Sunday, January 06, 2013

Miserables reflections

With all the hype surrounding the new film of the musical version of Les Miserables (I have seen neither) I thought it was about time to read the book over the holiday period.  It was a fine choice to make.  Les Miserables is a vast, compelling novel, contrived in places, relying on the strings of coincidence common to the 19th Century epic novel, which keep the main protagonists linked together throughout many years. It uses gripping, dramatic narrative and then gives the reader time to breathe by interjecting long sections of reflection on everything from the Battle of Waterloo to the use of slang, before the action begins again. Much of what follows will not make sense unless you are familiar with the work, but I wanted to pick out something that struck me about the book. I saw Hugo writing not simply as a radical liberal proponent of social justice, nor as a poetic celebrant of the progress initiated by the French Revolution, but as an ironist. Let me explain.

After I finished the book I thought of the main female character, Cosette, and couldn't help but think, "what a bubble-headed wuss." Sweet and loving - yes. But a feminist icon? No way. In one sense it was part of the success of her rescue from the exploitation and abuse of her early years, spent farmed out to the 'care' of the dreadful Thénardiers, that she had the prospect of an ordinary, cosy bourgeois existence married to Marius. Being simply nice and happy is a real achievement after that start in life, a testament to the love and protection given her by Jean Valjean. The only thing is that she is not the only woman who loved Marius. He had a choice that he never considered, Éponine.

Éponine was one of the Thénardier daughters. She had become a tough street kid (Hugo's best writing is about these abandoned children, they are the most vivid and real of his characters), cunning, ruthless and hard.  But that was tempered by a touch of selflessness and immense courage. She gives her life on the revolutionary barricade to save Marius, taking a bullet aimed at him, even if it was her subterfuge that led him into danger.

Éponine didn't stand a chance. Marius was already infatuated with Cosette and he was only a paper rebel. He would always return to bourgeois respectability and reconcile with his royalist family. This is what Cosette represented, an ideal bourgeois wife. Feminine, virginal, conventional and thoroughly girly. And so Hugo has Marius embracing respectability by marrying unknowingly the illegitimate daughter of a dead prostitute. And that is irony.

You find it too in the genuinely evil Mr Thénardier. The irony here is that he is pretty useless at villainy. His incompetence means that he keeps rescuing people for the worst reason and with the worst motives. He intends to betray them, but ends up saving them. The same applies to the police inspector Javert, often seen as another villain. Instead, he is an incorruptible servant of justice. His problem is that he is unthinking and sees no distinction between law, retribution and justice. The moment he sees that the application of law can be an act of injustice, his life falls apart.

If there is one theme that animates the novel it is the crime of the abuse and abandonment of children, made worse by a world that once it has condemned never forgives. Thus, Cosette is still a triumphant character, she has been redeemed and her redeemer is an ex-convict, devoted to virtue, who can never escape his past. The novel is not an exercise in moral relativism; good and evil exist. But it does argue against social convention and that you can find both in the least likely places. For example, the ironist Hugo shows that Thénardier's evil intent can result in unintended good, whilst Javert's virtue can lead to the horrors visited on a galley slave for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread when starving and penniless.

There are many other threads and devices running through this multi-layered book. Irony is only one of the tools that Hugo used to affirm the human value of the lowest without romanticising their vices, expose the callousness of class and to forcefully show that good can only thrive in a good society. Les Miserables is one of those overtly political novels that is subversive in the widest, and best, sense of the word.

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