Melch Reads Les Miserables

by Rachel Creager Ireland

S'pose if I'm serious about learning history, I should pick up one of these Will Durant ones.

S’pose if I’m serious about learning history, I should pick up one of these antique Will Durant print books.

It was my aim to learn about the French Restoration by reading Les Miserables. Turns out the book is chock-full of references to people and events, but no explanation of what any of them means. Guess next time I read this book I’ll get the annotated version, not the free one from the very admirable Project Gutenberg. But still, it’s quite a work, and I’m enjoying it a heckuva lot. Take these quotes:

This one shows an interesting view into Hugo’s ideal of womanhood.

She had always been predestined to gentleness; but faith, charity, hope, those three virtues which mildly warm the soul, had gradually elevated that gentleness to sanctity. Nature had made her a lamb, religion had made her an angel. Poor sainted virgin! Sweet memory which has vanished!

You should see this lady later, when she’s taking care of her blind brother.

Course Hugo never holds back from, well, anything, he pretty much says everything about everything, and in a lot of words, but in particular he never flinches from laying out his politics. In this quote, Jean Valjean has served twenty years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family (and later, trying to escape). He gets out and finds no one will give work or rent a room to a convict, and here he’s musing on his past.

Whether there had not been more abuse on the part of the law, in respect to the penalty, than there had been on the part of the culprit in respect to his fault. Whether there had not been an excess of weights in one balance of the scale, in the one which contains expiation. Whether the over-weight of the penalty was not equivalent to the annihilation of the crime, and did not result in reversing the situation, of replacing the fault of the delinquent by the fault of the repression, of converting the guilty man into the victim, and the debtor into the creditor, and of ranging the law definitely on the side of the man who had violated it.

And later,

He asked himself whether human society could have the right to force its members to suffer equally in one case for its own unreasonable lack of foresight, and in the other case for its pitiless foresight; and to seize a poor man forever between a defect and an excess, a default of work and an excess of punishment.

But there is another side.

The ingenuous police of the Restoration beheld the populace of Paris in too ‘rose-colored’ a light; it is not so much of an ‘amiable rabble’ as it is thought. The Parisian is to the Frenchman what the Athenian was to the Greek; no one sleeps more soundly than he, no one is more frankly frivolous and lazy than he, no one can better assume the air of forgetfulness; let him not be trusted nevertheless; he is ready for any sort of cool deed; but when there is glory at the end of it, he is worthy of admiration in every sort of fury. Give him a pike, he will produce the 10th of August; give him a gun, you will have Austerlitz. He is Napoleon’s stay and Danton’s resource. Is it a question of country, he enlists; is it a question of liberty, he tears up the pavements. Beware! his hair filled with wrath, is epic; his blouse drapes itself like the folds of a chlamys. Take care! he will make the first Rue Grenetat which comes to hand Caudine Forks. When the hour strikes, this man of the faubourgs will grow in stature; this little man will arise, and his gaze will be terrible, and his breath will become a tempest, and there will issue forth from that slender chest enough wind to disarrange the folds of the Alps. It is, thanks to the suburban man of Paris, that the Revolution, mixed with arms, conquers Europe. He sings; it is his delight. Proportion his song to his nature, and you will see! As long as he has for refrain nothing but la Carmagnole, he only overthrows Louis XVL; make him sing the Marseillaise, and he will free the world.

Here’s one more, just for fun. It’s not in vogue these days to speak of people as products of their social class, especially in America, but, strangely, it has a timeless quality, and calls to mind some modern people. Read it and see if if makes you think of anyone you know. (He’s talking about the infamous Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, petty scamming innkeepers.)

These beings belonged to that bastard class composed of coarse people who have been successful, and of intelligent people who have descended in the scale, which is between the class called ‘middle’ and the class denominated as ‘inferior,’ and which combines some of the defects of the second with nearly all the vices of the first, without possessing the generous impulse of the workingman nor the honest order of the bourgeois.

Don’t look at me, I’m just minding my own business, running my little motel out here in Kansas . . . .