a diplomat, and I think if you changed 'priest' to 'diplomat,' that'd be a sentence to live by. I loved the bishop's sense of humour, like when he rides into town on a donkey and the mayor is aghast, so the bishop replies:
"...you think it shows pride for a poor priest to use the same conveyance used by Jesus Christ. I have done it from necessity, I assure you, and not from vanity.
I think Hugo meant to be inspiring with the bishop, and for me at least he definitely succeeded!

Pretty soon, Jean Valjean enters the scene. If the bishop is Hugo's way of beginning to castigate society's well-off, Valjean is like a cudgel. Hugo, as the narrator, keeps intruding to make almost a 'scientific' (well, social science anyway) case in the middle of the narrative. Like when he finishes telling of Valjean's prison experience and adds
This is the second time, in his studies on the penal question and regal sentences, that the author of this book has met with the theft of a loaf of bread as the starting point for a ruined life. Claude Gueux stole a loaf of bread; Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread; English statistics show that in London starvation is the immediate cause of four out of five thefts.
This doesn't bother me, though, because I think it's a message that's just as important for today's world. From WWII to Reagan's presidency, the gap between rich and poor in America steadily shrunk, but since Reagan (he instituted a whole bunch of economic changes), it's been getting ever wider. And, of course, on a global scale there are still many, many people who Hugo would recognise as les miserables. What kind of obligation do I, as a middle-class American, have towards the world's poor? I'm not sure, although I've read various books on it, but I have a feeling that Les Mis is going to help me figure it out more than the best written book in international economics. I thought the short chapter comparing 'criminals' like Jean Valjean to men thrown overboard was quite interesting. Sometimes, the imagery got a little over the top ("O implacable march of human society! Destroying men and souls in its way! Ocean, repository of all that the law lets fall! Ominous disappearance of help! O moral death!"), but aside from that I quite liked the metaphor. Once again, I think it'd be a powerful critique of certain proponents of globalization, who believe that somehow the world's poorest people are going to be magically helped if a big corporation decides to build a plant in their country. Especially since a classic metaphor with them is "A rising tide raises all ships." Definite potential here!

Now we're on to Fantine and her friends. I love it when Hugo slips in little aphorisms, and this one really struck me:
...but they were students, and to say student is to say Parisian; to study in Paris is to be born in Paris.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to study in France while I was in college (I did get to go to Russia!), but I have a feeling anyone who did will love that quote. :) Have I mentioned yet how awesome Hugo is at describing his characters? He brings them to such life, that they immediately form in my mind, and I remember even the minor ones. Here's his description of Fantine, which I especially loved:
A brilliant face, delicate profile, eyes of a deep blue, heavy eyelashes, small, arching feet, wrists and ankles neatly turned, the white skin here and there showing the azure aborescence of veins; a cheek small and fresh, a neck robust as that of Aegean Juno; the nape firm and supple, shoulders modeled as if by Coustou, with a voluptuous dimple in the center, just visible through the muslin; a gaeity tempered with dreaminess; sculptured and exquisite-this was Fantine, and you could imagine underneat this dress and these ribbons a statue, and inside this statue a soul. Fantine was beautiful, without really being conscious of it. Those rare dreamers, the mysterious priests of the beatuiful, who silently compare all things with perfection, would have dimly perceived this working girl, through the transparency os Parisian grace, an ancient sacred euphony. This daughter of obscurity had breeding. She possessed both types of beauty-style and rhythm.
Can't you just see her? Of course, since he's Hugo, he's made her this beautiful to make her descent later on all the worse. But I'm not going to dwell on that, because it's just too sad for words. I'll just say that Hugo really shows what the worst parts of human nature (jealousy, judgementalness, vindictiveness) can do.

Speaking of great descriptions, here's a shorter one that perfectly captures Javert:
The peasants of the Asturias believe that in every litter of wolves there is one pup that is killed by the mother for fear that on growin gup it would devour the other little ones.
Give a human face to this wolf's son and you will have Javert.
Wow-Hugo knew how to write, didn't he? As Hugo described Javert's personality, I was struck by how similar some things were to the bishop. They both carry their respective ideologies to the extreme: the bishop denies himself and his household even big fires that would keep them warm, he's so concerned about the poor, while Javert is so obsessed with the rule of law, he'll do anything to enforce it. So what makes them different? Obviously, one believes in mercy, the other justice. But I think there's a more important difference: the bishop is guided by his personal beliefs, while Javert accepts unquestioningly the beliefs of society. There's a great passage later on about Javert:
At that moment Javert was in heaven. Without a clear notion of his own feelings, yet with a confused intuition of his need and his success, he, Javert, personified justice, light, and truth, in their celestial function as destroyers of evil. He was surrounded and supported by infinite depths of authority, reason, precedent, legal conscience, the vengeance of the law, all the stars in the firmament; he protected order, he hurled forth the thunder of the law, he avenged society, he lent aid to the absolute; he stood erect in a halo of glory; there was in his victory a trace of defiance and combat; standing haughty and respeldent, he displayed in full glory the superhuman beastiality of a ferocious archangel; the fearful shadow of the deed he was accomplishing, making visible in his clenched fist the uncertain flashes of the social sword; happy and indignant, he gnashed his heel on crime, vice, rebellion, perdition, and hell, he was radiant, exterminating, smiling; there was an incontestable grandeur in this monstrous St. Michael.
Aside from once again marveling at Hugo's skill, this really reminded me of the Soviet Union, especially in the early years. I think Javert would have loved it there: the deification of society above any individual, the unlimited power of the government, the gulags. He would have lapped it up.

I'm almost done, I promise. There are just a couple more things that I thought would make interesting discussions. Like when Valjean says that, "There are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators." This pretty much sums up one side of the debate going on in the US about our current penal system. Especially in the case of juvenile offenders. I don't know enough to know if I completely agree with Valjean (universal statements like that always make me raise an eyebrow), but I think it's pretty obvious that the place of your birth, at least in the US, is connected with likelihood of you going to jail. Not that all people born in slums become criminals, and certainly there are many white collar crimes committed every day, but in terms of actual sentences served, there's a definite correlation. And, of course, correlation is not the same as cause. It's food for thought, though. Throughout my reading so far, I've been consistently amazed at how all the social issues Hugo talks about are so relevent to the twenty-first century. Perhaps all of our politicians and public figures should have to read Les Mis!

Briefly, I also thought this was an interesting description of travel:
What was he doing during the trip? What was he thinking about? As he had during the morning, he watched the trees go by, the thatched roofs, the cultivated fields, and the dissolving views of the countryside that change at every turn of the road. Scenes like that are sometimes enough for the soul, and almost eliminate the need for thought. To see a thousand objects for the first and last time, what could be more profoundly melancholy? Traveling is a constant birth and death.

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posted by Eva, 21:29


Wow what a beautiful review! I need to get busy and write up my thoughts on the first section as I'm almost done with the second!
Oh and just a reminder don't forget to separate your labels with a comma so they work properly. I went ahead and fixed this post for you. :)
I'll read this properly when I get to it (still reading Fantine's section). I just realized that M. Madeleine is Valjean! All I can say is poor Fantine....to sell your front teeth...
Ashleigh! Thanks. :) I thought I put commas into the labels, but I guess not-thanks for fixing it.

Danielle, I totally agree-the two front teeth thing was just horrible. And the evil Thernadiers. I cry when I think about that whole situation; I think partly because my sister is a young, single mom, and her daughter lives with our parents and me for now, so my sister can do her schooling, so it struck veyr close to home.
commented by Blogger Eva, April 6, 2008 at 8:22 AM  

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