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into the parisian underworld

Thoughts on Cosette

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Hi guys! I finished the Cosette section awhile ago, but I haven't had internet access. So, here were my impressions of the section, but they're definitely not super-fresh. :)

First off, I'm not gonna lie, I skimmed the whole Book One Waterloo thing. I think this partly stems from the fact that I read War & Peace earlier this year, and I read all of Tolstoy's battle stuff faithfully (and I really enjoyed the war descriptions, not so much the big-picture philosopy of history lessons). So when I saw so many pages describing yet another Napoleon defeat, I just couldn't take it. Maybe next time I'm reading, I'll give it more attention; as it is, I skimmed through until the scene between the officer and Thenardier.

Book Two almost broke my heart; in fact, I cried a lot and wished horrible things at the Thenardiers. Hugo writes scenes with a perfect simplicity that makes what's going on even worse, like this passage early on:
At times, the cry of a very young child, somewhere around the house, was heard above the noice of the barroom. It was a little boy the woman had had some winters before. "I don't know why," she said; "it was the cold weather,"-and now a little more than three years old. The mother had nursed him, but did not love him. When the brat's insistent racket became too much to bear, "Your boy is squalling," Thenardier said. "Why don't you go and see what he wants?"
"Aah!" the mother answered. "I am sick of him." And the poor little fellow went on crying in the darkness.
Don't you just want to rush upstairs and grab the poor baby? I think it's interesting that Mme Thenardier loves her daughters and completely ignores her son; usually, when there's a gender preference by parents it goes the other way. I don't know what kind of reasons Hugo had, but I enjoyed the flipping of expectations (ok, maybe enjoyed is the wrong word...but you know what I mean)

In Fantine's section, I was struck by Hugo's vivid descriptions, his ability to bring a character to life in a paragraph. He continues that in Cosette's section:
Cosette was ugly. If happy, she might have been pretty. We have already sketched this pitiful little face. Cosette was thin and pale; she was about eight years old, but one would hardly have thought her six. Her large eyes, sunk in a sort of shadow, were dimmed by continual weeping. The corners of her mouth had that curve of habitual anguish seen in the condemned and the terminally ill. Her hands were, as her mother had guessed, covered with chilblains. The light of the fire shining on her made her bones stand out and her emaciation hideously visible. Because she was always shivering, she had acquired the habit of drawing her knees together. Her clothing was only rags that would have provoked pity in the summer and that elicited horror in the winter. She had on nothing but cotton, and that full of holes, not a speck of wool. Her skin showed through here and there, and on it, bruises, where the Thenardiess had grabbed her. Her naked legs were red and rough. The hollows below her colloarbones were enough to make you weep. Everything about this child, her walk, her attitude, the sound of her voice, the pauses between one word and another, her look, her silences, her slightest gesture, expressed and portrayed a single idea: fear.
Fear was spread all over her; she, so to speak, covered with it; fear squeezed her elbows against her sides, drew her heels up under her skirt, made her shrink into the least possible space, prevented her from breathing more than absolutely necessary, and had become what might be called her bodily habit, without possible variation, except to increase. In the depths of her eyes, there was an expression of astonishment mingled with terror.
I know that that was a really long passage, but I think it shows how Hugo drives points home. The combination of physical and emotional description is very powerful...I think if the generalised description of fear had come first, it wouldn't have worked nearly as well. But by painting that very specific image and then adding the layers of emotion, I was left with a definite little girl in my mind. So sad.

When Valjean bought Cosette the little doll, I almost started crying. But this is the pasage that completely did me in.
He was about to leave [the childrens' room] when his eye fell on the fireplace, one of those huge tavern hearths where there is always such a small fire, when there is a fire at all, and which are so cold to the eye. In this one there was no fire, there were not even any ashes. What there was, however, attracted the traveler's attention. It was two little children's shoes, dainty in shape and of different sizes. The traveler remembered the graceful and immemorial custom of children putting their shoes on the hearth on Christmas Eve, to wait there in the darkness in expectation of some shining gift from the good fairy. Eponine and Azelma had not forgotten this, and each had put one of her shoes on the hearth....The man straightened up and was on the point of going away when he perceived farther along, by itself, in the darkest corner of the fireplace, another object. He looked and recognized a shoe, an ugly wooden clog of the clumsiest kind, half broken and covered with ashes and dried mud. It was Cosette's. Cosette, with that touching confidence of childhood, which can always be betrayed without ever being discouraged, had also put her shoe upon the hearth.
Oh! As soon as I read that, I pictured her year after year, wondering why even the good fairy didn't love her. Ok, I'm tearing up again, so we're going to move on.

Oddly enough, while I avoided Hugo's treatise on Waterloo, I loved his whole meditation on monastic life and organised religion! Perhaps cause religion, and the philosophy and history of it, interests me while military history doesn't it? Either way, I'm curious if other people enjoyed this one too-I found Hugo's analysis very thoughtful, especially when he focuses more on spirituality than organised religion. I loved his definition of prayer:
To place, by process of thought, the infinite below in contact with the infinite above is called 'prayer.'
In fact, I like the whole two paragraphs preceding that about those two infinities, but I've already quoted so many long passages, I'm refraining. :)

The whole scene when Jean Valjean and Cosette enter the convent, and the gardener has to nail Valjean in a coffin and try not to have him actually buried is hilarious! It was sweet of Hugo to give me a comic interlude, and it turns out he does it really well. :) From when the gardener begins talking to the grave digger to when Valjean finally gets out of the coffin might be my favourite scene of the book so far!!

Another example of Hugo's humour, which is shorter and thus more quotable:
The strongest recommendation for Cosette's admission had been the prioress's remark, "She will be homely." Having uttered this prediciton, the prioress immediately took Cosette into her friendship and gave her a place in the school building as a charity pupil.
That and the next paragraph (Hugo explaining why nuns prefer unattractive girls) made me laugh a bit.

That was my last marked passage from the Cosette section, so I'll end this with a great aphorism (Hugo's good at those, isn't he?):
Children have their morning song, like birds.

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