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Friday, August 10, 2012

Les Miserables, Volume II: "Cosette"

Where Volume I expertly built up to its heartbreaking dilemma through extensive use of detail and explanation, Volume II seemed to this reader to be filled with stand-alone details of less importance to the main plot. Hugo’s second volume of five is over-stuffed with digressions and discourses, and very light on character development and plot.

The volume begins with an excruciatingly long examination of the Battle of Waterloo. As chapter upon chapter continued to detail the troop movements, the casualties, the errors in judgment and the role of chance, my eyes glazed over. Hugo’s point is made early and often, and does not wear repetition well. The ending revelation, of Thernadier’s dishonorable nature, is not enough to justify all that came before.

The volume is entitled Cosette after Fantine’s daughter, but her role in the plot is important only in relation to Jean Valjean. After his escape from the galleys by disappearing underwater and being presumed dead, Valjean risks discovery to free Cosette from the Thernadiers. After some difficulty with the disreputable innkeepers, he and Cosette are forced to flee from the tenacious Javert. Eventually they stumble upon the perfect hide-out: a convent where men are typically barred from entry.

All of this takes some 300 pages, mostly due to the inflated Waterloo section and another lengthy discourse on the history of the convent and cloister. Unlike the lengthy personal histories we were treated to in Volume I, these side-trips do little to enhance the reader’s understanding or enjoyment of the story.

Hugo also indulges a little too often in lecturing instead of story-telling. He seems to feel that the novel can be something of a manual for how to live, and he spends an inordinate amount of time criticizing the practices of both the religious and the unreligious.

In Volume II I found myself tiring of Hugo’s moralism and preaching, and less enchanted with his masterful weaving of a wide set of characters. Still I press on, hopeful that the Hugo who dreamt up Jean Valjean and his predicament has more in store for Volumes III, IV, and V.

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