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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Les MIserables: Volume One, "Fantine"

Les Miserables: Volume One, “Fantine”

Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of life in early nineteenth century France is an amazing displaying of authorial command and the mastery of plot. Despite its overwhelming length each detail given to the reader has its place in the overall narrative and their inclusion is the furthest thing from arbitrary. The novel’s all-encompassing style makes the revelations of the key elements of the plot all the more rewarding and affecting.

Volume One (out of Five) begins with an examination of the life of Charles Myriel, later the Bishop of Digne. In painstaking fashion, Hugo describes the manner in which this comfortable heir turned to the life of the cloth, and how, unlike so many others in that estate, he truly came to devote himself to the poor and needy. Acquiring the nickname Monsignor Welcome for his charity, Myriel’s status as a living saint only becomes credible through the avalanche of evidence Hugo provides in support of it. Having spent chapter upon chapter witness the incredible deeds of Monsignor Welcome, it is thus readily acceptable to the reader that this man would save Jean Valjean from returning to the galleys, despite Valjean having just robbed the bishop’s residence.

Jean Valjean had arrived at the bishop’s after being rejected by every inn along the road to Digne. When Hugo first introduces him Valjean is dressed in rags, tired from walking and exceedingly hungry. He is a freed convict, carrying a yellow passport which marks him as such. Having stolen a loaf of bread to feed him, his sister, and her seven young children, Valjean was sentenced to five years in the galleys. With years added to his sentence for escape attempts, Valjean spent nineteen years in prison. The experience had caused him to have contempt for all humanity, but the actions of the bishop cause him to rethink his stance. After committing a minor crime, robbing a small child of a forty franc piece out of habit, Valjean confronts the blackness of his soul and returns to the bishop determined to better himself.

Valjean is the main character of the novel, but Hugo’s storytelling makes room for plenty of other characters to have their turn in the spotlight. This volume is entitled “Fantine” after an unfortunate women who later makes Valjean’s acquaintance, but in order to feel her devastation more keenly, Hugo treats us to a long segment of her in her happiness, attached to a philosophical man of leisure named Felix Tholomyes. Felix and his friends have formed a little social circle, and Fantine’s friends are comprised of their girlfriends. One day, Felix and his pals gather the women for a “surprise”. After much drunken speechifying and suspense, the men cruelly abandon their girlfriends en masse. The length of this cruel joke and its perversity are compounded when Hugo reveals that Fantine had succumbed to Felix and was carrying his child.

Fantine names her daughter Cosette, but is too poor to continue to raise her. She departs Paris for her home of M. sur M. and leaves Cosette with the Thernadiers, married innkeepers with two young children of their own, and promises to send them money for Cosette when she finds work. Unfortunately, the Thernadiers turn out to be liars and crooks who use Fantine’s money for their own children and treat Cosette as a slave, putting her to work as soon as she can walk, and denying her even the most basic needs. Fantine has no idea that this is going on.

Fantine’s employment comes at the factory of the benefactor of M. sur M., a mysterious stranger known as M. Madeleine, or Monsieur le Maire. After arriving in the town, the newcomer made a proposal to make the local industry more efficient, and in doing so made himself a wealthy man. Despite his riches, M. Madeleine is almost universally beloved in the little town for his benevolence. Only a suspicious few, including the officious policeman Javert, remain unconvinced of M. Madeleine’s worthiness.

Though it is, intentionally, fairly obvious from his introduction that this M. Madeleine is none other than Jean Valjean, Hugo playfully draws out the revelation, building up to it by introducing us to Javert and explaining the nature of his suspicions. Along the way Hugo also describes how Fantine has been degraded in the town because of the incessant curiosity and gossip surrounding her. When Fantine, Javert and Valjean are pushed together by Fantine’s arrest, the reader is thrilled by these characters, so dramatically isolated until now, coming into contact with one another.

To say much more would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that Hugo’s story ingeniously places Valjean in a moral crisis that is heart-breaking to read of. Valjean’s struggle, Fantine’s innocence corrupted, and Valjean’s obstinate adherence to the letter of the law come together to devastate the reader.

All that, and we’re only a fifth of the way through.

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