Bonjour mes amis et bienvenue à la quatrième semaine de #MiserablesMay! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, long story short: I decided reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the space of the month of May would be a good idea. (I was wrong.) If you’re curious about the intended weekly schedule and organisation of this, be sure to check out my announcement post or the post of my co-host Liz.
Recap of Volume Four: Saint-Denis
When we left Les Misérables at the end of the volume three, the Jondrettes aka Thénardiers’ little shady gang had been caught by Javert and, in the ensuing confusion, the would-be victim of their trick had himself escaped by jumping out of the window and we also saw Gavroche, their gamin child, return to the house to find his family gone.
Volume four opens with a book called ‘A few pages of history’ – at this point of the novel, any reader might treat the title with some small amount of skepticism and not unfairly so. Victor Hugo spends some time discussing the particular social, political, and cultural climate of the historical period in question, between 1831 and 1832, particularly with regards to revolutions. For anyone curious about discontent surrounding the production of wealth and its distribution of the time (or any time, to be honest) this is a fascinating polemic… it just happens to be shoved in the middle of a fiction book so it’s a bit disconcerting if you’re not used to it. Thankfully, almost 900 pages in, by this point we’re certainly used to the author going off on a not-unrelated tangent.
From this, Victor Hugo recentres the story as he turns his attention to the groups of potentially revolutionary citizens and societies scattered throughout Parisian meeting places such as Cafe Musain which hosts the Friends of the ABC we met last volume. Whilst Enjolras is dispatching off certain members of the group (probably ill-advisedly so when it comes to Grantaire) to talk to sympathetic labourers and so forth about their discontents, Marius meanwhile has found himself needing to leave the apartment and sleep on Courfeyrac’s floor instead. It’s during this time that, although he’s not doing too well money-wise himself, he still feels the need to send (imprisoned) Thénardier five francs, because he feels some sense of duty or honour I suppose. He’s also moping around because he hasn’t seen ‘the Lark’ in aaages and can’t find her again. Funnily enough though, someone has also been looking for him: Eponine. When Eponine finds him again she tells him she knows where the young girl and her father are living and though Marius is overjoyed he also vehemently makes her promise she won’t tell her father their address. Marius is learning not to trust criminals, it seems… but he’s still sending one money so, you know, he hasn’t completely learnt yet and he is just much too precious for this world.
Victor Hugo spends some time retrospectively telling us that Valjean decided to leave the convent at Picpus for X, Y, and Z reason but, to be honest, I don’t really care why so I mostly glazed over this part… oops? Basically, they left it and moved to the house on Rue Plumet, where Cosette sleeps in the nice bedroom and house and Valjean sleeps in the shed for no real reason. (Not kidding.) One very important thing happens: Cosette realises she’s pretty and starts caring about wearing pretty things. She has noticed Marius’ admiring glance and keeps going back to Jardin du Luxembourg in hopes of seeing him from afar. When she doesn’t she becomes a bit despairing and gloomier and stops going out for walks with Valjean as much.
However, when in the gardens of Rue Plumet she thinks she spies someone watching her. She gets spooked and Valjean ends up camping outside one night to allay her fears that there’s someone trying to get into the gardens/house. Of course, even though the coast is deemed clear, Cosette goes to the bench she usually sits at in the garden and finds there a note written by someone declaring their ardent love for her. (Obviously, we’ve all been there.) So the two lovers meet by moonlight when Valjean is out of the house and they sit together and talk of love and *gasp* they kiss once. But, hold up, you haven’t heard the juicy stuff: their hands even touch, once, at one point and Marius’ knee brushes against Cosette’s – scandal of scandals! (Believe me, this is much better than how they render it in the musical, at least thi sway my eardrums aren’t hurt by their duet.)
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (and by ranch I mean the streets of Paris), Gavroche is hanging about and discovers a pair of lost looking young boys who can’t find their parents. Because nothing in this book is coincidence, these two kids turn out to be his younger brothers, but he doesn’t know this. He makes sure they get food with him and lets them come back to his place for a sleepover – his place being an enormous Elephant, obviously. He pops out in the middle of the night though for a not-at-all suspicious nighttime jaunt with Montparnasse. We later find out that this is just a light spot of jailbreaking. (And, hey, if you like a really specific account of how someone who break out of jail by clambering over various architectural features then you’re in for a treat.)
Because we can’t having a thrilling jailbreak without leavening it with a more contemplative section, Hugo then proceeds to discuss argot, ‘the nation and the idiom, it is robbery under its two aspects: people and language’. Basically, it’s a type of slang and, in this story’s case, it’s usually that of the underclasses, specifically criminal gangs. Trying to read some of the interactions written in it is, I imagine, akin to people’s confusion over what a cheeky Nando’s is if you’re unfamiliar with that particular idiom.
