I’m almost exactly a month late for Victor Hugo’s birthday (the man would have turned 416 on February 26th), but it’s never too late to talk about the man or his work. As far as I know, there is no other author who has managed to motivate a city to completely renovate and curate a crumbling building that had been around for several hundred years, just because he thought architecture was kind of cool.
As far as I know, there is also no other author who would mail someone else a live bat in an envelope. Yes, Victor Hugo was that kind of guy.
Though Lord Byron had a pet bear in college, so who knows, really. Those Romantics were all pretty crazy no matter which side of the Channel they were on.
Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris is probably the single most influential book he ever wrote, purely because we can see the concrete effects it had in the real world. I could natter about that one, but Lindsay Ellis is much more eloquent on the subject than I am.
No, what I’m qualified to talk about is Les Mis.
Fans call it The Brick because, well, you could probably kill a man with a hardback version. I own six different English translations of the book, some in hardback and some in paperback, because I wrote my senior thesis in college about the differences in those translations as well as translating a few passages from original French into English myself. (Does that establish my nerd credentials? I hope so.) My favorite translation is Fahnestock and MacAfee (FMA), but Hapgood is also really good for getting the historical context of the original text, although I do have a few bones to pick about the tutoiement and vouvoiement in that version. (And … that’s a subject for another post.)
The Denny translation is an okay starter if you’re just dipping your toes into the novel for the first time, though the translator does … take some liberties with the original text. A lot of the original punning is lost, and that’s just a crime.
The Isabel Hapgood English translation of Les Mis is actually available online for free, if you’re ever interested, and handily separated into the discrete chapters/sections for ease of browsing. Let it not be said that classic literature is only for rich snobs. Anyone can be a book snob, rich or poor. Equal opportunity snobbery.
I’ve nattered about Les Mis before now, and if you already know what I’m talking about, it’ll mostly make sense. But if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, it’s a bit like car jargon. They go on and on about this and that and the other, specs and doodads and stuff, and meanwhile your eyes glaze over and you wait for the salesman to run out of breath.
So! In the spirit of not blabbering on incomprehensibly! Here is a brief run-down of the main characters in Les Misérables:
He’s the big one. The main character. The point, as they say: the story starts and ends with him. The dude technically breaks into a house to steal some bread to feed his sister’s starving children, so he starts out with a five-year sentence but ends up with a nineteen-year one because he kept trying to break out of prison. He gets redeemed by this cool bishop, fakes his identity, becomes a mayor, fakes his identity again and becomes a foster father, and then one last time panics and decides to run away to England. Basically, he spends his whole time running. He’s quite paranoid — for good reason — and horribly guilty about his crimes, and also horribly emotionally repressed. Also, he’s very jacked. That’s the main identifier. As in, “I would know that guy anywhere, look at those muscles, Jesus.”
The yin to his yang! The night to his day! This guy’s my favorite. He’s a policeman, but not an officer — an important distinction: he has no institutional power. What the book tells you, but what most adaptations ignore, is that he was born in jail to a “bohemian” mother (that’s Hugo code for Romani). Javert becomes a member of the police because he values order and hierarchy above all else, and even though he dedicates his whole life to toeing the line, he’s still miserable anyway, because 19th century France was awful and racist.
Contrary to popular belief (ahem musical ahem) he doesn’t actually go out of his way to look for Valjean except for one bit in Paris that takes up maybe three chapters total in a book that’s 1400 pages long. Instead, mostly they just keep running into each other out of sheer dumb luck. They’re foils and complements and all that other fun literary stuff, and the relationship between them is a LOT (see: tutoiement and vouvoiement post to be tabled for later). But while Valjean is actively running away from him and seeing him around every corner, Javert is like — Javert’s moved on. He’s good. He just wants to get on with his life. Only Valjean won’t let him, because they keep accidentally running into each other. And he would know Valjean anywhere, because look at those muscles, Jesus.
She’s the dead mom! Fantine exists to be Cosette’s mother and then to die, and that’s it. (Cosette is the girl that Valjean adopts: she’s the sad tattered kid on the cover of the book and all the musical merch.)
