Good lord, why did I pick this one to do next? Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a daunting novel based on size alone (1200ish pages in my edition, translated by Norman Denny), but the subject matter makes it about as cheerful as the average Thomas Hardy novel, as implied by the title (translated to something like “the miserable ones” or “the wretched”). I will attempt to keep this review a little shorter than the actual novel, so bear with me.
We begin out the story with Monseigneur Myriel, the benevolent and humble Bishop of Digne, a man whom Hugo confesses “has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell.” This, of course, means that we get to hear about his backstory for another 50 pages before getting to our actual protagonist.
The year: 1815. The place: Digne, France. The protagonist: a recently released ex-convict, Jean Valjean. (Let’s be honest – with a name like that, someone should really write a musical about the guy or something.) Jean Valjean is not having a lot of luck at the moment. Everyone in town seems to know he’s spent 19 years in prison, and if they don’t know, they find out when he shows them his parole papers. No one is willing to offer him food or lodging, and even the dog doesn’t want to share his doghouse with this convict hobo. Perhaps a shower will help, Valjean? Finally, he is directed to the house next to the Bishop’s palace where (as we expected from the Bishop’s extensive backstory) he is well taken care of.
We then learn of Jean Valjean’s past, which involves losing both parents and being left with a sister who is a single mother with seven starving children. Valjean works as a tree-pruner to help support them, but one hard winter he begins his career as a particularly inept criminal, breaking into the baker’s shop for a loaf of bread, cutting himself on the glass, and getting caught by the baker herself. He is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor for his bungled burglary, and is now known as No. 24601, a number which conveniently rhymes with his name and is almost as musical. In the labor camp, the prisoners have a system in which they take turns trying to escape. As an inept criminal, however, Jean Valjean makes four attempts and gets caught every time, increasing his prison time from 5 years to 19. (I can’t say I’ve ever been to prison, but I would think after the 2nd or 3rd botched escape attempt, one should accept that one just not very good at it and wait out the rest of the sentence.)
Jean Valjean wakes up at 2 am from his expository dream and decides to try his hand at stealing again, this time taking the Bishop’s silver. Because he is still completely inept as a criminal, however, he is immediately caught by the police and dragged back to the Bishop. The Bishop, being one of the few decent people in this novel, cheerfully tells the police that the silver was a gift and Valjean also forgot to take the candlesticks with him. The police are pretty suspicious about the whole thing. So is Jean Valjean. After the cops are gone, the Bishop informs Valjean that Valjean has now made a promise to use the money to become an honest man and to give his soul to God. (I am sure it’s intended to be less ominous than the way I read it.)
Still dazed, Jean Valjean steals one more coin from a little boy on the way out of town before going into full forgiveness-seeking saint mode. It’s too late, though – that coin will haunt him forever.
Two years later, we meet Fantine. Fantine is one of four friends who all become mistresses of four college students. Since it’s her first affair, it will, of course, end badly. Fantine falls for Felix Tholomyés, your average drunken philosophy major that has deep grand thoughts about everything but doesn’t manage to turn them into anything useful. One day, the group sees a horse die, and the boys decide to promise the girls a surprise, which turns out to be a letter saying that they are abandoning them and all going back to live with their parents. (I don’t know if the timing of the horse’s death is coincidental.) Following in the footsteps of many a film warning about the dangers of unprotected extramarital sex, Fantine ends up pregnant and abandoned.
I either missed the part about her parents or she doesn’t have any, slinking up out of the ether like so many fallen women before and after her. At any rate, she has a daughter and three years later, she decides to go home to Montreuil-sur-mer to find work. On the way there, she comes across Madame Thénardier, who is outside watching her two daughters. Fantine introduces Cosette (whose real name, we learn, is Euphrasie, which I guess is too good for everyday use. Why she didn’t just name her Cosette in the first place, I don’t know. Either Hugo just wants to drive us mad by giving every person two or three different names apiece, or identity is a huge theme in this book.)
Then Fantine does a dumb thing. A really dumb thing. Even dumber than assuming her college student boyfriend was going to marry her.
She asks this random stranger to look after her daughter and offers to pay her for it. No background checks, no asking around about local nannies – just “Here’s my kid – Looks like you haven’t killed your children yet, so I’ll pay you to babysit mine.”
This does not end well.
The Thénardiers are shifty folks who have just auditioned for the role of wicked step-parents. They treat Cosette as a servant, giving her all the chores and forcing her to wear the least pleasant hand-me-downs.
