Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Les Misérables, Part I: Fantine

My re-read of Les Misérables (the unabridged Fahnestock and MacAfee translation published by Signet classics) is going a lot faster and has certainly been far more enjoyable than my first read of the book. Since I know where the plot was heading, I've been paying more attention to minor details and trying to absorb Victor Hugo's ideas about politics and society. Where I had once been impatient with his sometimes lengthy and tedious digressions, I now find myself fascinated by his thoughts.

The novel follows the story of Jean Valjean, a man who initially went to jail for stealing bread to feed his family and, after several attempts to escape, ended up with a prison sentence of 19 years total. Valjean, after leaving prison a changed man (and not necessarily for the better), steals again which prompts Police Inspector Javert to track him down to bring him to justice.


---- 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?

It's funny that Hugo glosses over just how Monsieur Myriel went from being a young man "devoted to worldly pleasures" (p.1) to such a saintly person. It's implied that the horrors of the French Revolution had something to do with it, but no details are supplied. I'm the type of person who wants to know what motivates people to behave the way they do, and I think here, to believe that M. Myriel is as good of a person as the story tells us is akin to an act of faith.

But ultimately, I think it matters less whether or not I believe there can be such saintly people like M. Myriel. M. Myriel is supposed to be Hugo's moral ideal-- genuine kindness, altruism, doing good deeds for their own sake and not for self-serving reasons, believing in the good in others (that incident with the criminals returning stolen goods shows that he believes people who commit crimes are not truly evil, just that there must be some reason for doing so). It's a morality that doesn't come from any specific religious doctrine or secular law, but from love of his fellow human beings. It might seem excessive, but the 90 or so pages spent on M. Myriel that opens the novel sets the foundation for rest of the book.

---- What do you think of the contrast between Javert & Valjean?

I may be cheating a little here, since I've read the book once before, but the basis of Les Misérables is the contrast between morality and the law. Valjean represents morality whereas Javert represents the secular justice system that governs society. After meeting the bishop, Valjean lives life by his own code of ethics, which includes having compassion for fellow humans, acts of charity for the less fortunate, sacrificing himself for others, and always doing good things as M. Myriel had done. Javert, on the other hand, follows no moral code but strictly adheres to the laws laid down by man, which maintain order in society. A typical ISTJ, he only wants to uphold his duties as a police officer whereas Valjean is willing to break laws in order to do what he believes is the right thing.

It's obvious where Hugo's opinions lie. In recounting Valjean's history, he questions society's treatment of criminals and the justice system that governs over them. I get the sense that he doesn't think of criminals as evil people but as human beings who did evil due to of specific circumstances, being products of the society they live in. He describes Valjean's punishment as something that turned him from a man to a beast, that his time in prison was more detrimental rather than reforming. I found his comment about the role of society (victim) and criminal being flipped interesting-- the idea that human laws can be perverted by humans' idea of "justice".

Not that Javert is somehow wrong or bad-- I think that would be too simple (and lazy) of an explanation. He is also a product of the society he lives in, and I really like Hugo's description that he embodies "all the evil of good" (p.291). Reading this book a second time, I feel a lot more sympathy for him.

---- On the portrayal of the "miserables"

I really like the book's sympathetic portrayal of people who are generally looked down upon in society-- the poor, criminals, prostitutes, etc. Particularly striking to me was his portrayal of Fantine. I feel like prostitution often gets portrayed in one of two ways: either glorified or glamourized (with often a tragic end) or as something abhorrent. Fantine's story was tragic but rather than focusing on her prostitution, the novel emphasizes how she made so many sacrifices for her child. I think it's also a comment on the nature of relationships at the time-- the callous way Fantine's lover left her to deal with the consequences of their liaison reveals just how unequal things were for men and women. Sadly, I still see the same things happening today.

I think, ultimately, Hugo doesn't believe in inherent evil (I am undecided if he believes in inherent good). Aside from the bishop, all of the (major) characters that have shown up so far are presented as products of the social/economic/political environment they live in, regardless of their social class, of whether they are criminals, prostitutes, or police officers. He sees people for what they are-- human beings, who just happen to live within a certain set of (sometimes unfortunate) circumstances.

You can go here to Tien's post to read other people's thoughts on this same section.

1 comment:

  1. Glad that you're enjoying your re-read!

    It was interesting that Hugo glossed over the not-so-humble beginning of M. Myriel. I guess his beginning wasn't really important but that his conversion to the faith was to such a degree - a complete transformation; from a life of ease to a very humble living. Perhaps he didn't want the readers to be sidetracked by M. Myriel's beginning and rather to focus on the point that kindness from one man may do the world a whole lot of good as we saw later on with Valjean.

    It is sad that women's conditions have not improved despite all the work that's been put into it. I don't suppose it will be fully 'fixed' in this broken world. Society as it is has a long way to go.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, lovely post :)