Fantine is born into a gutter (just like Javert), has a crappy relationship with a dude, gives birth to Cosette, gets dumped by said crappy dude because 19th century France is just as sexist as it is racist, works her butt off as a single mother, leaves Cosette with some innkeepers because she literally can’t find work as a single mother (just like Valjean can’t find work as an ex-convict), becomes a prostitute, and dies. The focus of Fantine’s story is how society essentially murders women for no good reason at all. Ta daa.
Fantine leaves her with the innkeepers, which … is a big old mess. The innkeepers (the Thénardiers) pretend to be nice when Fantine is around, and then when Fantine leaves, they abuse Cosette horribly and extort Fantine for every penny they can. Which is part of why Fantine becomes a prostitute. So Cosette gets horrifically abused by these people for five years — neglect, physical injury, malnourishment, you name it. These are not good people. After Fantine dies (and some other stuff happens) Valjean comes and he has to literally buy Cosette from the Thénardiers.
Like I said. Not good people.
So Valjean takes Cosette to Paris and they live the life of hermits, and Cosette grows up to be a beautiful young woman savvy in the ways of fashion, and is she a mean person? Is she selfish? Nope! After all the horrible things that happened to her, Cosette just learned to be kind. Cosette is, as they say, the Point: she’s the conclusion, the why of the book. Love and Kindness Conquer All.
She’s the Thénardiers’ daughter. When they were kids, Éponine bullied Cosette. After Cosette left, her parents bullied her instead. It’s strongly suggested in the text that after they lost the inn and moved to Paris too, the Thénardiers actually sold their own daughter into prostitution.
So, you know. Really nice people.
Éponine has a ”relationship” with Montparnasse, who’s a serial killer dandy that works with her dad sometimes, but she also really wants to get out of her horrible situation and projects that into a crush on her cute next-door neighbor Marius. Which sounds like it could be part of a rom-com. But since it’s Hugo, ahaha, it really isn’t one of those. Éponine isn’t just a sad teenager, though — she’s angry, with good reason, and she has a huge effect on the end of the story.
Sad goth boy. He’s Éponine’s sort-of-rich next-door neighbor, and he’s in love with Cosette. Who is also in love with him. Love triangle! Yeah, thanks, Hugo.
Marius is basically Victor Hugo’s self-insert character, which means that he means well but he’s also kind of an asshole. (To be fair, most of the characters are at least partially an asshole. Including Fantine, excluding Cosette.) Where the musical goes “love at first sight,” the book goes “pining and slight stalking from afar for over a year.” Also, Marius may be a sad goth boy, but on the barricade he also threatens to blow everyone up, so the boy has hidden badassery under the second-hand embarrassment. (Who am I kidding: he’s the self-insert character, of course he has hidden badassery.)
ENJOLRAS AND LES AMIS DE GOBBLEDEGOOK
I’m just kidding. They’re called the Friends of the ABC, which in French is a pun, because “l’abc” sounds like “l’abaissé,” which means “the oppressed.” Which tells you most of what you need to know about them: they’re a political group chock-full of nerds.
There’s nine of them altogether, one of which is That One Guy who hangs onto the edge of the friend group and gets drunk all the time and makes too many bad jokes. His name is Grantaire and in the musical he’s usually wearing green for, I don’t know, symbolism reasons; in the book, he wears a bright red “Robespierre” waistcoat to impress the leader.
The leader is named Enjolras (say it with me: Awn-zhol-rawss) and he’s blond and pretty and he Believes Passionately In The Cause. There’s a part in the book, between skirmishes on the barricade no less, where they’re all talking about their girlfriends and somebody says “ah but he doesn’t have a girlfriend!” and Enjolras says “I absolutely have a girlfriend, her name is France.” Hugo goes out of his way at least three separate times to make sure we know that Enjolras is blond and pretty. It’s an important plot point. Kind of like Fantine being blonde and pretty. (And also dead before her time. Parallels, anybody?)
Marius is friends with one of these guys, and he attends one of their meetings but then when they insult him for being a Napoleon fanboy, he doesn’t talk to any of them again until four years later when the barricades go up in 1832.
And that, of course, is when everything goes to hell.