I’m a little behind on the reviews for Les Miserables, though I finished the book a few days ago. And wow. And whew.
To understand what is going on here, there’s quite a bit of information you need to be at least slightly familiar with. Here’s my attempt at a summary:
1789- beginning of the French Revolution
1793- Reign of Terror
1799- Napoleon sets up a Consulate
1804- Napoleon names himself Emperor
1814- Napoleon beaten by, er, all of Europe, is exiled to Elba, Bourbon monarchy reestablished through Louis XVIII
(Napoleon comes back to great [French] acclaim and rules for 100 days) the rest of Europe is irate, so…
1815- Waterloo: Napoleon beaten by Duke of Wellington et al
1815- Bourbon monarchy reestablished (again)
So in 1815, Louis XVIII is on the French throne, but is ruling through a constitutional monarchy (Charter established in 1814) which limits the authority of the royal class. Somewhat. This doesn’t really make anyone happy—the ultra-royalists want a return to the good old days of the absolute power, the liberals resent the restoration of a monarchy they fought to destroy. Louis dies in 1824, Charles X inherits the throne, general dissatisfaction with the status of things keeps things bubbling until 1830. And then kapow! The lid blows off with the July Revolution of 1830. This is huge because it replaces the Charles X, the hereditary ruler, with Louis-Philippe, a distant relative. So the hereditary line is broken and a new charter is established that basically doubles the enfranchised population, reduces the authority of the king, abolishes censorship of the press, eliminates the state religion… you know, all the good things. And one of the major features of the July Revolution was some 40,000 street barricades that basically took over Paris during the uprising.
So in 1832 when the anti-monarchists (mostly students) revolted in an attempt to reestablish a republic, they started throwing up barricades. And one of these barricades—the Rue Saint-Denis—is the focus of much of the action in this book.
This book begins with a (much needed) explanation of the differences between the unsuccessful June Revolution of 1832, and the successful February Revolution of 1848, and a meditation on the differences between a riot and an insurrection.
But insurrection, riot, and how the first differs from the second—your so-called bourgeois really can’t tell the difference. For him everything is sedition, rebellion, pure and simple, revolt of mastiff against master, a bid to bite that has to be punished with the chain and the doghouse, barking, yapping; until the day when the dog’s head, suddenly much bigger, stands out dimly in the shadows with the face of a lion (910).
Basically, if it’s successful (and it will be successful if the people are behind it) it’s an insurrection, if not, if the dissatisfaction with the state of things is not strong enough to overpower the desire for peace, then it’s a riot.
The riot springs from a material event; insurrection is always a moral phenomenon (868).
And although the June Revolution was ultimately unsuccessful, and although it apparently arose from the event of General Lamarque’s death, Hugo insists that the June Revolution was an insurrection. I think this is one of the (many) places where Hugo’s political leanings are shown—he seems to imply that the natural, or perfect (as in complete) state of man is free. So a nation still under a monarchy will be compelled to try to rectify the situation.
And of course, that’s all the background—Cosette and Marius are in love (hence the idyll of the title) but about to be parted; Jean Valjean is jealous, is frightened, and above all, is noble; Thenardier is never more like a rat than in this book; and Javert is complicated. And Eponine and Gavroche are, well, sniff.
This book is fabulous. Have I mentioned how fabulous this book is?
And speaking of Waterloo…