As Volume III of Les Misérables dawns, Victor Hugo digresses. He takes his reader on a tour of Parisian gutters. This digression, like all of Hugo’s digressions, is not short. It is, however, fruitful.
It sets the coming scene of both Marius’ frightful epiphany and terrible choice — to honor a dead father or pursue a blossoming love? This choice, however, can only be understood in light of Hugo’s digression, a digression that creates an image of a vibrant and animated, yet historical and turbulent 19th-century Paris.
Volume III then, as I understand it, serves to narrate history — to craft a picture of Paris in 1832 — through the lens of Marius. And through Marius, the reader sees all: the affluent, the poor, and the “middle class.” And while it might seem strange to arrange a novel by the social classes that it portrays, for Hugo this was paramount.
He was, after all, seeking to lift a veil from the eyes of those in power, so that they might see, in all their crushing glory, the miserable of their time.
At the end of Volume II, both Jean Valjean and Cossette are safely tucked in the Petit-Picpus convent. Hugo, in Volume III, both introduces and shifts to Marius’ character, and, regardless of the reader’s protests, leaves a contended Valjean for 200 pages.
Volume III, in other words, is Marius through and through framed, as Hugo writes, by a “conflict of right and fact [that] has been going on ever since the origin of society.”
Marius contains within him both the right and the fact. He desires to fulfill the dying wishes of his father, which is the right, the ideal, but the fact, once revealed, is that Thénardier is a monster. The right and the fact are equally crushing forces on either side of Marius, pressing him to choose. He can’t have both; it must be one or the other. And the reader, alive and present with Marius, experiences all of this dreadful tension along with him, but even more so, for the reader realizes that upon Marius’ anticipated decision the life of Valjean rests.
While the reader is provided with the keys to Marius’ internal kingdom — his relationship with his grandfather, the Friends of the ABC, his political shift, his work as a translator, and his boarding in a hovel — what Volume III is building towards is this moment of great distress, a moment viewed through a peephole. And, after crafting a character of Valjean’s brilliancy, it is only the work of a master who can then introduce another, halfway through his novel, and force a pause in his reader: Is it Marius or Valjean in whom I should hope?
And, with Marius, I forgot Valjean — at least for a time. I was interested in Marius’ Parisian life, yes, but more so, I was captivated by Marius’ desire to capture his dead father’s honor, which, to me, was the overarching question: Would Marius or would he not embody his father’s humble valor? And which path, exactly, is the right embodiment? As a reader, I wanted the answer to be a resounding “This one! This path!” Yet, I was blindsided. Marius’ path — his compulsion to honor his dead father — collided with that of Valjean’s trajectory of fulfilling Bishop Myriel’s calling of living an honest life. This collision left me, along with Marius, both petrified and indecisive.
Volume III ends with Marius viewing a dreadful scene through a peephole and holding the life of Valjean by a bare thread. Marius can either release him or save him. In the one, Marius honors his father; in the other, he loses his love. And, the stroke of genius, Marius and Valjean do not know each other. It is as an anonymous participant that Marius wields this power.
Les Misérables, I am convinced, is the best novel that I have ever read. Yet, what I am continually reminded of is that I am reading a mere translation. Never before have I said to myself, “Benjamin, learn French.” But, recently, I have been wondering: If Les Misérables is this good in English, then how grand is it in the original? I can only imagine reading Hugo in French.
But, even then, how much would I miss? A language is a people’s culture bound in words. Even if understood, can a foreign language every truly be mastered? Can a culture other than one’s own ever fully be understood? I have never been to France. I did not live through the French Revolution. I do not understand all of Hugo’s cultural references. Even if I did learn French to read Les Misérables, which I will do someday, then, even then, something would be missing. Appreciation and awe, sometimes, is the only way to approach beauty, especially when, because of our limitations, our understandings fail.
And yet, Les Misérables is one of those rare books that cuts through language, culture, and time — it speaks directly to the soul. And when a work of art speaks that deeply, when it churns a longing within, there will always be a sense of loss mingled with an infinite joy — a novel of Les Misérables’ gravity transcends that which is visible. For both Valjean in his courtroom and Marius in his peepholed-hovel are not alone. We are with them, failing and stumbling, yet triumphant.
For who, after reading Les Misérables, does not seek to live better, to live an honorable life, to live a life worthy of two silver candlesticks?Powered by Sidelines