Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – Volume I. Fantine

I decided to do my reviewing of The Brick by volume to keep me on track and to make it easier to remember what I felt about it. I feel like most people know Les Miserables to some extent, if only by the musical. I’ve wanted to read it since I got into the musical years ago, especially with the 2012 adaptation by Tom Hooper.

Volume I is titled Fantine but most of it is spent with the Bishop of D_ and Jean ValJean. The Bishop is a fascinating character. I don’t fault the adaptors for cutting his part way down, there are many parts where I feel like I would only understand what’s happening if I had a better knowledge of French history. He was in a family that narrowly escaped the Revolution (his only souvenir of that time of his life are his silverware and silver candlesticks) and he becomes this humble, benevolent Bishop who is considered pious to a fault but still beloved. He has an interesting experience with a man who had supported the execution of King Louis XVI. He is uncharacteristically severe and angry with him but is forced to acknowledge that it isn’t as black and white as “killing people is bad” when the people in question are the direct source of death and suffering for many others. The Bishop allows himself to be changed by this experience, something we don’t often see religious figures in novels do.

Jean ValJean’s story is much the same as in the book. Hugo does an excellent job illustrating how horribly broken the “justice” system was (and in many ways still is) and how damned people are through poverty and merciless systems. There are many sentences or phrases I’ve highlighted in my copy because through the dense prose there are some really beautifully descriptive pieces. Hugo is a genuinely good writer. He is a good writer who was clearly being paid by the word, but I can’t fault him for making his money.

When we meet Fantine it actually offers a small backstory for how she gets pregnant with Cosette. Novels I read from this time period in lit classes were always pretty severe with women who “fell from grace” or “ruined” themselves so it was interesting reading a contemporary of Dickens, Hardy, and Trollope write about a woman who has premarital sex and doesn’t describe her resulting circumstances as a reflection of her poor morals but rather the way society has failed her. He is critical of her lover who intentionally abandons her and the many people who continue this abandonment and debasement. He definitely has a bit of an infantilizing eye on women, and we do see some Madonna/Whore stuff going on as he writes pretty stark characterizations of women, but I still found this noteworthy.

Javert was another very interesting character and for once I wished Hugo would write more than he did. He describes the character being born and raised among the same miserables that the rest of the story is dedicated to. Unlike ValJean who views mercy as a kindness and a duty of humanity, Javert views mercy as an unfair farce and his only redeeming(?) quality is that he is as severe with himself as he is with others. There is no hypocrisy in this character, but there is also no charity. I pity him but also I would have dismissed him ASAP if I were Jean ValJean.

I am currently in Volume II. Cosette which began with a thorough description of the battle of Waterloo but we have finally reached the titular character and things are already picking up speed. If I keep reading 50 pages a day as planned, I should be done by the end of the month. I’m going to plan to keep a weekly review of whatever volumes I get through and then give an overall impression at the end.

This volume was pretty appropriately miserable but it sets the foundation for where all of these next characters are coming from/escaping and I’m looking forward to getting into more about the rebels. Other than Les Mis, I am currently reading Twice Tempted, the sequel to the Dracula romance I read last year, so be on the lookout for that review next week!

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