Speaking of underclasses, we rejoin the action with Thénardier and his crew and discover they have been lurking around Rue Plumet thinking of robbing the house there. Eponine handily skulks around and warns them away from it, saying there’s nothing worth it in there. The thing(s) that is in it, though, are Marius and Cosette who sit in the garden and Cosette reveals sadly that she is going away, that her father has grand plans for them to leave and go to England, as soon as possible. Marius is, naturally, heartbroken at the prospect so he decides to take action: he goes to see his estranged grandfather and asks him for permission to marry. In Gillenormand’s usually not at all tactful way he asks Marius what his profession is, if he’s well situated now, etc. etc. and in doing so points out that Marius has nothing to recommend him or be ready to marry someone. He asks if the girl is rich, Marius says no, and Gillenormand finds the situation even more laughable. He goes so far as to suggest that Marius might do better to take her as his mistress, a suggestion that doesn’t sit too well with young Mr Pontmercy and he storms off in an outraged huff. Gillenormand seems genuinely taken aback and the nonagenarian (Hugo specifies this, many a time, during this chapter) tries to run after Marius but to no avail, his grandson cannot hear him.
Feeling despairing, Marius barely understands the question when Courfeyrac tries to cheer him up by asking him if he’s coming to General Lemarque’s funeral. The funeral ends up being hijacked for a political cause and becomes the catalyst for a bunch of riots taking place around the city. (Hugo takes time for a digression to consider the etymology of the idea of a ‘riot’, obviously, and why Paris in particular is the site of such protests.) Homemade barricades pop up on various streets and the ABC gang join in. Where there’s mischief, there’s Gavroche, and he quickly proves his worth by pointing out to Enjolras that a man helping them man the barricade is actually an informer. Who does it turn out to be? Why, it’s only Inspector Javert! (Seriously, is he the only police officer in Paris, or what?) But the boys have bigger fish to fry for the moment: the army are starting to fire at the barricade. One of the casualties of this is M. Mabeuf who dies trying to hoist the fallen flag back to the top of the barricade. Remember Mabeuf, the church warden from earlier, the one who had to sell his precious books as he slipped further into poverty? (No, me neither.) In all the confusion, the barricade boys realise they haven’t seen Prouvaire in a while and are worried he has been captured or is dead. But, just then, from out in the street they hear a ‘who goes there?’ and a defiant answering call ‘vive la France!’ from none other than Prouvaire! The rejoicing is shortlived as the answer from the army is to shoot him. As Enjolras turns back to Javert he says in what I can only presume is the most sarcastic and savage tone ‘Your friends have just shot you.’
Marius, meanwhile, has joined the fighting at the barricade. He stumbles upon someone calling his name at his (literal) feet and spies Eponine, dressed as a man, slumped over. When asked what she is doing there, she replies glibly ‘dying’ – you have to hand it to the girl, she has a sharp sense of humour, even when bleeding out from a gunshot wound. She tells Marius it’s ok because she got hurt when saving him from musket fire… yes, that’s ok, that won’t instil a strong sense of guilt in him that will haunt him until the end of his days. She uses her dying breaths to give him a letter she kept back from him and also tells him she probably was in love with him. Like I said, not at all the stuff to fuel years of survivor’s guilt at all (and that’s just the beginning of it).
The letter turns out to be from Cosette, letting Marius know about the date and time of their allegedly planned departure for England. Marius trusts Gavroche to deliver a letter for him but the narrative switches tack and shows the one problem of putting your feelings in writing – the blotter you write on carries an impression of anything you write. And who has found the evidence of Cosette’s latest missive? Why, only her father, of course! Will this result in drama? Only time will tell…
My reading experience of Volume Four: Saint-Denis
When I came to writing up this post, I thought that there was a lot of action to relay but, really, not as much happened in volume four as happened in volume three. To me, it just seemed to take a lot longer for things to happen in this volume, and I don’t know if that’s just the point of the story I’ve reached or just fatigue I’m feeling now we’re coming up to the home stretch of the book.
One thing I have to say stood out about this section: there were a lot of considerations of etymology of words and idioms. There were also, bizarrely, a lot of songs which, I’m going to be perfectly frank, I mostly skipped over because, just like in The Lord of the Rings, they really don’t seem to add that much to the narrative at all, in my opinion. I’m very sure I’m wrong and they’ll prove to be symbolic or prophetic in some way but, for now, I’m happy to skim-read over them and move onto the actual action going on at the barricade. I peeked at the next section and saw it’s called Jean Valjean so I’m sure this will deal with the aftermath of the unrest in Paris and how Valjean’s story concludes.
Are you taking part in the readalong? How did you find Volume Four? Are you enjoying reading the book? Let’s chat in the comments below!