However, we pause Cinderella Cosette’s story for a moment to take a look at the new mayor of Fantine’s hometown, Monsieur Madeleine, who is now rich on profits from the jewelry industry. He is a general do-gooder who builds up the lower classes, pays his people well, and gives money to the vagrant boys around town. He goes into mourning over the death of the Bishop of Digne and we start to suspect that Madeleine is probably most definitely Jean Valjean. (Of course, out of all the fake names an ex-con could pick, one should always go with Madeleine. No one will suspect you of hard-earned street cred with a name like that.)
At this point, we are also introduced to Javert, who is by all accounts a devoted, honest, respectable police robot just doing his job, which happens to be chasing down law-breakers involved in less-than-respectable pasttimes.
One day, Monsieur Madeleine encounters a man named Fauchelevent, who has somehow gotten into a mess where his horse breaks both hind legs and gets him stuck between the wheels under the cart. For whatever reason, Madeleine decides that the cart can only be lifted off of him from below (and I get confused, because wouldn’t they get stuck in the mud too?). Madeleine offers money to anyone who can do it, but Javert says that he only knows one man strong enough to act as a human carjack. They face off ala spaghetti western, eyes narrowed, while the old man under the cart reminds them that he is actually still in pain. Madeleine springs into action and saves the day himself. Fauchelevent is alive, but the horse is not, bringing our dead horse count up to two. Fauchelevent leaves to become a gardener at a convent.
Fantine, meanwhile, has a job in Madeleine’s factory. She never mentions her daughter, but sends two letters a month (even though it was previously established that she couldn’t read), which is how the other factory workers find out the truth and get her fired for being an immoral person.
She sells everything she has and gives up fire and food when the Thénardiers demand more money after making up stories about Cosette being ill and needing medicine (and really, one thinks, wouldn’t you go check on her once in awhile? Especially if she has become your sole reason for living and working? I realize this is cost-prohibitive, but still…) To pay for her child’s perceived rising health costs, Fantine resorts to selling her hair and her teeth (apparently someone other than the tooth fairy also buys teeth) and eventually her body. The downward spiral is logical, expected, and still very upsetting because of how practical she becomes in the name of her daughter.
While she is walking on the streets one night, some pompous idiot tries to get her attention, first by insulting her and then by stuffing snow down her back. She retaliates with her fingernails and Javert hauls her into the station, having only seen a crazy prostitute attack a respectable citizen. Suddenly, Monsieur Madeleine is there (I guess it was the place to be that night) and demands her freedom. The mayor is apparently allowed to do things like this, so Javert lets her go. She tells Madeleine about her daughter and he throws money at the problem by offering to arrange picking the girl up. This is too much happiness for Fantine, so she compensates by passing out in a delirious sickness. Madeleine writes to Thénardier the one-trick pony, who demands even more money.
Javert, who is nothing if not honest, demands that Mayor Madeleine fire Javert because he dared suspect that the mayor was actually Jean Valjean. This is very awkward for the mayor, not only because Javert is turning himself in, but because Javert is completely right in his assumptions up until the point where he starts talking about his new suspect, an innocent man named Champmatheiu, who was caught stealing apples and whose unfortunate name is a fantastic etymological cobbling-together of Jean Valjean’s parentage. Javert prepares to leave for the trial, leaving the real Jean Valjean conflicted. (One wonders how Javert was going to testify if he had actually been fired.) Valjean debates giving himself up so an innocent man can be spared, but he’s a moral protagonist so he goes to the trial, in spite of trying to take every incident as a sign to turn back.
At the trial, they interrogate poor Champmatheiu, who has no idea who Valjean is. For witnesses, they call in other criminals who served with Valjean to identify him. Just before the sentence is pronounced, the real Jean Valjean does stand up and addresses the convicts by recounting the origins of their tattoos. Champmatheiu is released, and Valjean exits like a boss.
With Javert hot on his trail, Valjean returns home to discover his hair has lost all of its color from the ordeal. In terms of sainthood, he has now ascended to the level of Gandalf the White. He visits Fantine, who is still delirious and expecting to see her daughter, and runs across Javert. He begs for three extra days to bring Cosette to Fantine, but Javert does not entirely believe he’ll come back (which is probably a smart attitude to take with criminals who keep trying to escape). I get a little confused about Javert’s lifelong mission here, because Valjean isn’t being hunted for escaping his 19 years in prison (he served that completely), but for robbing the little boy after he got out. Then again, they did say that the apple thievery would be a life sentence for him because he’s a repeat offender. The police really don’t mess around here, do they?
Javert apprehends Jean Valjean anyway and tells Fantine to shut up when she begs for her child. He reveals Valjean as a convict, which is such a big shock for Fantine that she keels over dead. The rest of the village people are stunned at the mayor’s arrest for all of five minutes, then they go back to the old “I knew it all along” routine.
