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2019 Group Reads - Archives > Les Miserables - Week 05 (09/01 - 09/07)

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message 1: by Gem , Moderator (new)

Gem  | 682 comments Mod
This week, in addition to following the characters of the story we also have a history lesson.

What did you think about Fantine's short and terrible life? Despite Fantine's years-long effort to make a life for herself and her child she seems faced with so many people and circumstances that contribute to her destruction. Fantine seems to be an example of poverty and bad treatment of the poor, being viewed as a thing rather than a person. Any thoughts about how this played out with regards to Fantine's life?

Sister Simplice lied, twice to Javert. The reason he believed her was because she, "who in all her life had never told a lie. I found myself comparing this to the struggle we saw Monsieur Madeleine going through when he had to decide whether or not to reveal his true identity. It could be said that the morality of the situations were completely different but they both deal with a spiritual issue. What does it say about Siter Simplice that she lied without hesitation? Did she do the wrong thing for the right reason? Was the protection of Monsieur Madeleine/Jean Valjean the right thing to do, in your eyes? Or should she have given him up to Javert?

And Waterloo... For some critics, this description of the Battle of Waterloo is simply a typical example of nineteenth-century long-windedness. Do you agree with this assessment or do you see a reason Hugo might have included 45 pages (my edition's page count) to recount the what happened at Waterloo?


message 2: by Piyangie (new)

Piyangie | 135 comments I see Sister Simplice's lie as God's justice to Valjean. True he turned out to be a a hardened unfeeling man with his prison experience. But with the Bishop's influence he made a great man out of himself. He uplifted a poor village and was a saviour to the poor. It was not God's will that a penitent man who reformed himself to be punished in such an unjust manner. I believe that through this incident Hugo was drawing at to show that although human laws can be unjust, divine law is always just.


message 3: by Piyangie (new)

Piyangie | 135 comments Fantine's life depicts the plight of women who are unprotected and who had to find their way in life on their own. Often these women become victims of many illicit affairs. This results in they becoming "things" to be possessed, used and then discarded. They will be categorized as "fallen women". When they are wronged by men, they are also wronged by society making it impossible for them to carry on their lives. It is the sad truth of women like Fantine.


message 4: by Ami (last edited Sep 01, 2019 02:54PM) (new)

Ami | 153 comments Book 8
Goodness, this is truly such a lush beginning to the novel-At the end of every book I am left wanting more. I’m so glad to not have read it in a serialized disbursement; by the way, was it originally published serialized?

If it’s not JVj’s morality we question, now Hugo has also used a similar brush stroke on Sister Simplice. For a woman of God who is known for her pious integrity to have told not only one lie, but two, Hugo does an interesting balancing act with these two characters shown in a similar light. The weight of the narrative referencing Sister Simplice’s choice read heavier to me than it did when JVj was telling Fantine about Cossette. I was drawn to how much more difficult it must have been to have told these lies for Sister Simplice, having dedicated her life in obedience to God, in comparison to JVj who only recently had allowed God back into his life.

I know we discussed the impetus of the charges against Champmathieu/JVj in the previous thread; but even now, after reading about the prosecuting attorney’s reasoning for still coming after JVj when there was no crime, it baffles me. I am realizing in this theme of mercy vs justice that Hugo wants to give us a more comprehensive point of view; the idea of each is not singular in nature, but of varying notions as seen through each of the characters. For example, Javert believes the pursuit of justice is following the law; yet, the prosecuting attorney who should be using the law to pursue justice clearly doesn’t. The court found that there was no crime, yet the attorney still believed somebody should be convicted. While I take issue with both Javert and the Attorny, at least Javert has reason behind his obsession for JVj (convoluted and cruel as it is), the Attorney simply wants to put somebody behind bars.

I wonder at this point, if Hugo will give JVj the same treatment as he gave Fantine, getting caught in the undertow of a wave of terrible circumstances despite being a strong swimmer. I can’t help but feel I’m in store for an epic tragedy. He's escaped from jail effortlessly and Cossette would appear to be in his sights, but now, he is a fugitive...what kind of life will this be for him, for them? It looks like things are going to get pretty exciting, folks!

