A weight has been lifted from my shoulders, because I. am. FINISHED. With. Les. Misérables!
I completed my reading of The Brick just after midnight on Tuesday. I had finished Volume 4 just hours before and written some scant thoughts on it (which you can see here; there’s also posts on Volumes 1, 2 and 3). I’m on vacation, and I was desperate to wrap up this book, so I plunged into Volume 5 — appropriately focused on Jean Valjean — Monday afternoon and barely emerged until I was done. I still can’t believe I knocked it out so quickly after being so far behind!
A quick and dirty recap
Aside from a lot of nonsense detailing barricades and the history of the Parisian sewer system — all leading up to tell us simply that Jean Valjean was trying to get near-death Marius to his grandfather’s home via the sewers — Hugo really cut to the chase in Volume 5 and laid out the action in fairly quick succession. A bunch of people die in the insurrection. (I’m talking a LOT OF PEOPLE.) Javert, who was taken captive, is taken out back to be shot by Valjean.
After Valjean carries Marius through the sewers — and then they only get out after dealing with none other than Thénardier, who holds the key to the sewer gate — the pair make their way to Marius’ grandfather’s house, with the help of Javert (gasp!). Javert feels extremely torn over letting Valjean slip through his fingers once again, and commits suicide by jumping into the Seine.
Marius is nursed back to health under the direction of his fickle grandfather. Cosette is brought to Marius’ bedside and they receive permission to get married. There’s an elaborate wedding. Everyone seems to be having fun except Valjean, who is simultaneously having father-of-the-bride feels and guilt over how well Cosette’s new in-laws are treating him. Valjean reveals his true origins to Marius. Marius wants him out of their lives, but agrees Valjean can still see Cosette every day. But Valjean is, little by little, eliminated from Cosette’s life until he is dying of a broken heart.
Marius learns the whole truth about Thénardier, and Valjean is redeemed in the process. Marius and Cosette show up at Valjean’s home just as he is about to die, and there is a bittersweet farewell.
“What is the cat? It is a corrective. God, having made the mouse, said, ‘I’ve made a blunder. And he made the cat. The cat is the erratum of the mouse. The mouse, plus the cat, is the revised and corrected proof of creation.” -Courfeyrac
“… glory to the mattress that nullifies a cannon.” -Bossuet
Youth is the smile of the future before an unknown being, which is itself. It is natural for it to be happy. It seems to breathe hope.
The book the reader has now before his eyes — from one end to the other, in its whole and in its details, whatever the omissions, the exceptions, or the faults — is the march from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from brutality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point: matter; goal: the soul. Hydra at the beginning, angel at the end.
“There are people who observe the rules of honor as we observe the stars, from far off.” -Combeferre
A beneficent malefactor, a compassionate convict, kind, helpful, clement, returning good for evil, returning pardon for hatred, loving pity rather than vengeance, preferring to destroy himself rather than destroy his enemy, saving the one who had struck him, kneeling on the heights of virtue, nearer angels than men. Javert was compelled to acknowledge that this monster existed.
“Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God.” -M. Gillenormand
M. Fauchelevent (Jean Valjean) was something less than a man of the world and something more.
“It is not enough to be happy, we must be satisfied with ourselves.” -Jean Valjean
God has His instruments. He uses what tool He pleases. He is not responsible to man. Do we know the ways of God? Jean Valjean had labored over Cosette. To some extent, he had formed the soul. That was incontestable. Well, what then? The workman was horrible; but the work admirable. God performs His miracles as He sees fit. He had constructed this enchanting Cosette, and He had employed Jean Valjean for the work. It had pleased Him to choose this strange collaborator. What reckoning have we to ask of Him? Is this the first time the dunghill has helped the spring to make the rose?
At certain critical moments, have we not all, after asking a question, stopped our ears so as not to hear the response? We experience this cowardice particularly when we love. It is not wise to question untoward situations to the bitter end, particularly when the indissoluble portion of our own life is fatally interwoven with them.
Nature, as we have said elsewhere, “looks forward.” Nature divides living beings into the coming and the going. Those going are turned toward the shadow, those coming toward the light. Hence a separation, which on the side of the old, is a fatality, and, on the side of the young, involuntary. This separation, at first imperceptible, gradually increases, like every separation of branches. The limbs, without parting from the trunk, recede from it. It is not their fault. Youth goes where joy is, to festivals, to brilliant lights, to loves. Old age goes to its end. They do not lose sight of each other, but the ties are loosened. The affection of the young is chilled by life; that of the old by the grave. We must not blame these poor children.
“My children, do not cry, I am not going very far, I will see you from there. You will only have to look at night, you will see me smile.” -Jean Valjean
The ending of “Les Mis” was terribly melodramatic and, yes, a bit tear-jerking. I think a little of my emotional response — I did not shed literal tears, but there was some “aww”ing — came from the fact that I’ve spent so much time with all these characters. It’s hard enough to finish a standard-sized book without feeling some attachment, especially if it’s a book I’ve enjoyed.
I didn’t always enjoy “Les Misérables,” but ask me whether I regret spending so much time with it and I would say “definitely not.” There is a lot to be gained from reading this book, a lot of examples of redemption, sacrifice, justice and mercy.
I think I’ll celebrate my completion of The Brick by finally watching the musical in the next week or two!
A huge thanks goes to Emma at The Terror of Knowing and Liz at Travel in Retrospect for hosting #MiserablesMay. Without you ladies, I’m not sure when or if I would ever have attempted to read this gargantuan book again.