Les Miserables, Book 2: Cosette

I’m loving this reading plan. It’s making me feel so freaking stable. It may sound a bit odd to be gaining stability from a book—well, a book other than some deeply serious religious tome—but I’m quite enjoying the ritual of finishing my day with a cup of tea (current favorite: holiday chai) and a chunk of this novel.

I always try to close my day with a little reading—that isn’t a change—but returning to the same (literary) place every night is making me feel calmer, more focused. And as I try to explain whatever emotion this is, it seems to be growing more and more inexplicable. Oh well. Onward and upward, and thus, on to Les Miserables.

Cosette, the second book of Les Miserables focuses (wait for it) on Cosette’s childhood. The end of Book 1 left Fantine dead, Jean Valjean re-imprisoned, and Javert victorious. Depressing stuff.

And then, rather than rectifying the situation immediately (as seems necessary), Book 2 begins with an extended (and do I mean extended) treatise on Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. We learn the geography, the major characters, the battle plans, the transformation of the topography in the intervening years, the time when Napoleon laughed and thought himself victorious, the honorable cavalry that didn’t budge, the mistake that cost the battle and thus the war…honestly, the 50-odd pages that begin Book 2 have been the hardest to get through so far—but again, like the long introductory bit about Father Bienvenu in Book 1, hold tight, there’s a purpose.

(Note my complete and utter trust in Hugo. No pressure, Vic, no pressure.)

French history—the revolt of the people against the pressure of the aristocracy during the Revolution ‘79, the excesses of ‘93, Napoleon’s popularity, Napoleon’s defeat, the return of the crown—provides the setting, the background, and the explanation for the characters and their actions. If you ignore the history of the battle that Hugo explains in such (excruciating) detail, then Marius’s later conflict when faced with Jean Valjean and M. Thenardier is inexplicable; the shades of difference between Marius’s grandfather (a royalist), his father (a revolutionary), and his new friends at the ABC (republicans) are unclear, and basically you’re going to lose a lot of plot.

The turbulence of the period between 1789 and 1815 is something that I have trouble comprehending. Ok, sure, we have political turmoil. Right now, between the 99%, the tea party, the search for a Republican candidate that isn’t ridiculous, the furor over the recent anniversary of Guantanamo and our seeming inability to get out of that mess and the million other news articles that infect your day, politics in America are a little messy. But for most of us, those are just news articles—reports on NPR that you hear during your commute and either forget or fret about. I, personally, am not impacted by Guantanamo Bay. Although I imagine aspects of my life place me squarely within the 99% (oh, the student loans, oh, the underemployment), it seems problematic to appropriate others’ much more dire situations. As a well-educated, (scrabbling toward) middle-class, white American, I’m protected by thick layers of batting from most problems. I know that there are injustices in this country, but my privilege keeps me from personally feeling the actual results of that inequity. (And that is an absolutely horrible commentary on my level of involvement and I need to personally, not just ideologically, get involved in the causes I support. But that’s a self-flagellation for another day.)

Anyway, my point is that the characters in Les Miserables don’t have those thick layers of protective batting. So when the political winds shift directions, life is upended. Hugo doesn’t tell about the comfortable middle class. I imagine they were relatively protected from the political changes. He tells about the shivering, starving masses without the protective batting. When their life is upended, there is no safety net. And when life is upended—when there is no security—you steal a loaf of bread rather than starving.

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice this, but this is an amazingly progressive book. People fall short of the mark, not because they are faulty, imperfect, and sinful, but because society is imperfect.


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