After JVj loosens himself away from the grip of Javert, JVj goes to another bed in the room to pull apart an iron bar from a headboard…why does he do this, was this what he used to pry himself out of the window in jail? Javert watched him do this, and I think was once again surprised by JVj’s sheer strength-wouldn’t they have found an iron bar on JVj? I understand JVj to be clever and resourceful, but an iron rod... did he do something else with it that I missed?


message 5: by Ami (new)

Ami | 153 comments Piyangie wrote: "I see Sister Simplice's lie as God's justice to Valjean. True he turned out to be a a hardened unfeeling man with his prison experience. But with the Bishop's influence he made a great man out of h..."

I see Sister Simplice's lie as God's justice to Valjean
What is this one justice of God's in the big spectrum of JVj/Madeleine's life when those for whom he raised up turned their backs on him: Three or four persons alone in the whole city remained faithful to his memory (257, Wilbour). The majority of the people had turned on him within seconds, without logic or adequate reasoning, besides their own personal feelings about the man being "too good to be true." I guess as a good Christian, he should be thankful for God to grace him with that one asset, to have the Sister lie for him, when the rest of his life falling apart at the seams.

It was not God's will that a penitent man who reformed himself to be punished in such an unjust manner.
What would you call, after doing good for oneself and society, to be spat upon by the very people to whom you showed a helping hand; or, to be continually pulled back into a past life of criminality , godless to boot, to have a cruel wolf biting at your heels at every turn? Is this not the plight of JVj, his destiny, be it dictated by God or man; in either case, he is punished. At least this is how it appears to me.

What was God's reasoning behind having his son, Jesus, endure the cruelty of man before he died for their sins? I'm not clear on those details, you may be? I'm wondering if there exists a parallel here between the two, Jesus and JVj.


message 6: by Ami (last edited Sep 01, 2019 03:31PM) (new)

Ami | 153 comments Piyangie wrote: "Fantine's life depicts the plight of women who are unprotected and who had to find their way in life on their own. Often these women become victims of many illicit affairs. This results in they bec..."

What did you think about her burial? I don't know which translation you are reading, but mine encapsulated exactly what you have said. Hugo wrote:
And so Fantine was buried in the common grave fo the cemetery, which is for everybody and for all, and which the poor are lost. Happily, God knows where to find the soul. Fantine was laid away int he darkness with bodies which had no name: 'she suffered the promiscuity of dust.' She was thrown into the public pit. Her tomb was like her bed (261, Wilbour).
There was no fanfare associated with her burial, like there was with her earlier life. In the end, her deathbed was nameless and forgotten much like she...poor, downtrodden and pitiful. The use of the word promiscuity gave me pause, as I thought it was Hugo reminding the reader that even in death she was remembered for nothing else but this aspect of her life...if remembered at all. If this is the case, then there's a similarity to JVj/Madeleine, in that regardless of the good they did, at the crux of their being they were relegated to their base counterpart.


message 7: by Linda (new)

Linda | 207 comments Sister Simplice along with the Bishop are examples of rare people, motivated by religious goodness, to look and act beyond the black and white, the strict interpretation of the law which Javert exemplifies. They are not representative of the Christian religious class, as Hugo made clear in his sections about the Bishop, but outliers of true morality.

It is society which is the culprit for both JVJ and Fantine. Society’s values which ultimately destroy Fantine in life and death. Society’s fickleness which leads to abandoning a man who previously was respected and adored. The same society which idolized and abandoned political leaders through the turmoil of the Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire, the Restoration and on.


message 8: by Robin P, Moderator (last edited Sep 03, 2019 07:14AM) (new)

Robin P | 2028 comments Mod
Good point. Like Sister Sulpice, the bishop also lied to the police in saying he gave the silver to JVJ.

