Housekeeping matters: I am reading the Penguin Classics print edition, translated by Norman Denney. This edition lacks the scholarly introduction usually contained in the Penguin Classics editions, but does have a note from the translator, explaining his general theory of translation. This is the only edition I have ever read, so I am certainly not in a position to compare the Denney translation versus some of the other available versions, but I will say that I am very much enjoying this version. It is very fluid and readable. I also want to thank Tien for hosting this readalong. I am a bit blog challenged, and can’t figure out how to properly link, but if you are interested in checking out her blog (and I highly recommend that you do) she is on my blogroll.
The first volume of the book introduces us to two major characters: Jean Valjean and Fantine. It opens, however, by focusing on Bishop Myriel, who is a brief, but important, part of the book. Tien has provided us with some discussion questions, which I will deal with first, and then I will just post my overall thoughts about Volume I of Victor Hugo’s masterwork.
What do you think of Bishop Myriel? He’s definitely described as being truly saintly; I’m wondering if there’s any pessimistic reader out there?
I am not a pessimist about Bishop Myriel. I find it refreshing that Hugo has written such an unequivocally positive religious character. He appears to be, truly, a genuinely self-sacrificing man, who is doing things, not because it will make him look good in the eyes of his parishioners, but because he is genuinely altruistic. There was a great deal of hypocrisy amongst the church during this time period, but there must also have been men like Bishop Myriel.
I found the interaction between Valjean and Myriel very touching. It reminded me very strongly of the story of the prodigal son from the Bible. If he were asked, I believe that Myriel would consider the redemption of Jean Valjean to be one of his greatest (if not his greatest) accomplishments.
For those of you who are reading this for the first time, was there any assumptions you have made previously from whatever source which was just incorrect? Was there anything which surprises you from the past week’s readings?
My knowledge of this story was very basic before I began reading. I saw the musical years ago, but I actually remember very little about it other than the incredible music! I can say that my impression of Javert was very simplistic based upon his treatment in the musical version. He is a more complex character than I realized. In addition, Jean Valjean is not quite so simple either. He has a dark side that I’m not sure was really explored in the musical, and was very much a character in need of redemption. He could have gone either way at the moment that he was confronted with his choices, and going in the direction of good wasn’t a foregone conclusion. I like the fact that both of these characters are more complex and less cardboard-cut-out than I had previously realized.
What do you think of the contrast between Javert & Valjean?
This is sort of addressed in the prior paragraphs. Popular impression of this book is that Valjean is good and Javert is bad. The reality of the book is not nearly so simple.
What has been the high point for you this week? Any quote/s which bowled you over this week?
There were two high points for me in this section of the book: first, the scene between Myriel and Valjean, which I have already mentioned. I loved the part where that I remember best from that scene was where Myriel tells Valjean that he has bought back his soul.
The second high point for me was Hugo’s treatment of Fantine, and where he says: “What is the true story of Fantine? It is the story of society’s purchase of a slave. A slave purchased from poverty, hunger, cold, loneliness, defencelessness, destitution. A squalid bargain, a human soul for a hunk of bread” at page 180. This will lead me to some of the broader themes that I want to talk about.
One of the reasons that I love reading classic literature is that it explores important themes. That a book written and published in 1862 could be timely today is always something that astonishes me. And yet, this book is timely, and for two main reasons.
This era of French history was an era where society lacked any safety net for the poor, the impoverished, the “miserables” of society. Valjean provides a pointed example of this: he ended up serving a 19 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed children. It cannot be denied that the inequities of French society were great. In an era of increasing inequality and increasing assaults on the safety net in my own country, reading a book like this provides a reality check. Humanity is capable of tossing the weakest members out of the social compact. We must guard against losing our compassion, as society lost compassion for Fantine and for Jean Valjean. Their crimes were not so great that they deserved to be discarded as worthless.
As a woman, the story of Fantine is equally (if not more) important to me. The oppression of women is a constant theme in Victorian literature, and let us make no mistake about it: Fantine was punished as though she were a criminal for the “crime” of unchastity, while her partner was free to discard her without suffering any ill-effects whatsoever. There was no access to reliable birth control in those days, and women suffered for it. In my opinion, the single most important thing that separates modern women from the fate of Fantine isn’t our ability to vote, or our ability to own property. It is unrestricted access to reliable, personal, and private birth control, and our ability to chart our own reproductive destinies. I don’t want to go off on a political rant, but there are forces at work in my nation that want to change this, that would, perhaps not send us back to the fate of Fantine, but which would diminish our ability to decide if, and when, we have children. This theme is constant in the literature of the past because it is important. It is best to be reminded, frequently, how things once were because, as the saying goes: those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.
Les Miserables is the history of France, but it is also the history of the world.
Anyway, I am very much enjoying Les Miserables. Victor Hugo was an unrepetant critic of human society. I look forward to the section on Cosette.