where the writers are
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – Part Two: Cosette
Poor Cosette

Just when you think Hugo will smother you with the domestic and social travails of post-revolutionary France, he surprises. In this opening to Part Two, he gives us a military historian’s depiction of the Battle of Waterloo. Julie Rose’s copious notes tell us that Hugo visited the site of the battle in 1861, some forty-six years after one of Europe’s most pivotal war episodes. In fact, the first page or two of Part Two have Hugo as a character visiting the battle site. It’s fascinating to read his narration of the battle’s carnage, alongside his description of the battlefield more than four decades later. Perhaps the most poignant tale (and I won’t dwell on the battle’s details – it’s too good a read for me to paraphrase) is one of a drinking well poisoned by dead bodies thrown into it, still unusable in Hugo’s time.

But what’s Hugo’s reason for this digression? Partly to depict the aftershocks of the French Revolution on both rich and poor. But his primary strategy here is to introduce to us an ongoing lie in the story: Thénardier saving the life of Baron Pontmercy, the grandfather of Marius, the last major character to be introduced.

Then Hugo gives us more backstory on Valjean – his capture after his prison ship escape and his sentence to more years on the slave galley, Orion.

Following this, we return to M. Madeline and his promise to Fantine to look after her daughter, Cosette. This too is a promise Madeline aka Valjean takes to heart.

Hugo next allows us to peer at length into the family life of the Thénardiers, the sly way Thénardier manipulated people and events, the sullen rapacity of his wife, their bratty kids and, finally, Cosette’s sad state in her role as a child kept for money. The device Hugo sets between Cosette and the Thénardier girls is a ragged doll. Cosette yearns for the doll, but she’s forbidden to even touch it. Valjean is on the lam again, and he visits the Thénardier inn anonymously. Noting Cosette’s attraction to the girls’ ragged doll, he buys her an expensive new one, then walks off with Cosette. Thénardier, of course, doesn’t want to lose the cash cow that Cosette represents to the inn, and he pursues the old man and young girl, but Valjean threatens him and he slinks back home.

The two take refuge in a Paris slum at the Old Gorbeau House, but even this place threatens our pair – now Javert is nosing about.

Hugo next treats us to another digression, one with ample application to the story: the streets of Paris. His intent here is to show us that the Paris of 1927 is a surprisingly intimate place, that one could always be found there, that on the streets where Valjean encounters Javert, there’s little hope of a wanted man escaping.

But now Valjean becomes superhero, using his formidable strength to scale a wall with Cosette under his arm, both dropping to safety inside a convent.

The convent is run by the Bernadine nuns of the Perpetual Adoration. Once again a digression, this one perhaps overlong and even unnecessary: on life in the monastic orders. Life in this convent is in Hugo’s depiction debasing, hypocritical, reactionary. Hugo’s publisher asked him to delete this section of the book, but he refused. Predictably, it scandalized France with its acerbic and negative views of monastic life. But I don’t think Hugo was simply being stubborn in insisting that this section remain. He wanted it there, I think, for one simple reason. In gaining refuge here from Javert – a place even the police weren’t allowed to enter, Valjean gained another asset - the name of the convent’s gardener Fauchelevent. The gardener becomes a friend to both Valjean and Cosette, and Fauchelevent risks his own well-being in smuggling the pair out of the convent when the proper time comes. By this stage of the novel, Hugo has pulled us deep into his well-crafted plot. Virtually all his significant characters have been introduced, we know the good ones from the bad, and we have a sense of where the story is going. The genius of Hugo’s panorama remains, despite such crafty plotting. He continues to give us a detailed view of France, Paris, and life during an era of European turmoil. I hope it hasn’t escaped your attention that Valjean’s identity is murky at best. Not that he’s having some sort of identity meltdown, you understand. His identity problem seems to come from at least three different but necessary frames of reference: • He’s a European peasant at a time in which names meant something only with regard to the rich, the famous, or the otherwise notable. Even Hugo had trouble making this character’s name relevant. (He variously chose Jean Tréjean, Jean Veryjean, etc.) Apparently he toyed with these several names, lighting on Valjean simply (a la translator Julie Rose) as a bastardization of voilà Jean, something like Behold Jean, or perhaps Behold the man.

• When Valjean takes his first alias, Madeleine, there are intimations that the man is meant to take a new temper as a doer of good deeds, a well-off but kind, benevolent man. • Under the name Fauchelevent, which we’ll note later, Valjean assumed the role of a humble but proper old man, a man who wished to become unnoticed, despite his continuing penchant for giving to the poor. While this no doubt made perfect sense to the French of Hugo’s time, it takes on another texture of us moderns and post-moderns. We see here a personality continually in flux - due to external conditions affecting his life, with names to match. We’ll also see this trend with some of Paris’ underclass in chapters to come. Does this make Hugo the first post-modern writer? You decide. In Part Three, we turn our attention again to the poor, underworld life of Paris. And we'll finally meet Marius.