I wasn't surprised at all that the prosecutor wanted to go ahead and convict Champmathieu despite all JVJ's testimony. It is very common for a suspect to be named and then police will do everything to convict him regardless of facts. If you read the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, there are many examples of people condemned despite alibis, eyewitnesses, etc. just because it was easy and they were poor and had little or no legal help. Champmathieu looked and acted like someone who would steal apples or a coin, while the mayor in his current guise didn't.


message 9: by Robin P, Moderator (new)

Robin P | 2028 comments Mod
There is also a long description of the battle of Waterloo in War and Peace. It could be interesting to compare them, but I remember both times being annoyed at the long digressions. But reading them as a teenager, it never dawned on me that I could skip a section.


message 10: by Rafael (new)

Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 270 comments Gem wrote: "This week, in addition to following the characters of the story we also have a history lesson.

What did you think about Fantine's short and terrible life? Despite Fantine's years-long effort to ma..."


I suppose that Sister Simplice believed that God would forgive a lie told intended for a good reason. The act of saving a good man. It's similar to a interview that I watched by a Jewish Concentration Camp survivor. He fled from it and hid in a farm, there he killed and ate a pig. The interviewer asked him if he thought that God would forgive him for this sin and he believed so. When balanced the two actions, to save your life and the lifes of others, would be more important than eat a non-kosher food.


message 11: by Rafael (new)

Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 270 comments I had not finish this section yet, but I liked the historical context of Waterloo. But I did not understand a statement. I don't have my edition here, but it's said that a certain woman was 3 when the battle happen and now the has grey hair. The dates are confusing or is just a way to say that she aged prematurely?


message 12: by Gem , Moderator (new)

Gem  | 682 comments Mod
Rafael wrote: "I had not finish this section yet, but I liked the historical context of Waterloo. But I did not understand a statement. I don't have my edition here, but it's said that a certain woman was 3 when ..."

I don't have my edition with me, but I'll look it up when I get home tonight.


message 13: by Linda (new)

Linda | 207 comments The Waterloo section was certainly long, but several important ideas that it can convey stand out for me. First is the horror of war, another type of man’s inhumanity to man on a more global level as opposed to the individual persecution of Fantine or JVJ. The thousands of nameless soldiers who sacrificed their lives in horrific conditions were another type of “miserable”. Necessary pawns for countries and their leaders in their battle for power. Hugo again submerses the reader into turmoil, this time the turmoil of war rather than the turmoil of JVJ’s psychological state of mind.
The seemingly random details- the weather, an unseen sunken road, the answer of a guide- all come together to impact the battle as much if not more than the strategies of Napoleon or Wellington. Also, Hugo’s repeated assertion that Napoleon’s defeat was destined. His defeat was required for the future of Europe to proceed. This intercession of divine destiny seems different to me from the individual responsibility Hugo has stressed for Myriel, Fantine and JVJ to achieve a moral goodness. Does that infer there is no moral goodness involved in battle victory or victory of one country over another?
I also wonder how the contemporary 19th century reader, many of whom lived through these events and their aftermath, reacted to this section. They, of course, were Hugo’s audience.


message 14: by JJ (new)

JJ | 45 comments I liked the description of Javert when Fantine saw him in the room, ready to arrest JVJ. I believe it was in chapter 3 of book eight "Javert satisfied". Javert became a monster seeking only one thing on which his gaze was cast. In addition, I liked the line "Tyranny follows the tyrant. Woe to the man who leaves behind a shadow that bears his form." This was when he was talking about Waterloo and Napoleon. I was not interested in the large history section of the reading this week, partly because of time. I did, however, appreciate it and now I know more about the historical significance. battle of Waterloo.


message 15: by Piyangie (new)

Piyangie | 135 comments I cannot yet understand Hugo's intention of dedicating a entire book on the battle of Waterloo. Nevertheless, those 45 pages of history interested me. Last May I visited Waterloo and its museum and had a distance view of the battleground. That made this part particularly interesting. I learned many things that I was unclear of.


message 16: by Rafael (new)

Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 270 comments Gem wrote: "Rafael wrote: "I had not finish this section yet, but I liked the historical context of Waterloo. But I did not understand a statement. I don't have my edition here, but it's said that a certain wo..."

Thank you, Gem. I appreciate it.


message 17: by Rafael (new)

Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 270 comments When we finish the Book I we understand why Hugo told the story of Waterloo. But I think that Linda's comment states the prime reason for the existence of this section.


message 18: by Ami (last edited Sep 04, 2019 03:28PM) (new)

Ami | 153 comments Book 1, Cossette

I would like to add to Linda's thoughtful comment in ms 7 & 13 regarding Waterloo...

