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lessthanthree

OP: Volume V, Books Two, Three, and Four

Posted by vana_tuivana on 2006.12.14 at 03:37
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The Intestine of the Leviathan
In this book, Hugo goes ON and ON about the history, layout, purpose, and general horribleness of the Parisian sewers. I love the bit at the beginning where Hugo shows his environmentalist side and talks about how all the problems of the world could be solved if people would only harness the power of human waste and put it to use rather than trying to dispose of it.

The sewer is the conscience of the city. All things converge into it and are confronted with one another. In this lurid place there is darkness, but there are no secrets. Each thing has its real form, or at least its definitive form. It can be said for the garbage heap that it is no liar. Naïveté has taken refuge there. ... All the uncleanliness of civilization, once it is out of service, falls into this pit of truth, where the immense social slippage is brought to an end. It is swallowed up, but it is displayed in it. This pell-mell is a confusion. Here, no more false appearances, no possible plastering, filth takes off its shirt, absolute nakedness, rout of illusions and mirages, nothing more but what is, wearing the sinister face of what is ending. Reality and disappearance.

I find this part particularly interesting because this section is reminiscent of a part of the Hero's Journey structure, from literary theory: the descent into the underworld. Do you think it's even possible to think of Les Misérables in terms of the Hero's Journey, or am I really pulling at straws here? If it is, are there other parts of the book we can see as different aspects of the Hero's Journey structure?

Mire, but Soul
Jean Valjean continues to carry the badly-wounded Marius into the sewers to escape from the chaos on the streets. Not knowing which way to go, he trusts to his instincts and to providence to guide him, and through luck, he doesn't get lost in the labyrinths of the sewers.

There is a moment of tension when he nearly runs into a group of police who are searching the sewers for rebels trying to get away from the defeats at the barricades. Valjean remains silent, and the patrol passes him by, but not before shooting in his direction and hitting the roof above his head -- yet another close miss in Valjean's flight from "justice"!

Meanwhile, on the streets, a policeman is following a suspected criminal: "the tracked marten and the tracking hound," as they are called. The criminal disappears into the sewers, though the grate is locked: he has somehow obtained a key and slipped inside. The policeman, like the hound he's compared to, stays to keep a watch on the grate.

Although Valjean is still as strong as ever, he grows tired and has to stop and rest. There's an interesting description of Valjean's conflicting instincts toward Marius here:

With all the gentleness of a brother for his wounded sibling, Jean Valjean laid Marius on the side bank of the sewer. ... Jean Valjean, removing the garments with the ends of his fingers, laid his hand on his breast; the heart was still beating. Jean Valjean tore up his shirt, bandaged the wounds as best he could, and staunched the flowing blood; then, bending in the twilight over Marius, who was still unconscious and almost lifeless, he looked at him with an inexpressible hatred.

What do you make of this idea -- first his tenderness toward Marius in tending to him, and then this look of hatred he gives him? How is this conflict of emotions toward the young man displayed in Valjean, that he could both love and hate this boy?

Right at this point, there's also this horrifyingly painstaking description of death by drowning in quicksand. It made me shudder just reading it. I mean, really, Victor-Marie. Anyway, this description does have a point, and it is that Valjean comes across a "fontis", an area of mire that he must cross to reach safety. Carrying Marius weighs him down, so that he sinks into the muck, but he will not drop the wounded boy, and just as he is about to sink entirely, he reaches support and they are saved, almost miraculously. In this section Valjean is compared to a mother carrying her child to safety, which is again interesting in relationship to the "inexpressible hatred" described earlier.

After passing through this fontis, Valjean is at the end of his strength, but manages to carry Marius as far as an exit to the sewer, which happens to be the very one outside which the policeman is standing watch. The grate is, however, locked; the situation seems hopeless for Valjean and Marius, for certainly they would never make it back through the muck again.

They are saved by, of all people, Thénardier, who, not recognizing Valjean although Valjean recognizes him, offers to open the grate if Valjean will give him half of Marius's money, since he believes that Valjean has murdered Marius and is now seeking to dispose of his body in the Seine. Valjean gives him all the money he has on him, and Thénardier lets them out.

