(NOTE: I realise this is a very mangled re-telling of the plot, but it’s all still fresh in my mind, so I’m afraid I can’t make any objective comments just yet. After I’ve completed Volume I, I’ll probably write a more coherent reflection on the entire thing)
Part II was much quieter than Part I. Firstly because I think Hugo intended the whole of Part I to be for the establishment of setting and character. There was just this continual introduction of dates and people and places, and it was all rather overwhelming. In Part II, no main characters are introduced; the narrative focuses mostly on Valjean and Cosette, and I suppose on the Thenardiers. He does spend an entire book on the Gorbeau House, and another on the convent and its inhabitants, but I’m sure it’s all relevant somehow.
Now in my last ramble, I complained about Hugo allowing Valjean to return to gaol when Cosette was still in the hands of Those Brutes. I really should have known better, because if Valjean remained a free man, there would be no more Javert, and no more chase. Really, even great classics such as Les Miserables have to retain the suspense somehow. Blah, I’m rambling again. I’ll start again from the beginning –
Book 1: Waterloo had me falling asleep at every second sentence. It was probably because of my limited knowledge of French history (I don’t know any real details, just what happened and why). I read every single chapter of Part I, because I wasn’t acquainted with Hugo’s writing style. By Part II, I was wary of his habitual meanderings around Parisian society, so I was tempted to skip entire chunks. However, I faithfully – and forcibly – read (almost) every single word of this section. Can’t say it was interesting though.
Book 2 – Book 5: Here, Hugo again begins to pick up the pace. In Book 2: The Ship Orion, Valjean makes yet another miraculous escape. In Book 3, he is disguised as a poor old beggar (these chapters where rather reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo) and finally, thank God, takes Cosette from the Thenardiers. Jean Valjean is an incredibly well-developed character, and in Cosette, Hugo leaves no corner of his personality untouched. The bishop, although inspiring and saint-like, was too perfect. Valjean is an odd sort of man, and for me, this book is truly magnificent because of the manner in which Hugo portrays Valjean’s struggles to remain – for lack of a better word – good. I think this captures him quite well:
Jean Valjean had this peculiarity, that he might be said to carry two knapsacks; in one he had the thoughts of a saint, in the other the formidable talents of a convict. He helped himself from one or the other as the occasion required.
At times I would question the plausibility of Jean Valjean as a human being. Can one man really endure so much – again – without being tempted? And yet he is tempted. Without a doubt, he is. Several times throughout the journey, Valjean begins to travel back down along the ‘dark path’, but Providence throws the odd circumstance into his path to ensure that he remains upright. In Book 4, Valjean and Cosette spend a few [well-deserved] happy days together, whilst hiding in the old dilapidated Gorbeau House. Here, Hugo writes that something new enters the soul of Valjean.
Jean Valjean had never loved anything… The bishop had caused the dawn of virtue on his horizon, Cosette evoked the dawn of love.
Book 6 – Book 8: Of course, by this time, Javert has yet again stumbled onto the trail of his escaped convict, and almost captures him. Poor Javert; he never gets it right, clever as he is. The chase leads Valjean and Cosette into a convent – Petit Picpus – where, by some magical coincidence, Valjean stumbles upon an old man whose life he once saved (strangely enough, I also find Hugo’s coincidences entirely implausible, but believable). Then Hugo lapses into a history of the convent, which I thought was quite interesting. Clearly, despite the gripping plot and wonderfully believable characters, Hugo’s real intention was to write a gargantuan social commentary and discourse on philosophy, religion, and history, because every time I start to get excited about what’s happening, he pauses and plunges into another wordy, lengthy discussion on the nature of human existence. I won’t go into detail about his ‘escape’ from the convent. Firstly, because I don’t want to give away too much about the plot; secondly, because I can’t be bothered.
Now there’s only Part III: Marius left, and then I’m onto Volume II!