Has our narrator made himself a part of the narrative, a 3rd-party observer and teller of this story? Hugo has created an air of further mystery by inserting the narrator in such a manner keeping in mind how he left the reader at the end of Fantine. He’s evasive about the identity of this man who has come to Hougomont in Chapter 1: What You Meet in Coming to Nivelles. Although considering the precedence set for JVj in Fantine and his chameleon-like proclivities that would remain steadfast in the rest of our reading (as stated in a discussion from a previous thread), the reader may be able to recognize who it could possibly be. Similar to Chapter 2: Shrewdness of Master Scaufflaire in Fantine: Book 7 where, JVj was in the process of purchasing transportation to wherever it was he attempting to go, Hugo there also was indirect in conveying the destination even though the reader knew he would be traveling to Arras. I always enjoy the 3rd-person POV as it enables the background to be read as a character of its own, or rather, a means to emphasize the importance of Waterloo to the story as well as its ties to French history.

Yes, the Waterloo story is long, but so was the story about French society when Hugo introduced us to Felix and Fantine. It was never about the greater society, it was about a microcosm within that society, the minuscule having far reaching influence over the lives of these characters; and, that’s exactly what this Waterloo section is about as well, a battle in history and its damaging residual effects on present day Hougomont decades later, both physically to the land and to the people of France .


message 19: by Ami (new)

Ami | 153 comments Robin wrote: "Good point. Like Sister Sulpice, the bishop also lied to the police in saying he gave the silver to JVJ.

I wasn't surprised at all that the prosecutor wanted to go ahead and convict Champmathieu ..."


Like Sister Sulpice, the bishop also lied to the police in saying he gave the silver to JVJ.
I totally forgot about this. Thank you for reminding me, as the ties that bind these characters, the parallels between them allows for a better understanding of these events and their affect on all considered.


message 20: by Gem , Moderator (new)

Gem  | 682 comments Mod
Rafael wrote: "it's said that a certain woman was 3 when the battle happen and now the has grey hair. The dates are confusing or is just a way to say that she aged prematurely?"

Rafael, the battle of Waterloo took place in 1851. The woman was recounting her story in 1861, so it was 46 years later.


message 21: by Robin P, Moderator (new)

Robin P | 2028 comments Mod
You mean 1815, not 1851, but your math is right.


message 22: by Rafael (new)

Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 270 comments Gem wrote: "Rafael wrote: "it's said that a certain woman was 3 when the battle happen and now the has grey hair. The dates are confusing or is just a way to say that she aged prematurely?"

Rafael, the battle..."


Oh, thanks! It's said the year and I misread it ?


message 23: by Gem , Moderator (last edited Sep 05, 2019 01:05PM) (new)

Gem  | 682 comments Mod
Rafael wrote: "It's said the year and I misread it ?"

You had to puzzle it together.

First in Book One, Chapter I of Cossette, in the first sentence states it states "in the year 1861" when the traveller (the author) was walking from Nivelles in the direction of La Hulpe.

Next in Chapter II the 13th paragraph says: The last person to draw water from this well was Guillaume Van Kylsom, a peasant who lived in Hougomont, where he worked as a gardener. His family fled on 18 June 1815, to take refuge in the woods. For several days and nights the forest around the Abbey of Villiers harboured the scattered populace. Traces of their makeshift encampments, such as half-burned tree-trunks, are still to be found amid the thickets.

Then six paragraphs later is what you referenced: The Gardner Van Kylsom, long since dead, was the grandfather of the family now living in the house. A grey-haired woman tells you: "I was there. I was three years old. My sister, who was older, was frightened and she was crying. We were taken into the woods. I was in my mother's arms. We listened with our ears to the ground and I imitated the cannon-fire - boom, boom, boom.

If I've got this correct, the woman was talking to the traveller in 1861 about the events of 1815. The length of time between those two events is 46 years. So her age at the time of Waterloo was 3 plus the difference between the years 46, the "old woman" is 49... old enough to have grey hair.


message 24: by Gem , Moderator (new)

Gem  | 682 comments Mod
Robin wrote: "You mean 1815, not 1851, but your math is right."

