My reading of “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo continues. I’m along for the ride with group read hosts Emma at The Terror of Knowing and Liz at Travel in Retrospect. I just finished Volume 2 and wanted to share a few thoughts.
[You can read what I had to say about Volume 1 here.]
I continue to ride the struggle bus when it comes to keeping up with blogging and my other reading. Between my full-time job and everything falling apart from the washing machine to my husband’s car, it’s been a hellish week. But I’m now all caught up on the group read, so I guess I’m winning at something!
I decided to do this week’s summary in more of a straightforward recap form. Again, there will be spoilers. Lots of them.
I had a rough time getting into Volume 2. All the background on Waterloo — basically to lead into the fact that Thénardier pretended to, but did not, fight in the battle — was not my cup of tea. Yes, Mr. Hugo, “Waterloo is the hinge of the nineteenth century.” I’m probably glossing over a lot of context that lays the groundwork for the times these people are living in, but my goodness. Hugo just continues to write way too much, way too often. But I love this story too much to walk away, so I’ll suffer through multiple-page descriptions of battlefields and convents.
Volume 2 is just all over the map! When we leave the battlefield, we rejoin Jean Valjean, who’s serving his latest stint on a ship but falls overboard after saving a crew member’s life. Of course we know that can’t possibly be the end of the story for him.
Next, we catch up with Cosette, who’s still suffering at the hands of the awful Thénardiers. They are truly horrid people, but this quote about the wife made me laugh and cringe at the same time: “This Thénardiess was a cross between a whore and a fishwife. To hear her speak, you would say this was a policeman; to see her drink, you would say this was a cartman; if you saw her handle Cosette, you would say this was the hangman. When at rest, a tooth protruded from her lips.”
In swoops a mysterious stranger, whom the Thénardiers are about to turn away from their inn because he looks like he’s down on his luck. But pretty soon he’s making it rain, and as he strikes up a friendship with Cosette, our suspicions are confirmed — Jean Valjean is back, and he’s come to fulfill his promise to Fantine that he will take care of her daughter.
I loved the scene in which Cosette is struggling to carry water back to the inn, and Jean Valjean shows up at just the right time to help her. Such compassion! Such providence!
After paying a small fortune, and intimidating the crap out of Thénardier, Jean Valjean leaves with Cosette.
It turns out Javert is still hot on Jean Valjean’s heels, and he’s brought reinforcements. Throughout this whole story so far, Jean Valjean has done a pretty good job of eluding, but what Hugo keeps reminding us is that God is on his side. The latest form of rescue is a convent, where an old friend of Jean Valjean’s pulls a few strings to help out. What an elaborate scheme Fauchelevent and the nuns have hatched in order to pull off two cover-ups! But it almost goes horribly wrong, and Jean Valjean is nearly buried alive!
I was moved by the way Volume 2 wraps up, with Jean Valjean experiencing a loss of pride as he becomes acquainted with the Petit-Picpus way of life. At heart, he seems to have been a good man all along. But this latest turn his life has taken is truly humbling. A bit of deception was involved, as always, but this convent has welcomed him and his “daughter” with open arms. He is now the assistant gardener, and Cosette is a student at the convent’s school.
If you wish to understand what Revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to understand what Progress is, call it Tomorrow.
An army is a strange composite masterpiece, in which strength results from an enormous sum total of utter weaknesses. Thus only can we explain a war waged by humanity against humanity in spite of humanity.
Jean Valjean had this trait, that he might be said to carry two knapsacks — in one he had the thoughts of a saint, in the other the impressive talents of a convict. He helped himself from one or the other as occasion required.
Everything that had occurred in (Jean Valjean’s) life during the last six months led him back toward the holy injunctions of the bishop — Cosette through love, the convent through humility.
And then (Jean Valjean) reflected that two houses of God had received him in succession at the two most critical moments of his life, the first when every door was closed and human society rejected him; the second, when human society was once more howling on his track, and prison once more gaped for him; and that, had it not been for the first, he would have fallen back into the crime, and had it not been for the second, into punishment. His whole heart melted in gratitude and he loved more and more.
(And as a bit of an inside joke for anyone else who’s read this book:) “More often!” -Fauchevelent 😂