Valjean and Marius are out of the hellish sewers now, but they fall into the hands of Javert, who was (of course!) the policeman who was waiting outside of the entrance to the sewers. Valjean makes himself known to Javert and tells him that he is turning himself in, but that he first needs to bring Marius to his grandfather's house. Javert, so different from his actions in a similar situation so long ago in Montreuil-sur-Mer, not only agrees, but helps Valjean carry Marius to Gillenormand's house in the Marais. There's this amazing description of the three of them on the way there:

Glacial silence in the coach. Marius, motionless, his body braced in the corner of the carriage, his head dropping on his breast, his arms dangling, his legs rigid, seemed waiting for nothing now by a coffin; Jean Valjean seemed made of shadow, and Javert of stone; and in that carriage full of night, whose interior, whenever it passed a lamp, appeared to turn lividly pale as if from an intermittent flash, chance had grouped together and seemingly confronted the three tragic immobilities--the corpse, the specter, and the statue.

*shiver* I just love that passage, for some reason. What do you think of the aptness of the descriptions of the characters here?

The two men, ex-convict and his longtime pursuer, deliver Marius to Gillenormand's house. That accomplished, Valjean asks Javert for one more thing: to go home for a moment, so that he can speak to Cosette one last time. Javert agrees, and tells Valjean to go into his house while he stayes below in the street, saying "I will wait for you here." But when Valjean puts his head out of the window and looks down, there is no one there: Javert has left him, for the last time.

Meanwhile, Marius is still unconscious. When Gillenormand finally sees him, he believes that his grandson is dead, and goes a little crazy for a time out of grief. It is then that Marius opens his eyes for the first time, and the old man faints out of surprise and relief, which I found really touching. Aww.

Javert Off the Track
Javert, leaving Valjean on the Rue de L'Homme-Armé, walks to a bridge over a dangerous patch of rapids in the Seine and gazes into the river, his mind torn in two because he has just let Valjean go free:

Before him he saw two roads, both equally straight; but he did see two; and that terrified him--he who had never in his life known anything but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, these two roads were contradictory. One of these two straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one?
His situation was beyond words.

This chapter, which chronicles the inner turmoil of Javert, made me wonder about the choices of the other characters in the book, particularly people like Enjolras or like Eponine, and whether their worldviews were upturned at some point during the course of the novel, just like Javert's? What do you think?

After deciding what must be his course of action, Javert goes to a guardhouse and writes a letter with some last notes about the conditions in the jails to the administration. That accomplished, he returns to the bridge over the Seine and, after a last moment of contemplation, throws himself into the river.

*sniff* So sad you guys OMG. :-(

The next (second-to-last!) section, for Thursday, December 14, is Books Five and Six of the last volume. We're almost done...

Comments:


Ten little bullets in my hand
10littlebullets at 2006-12-14 10:12 (UTC) (Link)
Do you think it's even possible to think of Les Misérables in terms of the Hero's Journey, or am I really pulling at straws here?

I don't think the Hero's Journey really applies to LM, though many similar themes appear. Probably because they're powerful themes and get used in many contexts and paradigms, the Hero's Journey among them.

I think it's more apt to think of this as the final death and resurrection of Jean Valjean. He's already cast himself into the sea, been presumed dead, and managed to drag himself out of the water again (interesting how that might relate to the description of the drowning man waaaay back at the beginning of the book). He's been literally buried alive and dug out of a grave. And in this book he actually descends into the underworld, and once more emerges changed but alive.
duva
duva at 2006-12-14 14:02 (UTC) (Link)
What do you make of this idea -- first his tenderness toward Marius in tending to him, and then this look of hatred he gives him? How is this conflict of emotions toward the young man displayed in Valjean, that he could both love and hate this boy?

Ah, but there's another passage which explains that in one word:

"Of whom did he think in this overwhelming dejection? Neither of himself nor of Marius. He thought of Cosette."

He loves him because Cosette does; and hates him because he will take Cosette away. I got all choked up the first time I read that!

Right at this point, there's also this horrifyingly painstaking description of death by drowning in quicksand. It made me shudder just reading it. I mean, really, Victor-Marie.

That part makes my toes curl and not in a good way. It's such a realistic description and EEEK WHAT A WAY TO GO.

When Gillenormand finally sees him, he believes that his grandson is dead, and goes a little crazy for a time out of grief.

His rant there is SO FANTASTIC. I love it. I love M. Gillenormand. He is awesome.

Irene
nobutterflies at 2006-12-14 23:15 (UTC) (Link)
So I am finally falling behind now...because it's close to the holidays and I'm super-busy. :( I hope to catch up this weekend.
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