Yes, dyslexia strikes again!


message 25: by Robin P, Moderator (new)

Robin P | 2028 comments Mod
49 was pretty old then.


message 26: by Rafael (new)

Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 270 comments Gem wrote: "Rafael wrote: "It's said the year and I misread it ?"

You had to puzzle it together.

First in Book One, Chapter I of Cossette, in the first sentence states it states "in the year 1861" when th..."


Wow! Thank you for all this effort to answer my doubt. I reallu appreciate it.


message 27: by Rafael (new)

Rafael da Silva (morfindel) | 270 comments Robin wrote: "49 was pretty old then."

Specially for a peasant with all the hard work.


message 28: by Gem , Moderator (new)

Gem  | 682 comments Mod
Rafael wrote: "Gem wrote: "Rafael wrote: "It's said the year and I misread it ?"

You had to puzzle it together.

First in Book One, Chapter I of Cossette, in the first sentence states it states "in the year 186..."


No worries, I was happy to do it.


message 29: by Trev (new)

Trev | 267 comments Robin wrote: "There is also a long description of the battle of Waterloo in War and Peace. It could be interesting to compare them, but I remember both times being annoyed at the long digressions. But reading th..."

Victor Hugo's description of the battle shows an obvious and understandable bias (and some republican bitterness) about how the battle was lost. There was only slight praise for Wellington and the tactics of the European forces. Tolstoy seems much more even handed in War and Peace. I was waiting for a comparable reference to the carnage during the revolution of 1789-1794 but that never materialised.


message 30: by Ami (last edited Sep 08, 2019 12:54PM) (new)

Ami | 153 comments Trev wrote: "Robin wrote: "There is also a long description of the battle of Waterloo in War and Peace. It could be interesting to compare them, but I remember both times being annoyed at the long digressions. ..."

I don't mean to intercept here, Trev, I just happened to be on when I saw the little red notification pop up.

Hugo doesn't delve much further into the French Revolution because the start of his story and the battle of Waterloo occur at the same time, in 1815. The course of the story itself moves along the path of carnage in the aftermath of Waterloo. The Revolution has been mentioned briefly so far to better acquaint the reader as to the importance of it seen from the eyes of a revolutionary, G-, in comparison to the Bishop's own views. Other than that, it's been about Waterloo since the beginning, details of battle...remember that sign described in great detail hanging over the Thérnardiers' inn, or that rusting gun-carriage/cannon partially embedded into the Earth. Even Hugo asks, Why was that fore-carriage of a truck in that place in the street? It wasn't there for any purpose at all except as a hindrance to those passing by it, enhancing the importance of the sign but also serving as a symbol of a future passed, I believe. I'm not implying the carriage is from the Battle of Waterloo as we're many miles away outside of Paris in Montfermeil, I am saying it serves as a reminder to the battle in conjunction to their sign. While there is no great detail of the Grande Revolution, Hugo does bring to light how deeply engrained its legacy remains within society.


message 31: by Trev (new)

Trev | 267 comments Ami wrote: "Trev wrote: "Robin wrote: "There is also a long description of the battle of Waterloo in War and Peace. It could be interesting to compare them, but I remember both times being annoyed at the long ..."

The contrast for me was that Victor Hugo seemed to imply (through G) that the thousands of innocents killed during the revolution was regrettable but necessary, yet his take on the carnage of the battle was something rather different. I think this shows at least a tinge of hypocrisy but it is something I would expect from an author with republican leanings.


message 32: by Robin P, Moderator (new)

Robin P | 2028 comments Mod
The one item relevant for the story is that Thenardier didn't save the life of an officer, as he bragged, and illustrated on his inn sign. Instead he stole from him. Maybe that's how he got the money to open the inn in the first place.


message 33: by Ami (new)

Ami | 153 comments Robin wrote: "The one item relevant for the story is that Thenardier didn't save the life of an officer, as he bragged, and illustrated on his inn sign. Instead he stole from him. Maybe that's how he got the mon..."

Where in the reading was this, would you mind posting a page to reference? I must have overlooked it 😬


message 34: by Ami (last edited Sep 09, 2019 07:26AM) (new)

Ami | 153 comments Trev wrote: "Ami wrote: "Trev wrote: "Robin wrote: "There is also a long description of the battle of Waterloo in War and Peace. It could be interesting to compare them, but I remember both times being annoyed ..."

Trev, I quite possibly am missing something here, as to the why, but I noticed the varying POV as well. From what I know of Tolstoy and Hugo, they were both known to switch back and forth between ideals in their writing, if I'm not mistaken? My take on the effects of the legacy in each event boils down to Hugo’s working through the ideologies within the factions of his own party and his own evolving/rebuilding of himself over the course of his life. What do you think is his take on the carnage left by Waterloo?

I think this shows at least a tinge of hypocrisy but it is something I would expect from an author with republican leanings.
The hypocrisy, the tinge of it, surfaces its head no matter what the author's political bent. It happens in politics when people start becoming fanatics/radical, losing site of the original issue at hand; although, I don't think this was Hugo's intention, to be hypocritical.


message 35: by Trev (new)

Trev | 267 comments Ami wrote: "Trev wrote: "Ami wrote: "Trev wrote: "Robin wrote: "There is also a long description of the battle of Waterloo in War and Peace. It could be interesting to compare them, but I remember both times b..."

My take on the hypocrisy was that Hugo seemed to be condoning the bloodshed of the revolution as unfortunate but necessary yet I felt he was emphasising the numbers who were killed (on both sides) in the battle as if their deaths were futile.

He did change his political views as he grew older but I feel sure he was a firm republican by the time of writing Les Mis.' I don't accept the 'destiny' bit re Napoleon's defeat. Sounds like republican sour grapes to me. If he had emphasised the arrogance of Napoleon a little bit more he might have got nearer to the truth.

A writer's political leanings will always find a way to to the surface in some shape or form, but the number of pages devoted to the battle of Waterloo by Hugo turns those chapters into an historical paper rather than an extract from a novel. Tolstoy did the same, but he wouldn't acknowledge War and Peace as a novel. He said he considered it to be more a philosophical discourse.


message 36: by Robin P, Moderator (new)

Robin P | 2028 comments Mod
Ami wrote: "Robin wrote: "The one item relevant for the story is that Thenardier didn't save the life of an officer, as he bragged, and illustrated on his inn sign. Instead he stole from him. Maybe that's how ..."

I have it as an ebook so the page won't help but it is at the very end of the chapter about The Battlefield at Night, Chapter 19 in my edition of Book 1 of Cosette. Pontmercy thinks that Thenardier saved him. That will be important later in the story.


message 37: by Ami (last edited Sep 09, 2019 12:32PM) (new)

Ami | 153 comments Robin wrote: "Ami wrote: "Robin wrote: "The one item relevant for the story is that Thenardier didn't save the life of an officer, as he bragged, and illustrated on his inn sign. Instead he stole from him. Maybe..."

That's fine, thank you, I haven't gotten that far. You've given me plenty to head in that direction. I'll find it!


message 38: by Linda (new)

Linda | 207 comments On the recommendation of an English professor from whom I take adult education literature courses, I purchased The Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables by David Bellos.

I read his comments on the importance of Waterloo for the novel and found them to be very illuminating. For Hugo, Waterloo was central to an understanding of the events of the 19th century. While the debate about why the French suffered a humiliating defeat began at once and never ended and Hugo points out various reasons for the loss, including divine intervention, the importance is that with the loss France was occupied by the allied monarchies of Britain, Russia and Germany. While it put a temporary end to the ideals of the Revolution and a reinstatement of more feudal ways, the occupying soldiers came into contact with and were influenced by the French ideals of progress, democracy and human rights. This led to uprisings throughout Europe, including the 1830 French uprising against the Bourbons.

Hugo also believes that the individual choices of men and women are what make history and that the French General Cambronne who utters that rude word to the English exemplifies not giving in and standing one’s ground for one’s beliefs despite all odds.

Bellos says that omitting the Waterloo section or relegating it to another place in the narrative, such as the appendix, is to miss the importance of the event in historical, political and personal terms for the novel.


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