Valjean meanwhile escapes the local prison, returns to his house to gather his things, leaves behind the money he stole from the boy, and gets out of town.
Victor Hugo aspires to become a history writer as he proceeds to describe the past battle of Waterloo in detail. At the end of the history lesson, we see a soldier named Thénardier rifling through corpses on the battlefield for valuables, accidentally saving the life of a man named Pontmercy while trying to rob him.
Cut back to the present – Jean Valjean has been captured again (surprise, surprise) and has been renumbered Convict #9430, which is not nearly as catchy in terms of operatic rhyming. He is working in a shipyard when he happens to save the life of a clumsy sailor. He loses his footing and plunges into the sea. He is pronounced dead in the newspapers, but since we’re only a quarter of the way through the book, we assume he’ll be fine.
Now the year is 1823 and Cosette is not enjoying her Christmas, hiding under the table and listening to the Thénardiers ignore their screaming 3 year old son. (For the record, his name is Gavroche.) They send her out in the dark for water from the river. She wistfully passes a fancy doll in the shop as she makes her way into the woods (and now she isn’t Cinderella but Red Riding Hood). The way back with the heavy bucket is slow and terrifying, but for some reason when some stranger comes up behind her and silently steals her bucket, she doesn’t have a heart attack. No one has taught her about stranger danger – but then again, anyone kidnapping her would probably be an improvement. The man in the yellow jacket escorts Curious Cosette home and she tells him all about how, instead of a doll, she has a miniature sword that is good for cutting lettuce and the heads off of flies. I have become more than a little alarmed for this child.
Madame Thénardier overcharges the man in the yellow jacket (okay, so it’s Jean Valjean) for a room and in turn, he offers to buy Cosette’s knitted stockings for quite a bit more than they’re worth, just so he can claim she’s working for him and he insists that she take a break and play.
While Cosette dresses and cradles her knife (and I cringe over child safety), Valjean asks the Thénardiers questions about her. He eventually goes out and buys her the doll she had her eye on and leaves a gold coin in her shoe, as dictated by the Christmas custom. The Thénardiers are mildly concerned that he might be crazy (whereas I would be concerned that he’s a creeper) but they don’t hesitate to overcharge him some more. In the morning, he offers to buy Cosette off of them, and Madame Thénardier is more than happy to comply. Her husband, however, balks at this, saying that “one does not hand over one’s child to a passer-by,” which just makes me laugh. (You were a generous mother, Fantine, but not a very good one.) Valjean offers 1500 francs and Cosette goes with him. Thénardier makes one last attempt to squeeze more money out of the man, but Valjean gives him a letter from Fantine and glides away (like a boss).
Jean Valjean quickly comes to adore Cosette, now 8 years old, when they take up residence in Paris. He also becomes a paranoid old man (well, 55 years old), only going out at night and sewing money into his yellow coat (I like to assume it’s hideous). His paranoia is not unfounded, as Javert has nothing better to do than pursue him to the ends of the earth, leaving the rest of the criminal world to run amok.
Valjean and Cosette foil Javert and make a run for it. Valjean threatens Cosette into doing what he wants by suggesting that Madame Thénardier will find her if she doesn’t (and won’t that just lead to years of therapy). They jump the walls and find that they have landed in a nunnery garden, where they wait until Cosette nearly freezes to death. With no other choice, Valjean approaches a man he spies putting jackets on melons out in the melon patch, which is perfectly normal behavior for the middle of the night. This man turns out to be Fauchelevent, the guy who was nearly crushed under the cart. Why the nuns in the convent refuse to see all men but made an exception for a male gardener, I’m not entirely sure. At any rate, he’s tied a bell around his knee so the nuns can run and hide when he approaches.
They devise a plan wherein Valjean will pretend to be the gardener’s brother. To do that, however, he has to get out of the convent in the first place so he can be reintroduced back in. For whatever reason, they decide this will be best accomplished by smuggling him out in the coffin of a (convenient) recently-deceased nun, instead of, say, a wagon full of hay or mulch. There are no flaws in their plan, except that there’s a new gravedigger and no one put breathing holes in the coffin. Minor details. There’s a brief scare, but Valjean the White is nearly indestructible at this point, so he gets in to talk to the nuns. He calls himself Ultime Fauchelevent (yet another name to keep track of) and names Cosette as his granddaughter. He is rewarded with a bell to the knee and a job as a gardener in a convent.
Here would be a great place for an intermission, were I put in charge of making a musical of this book. However, people who make musicals tend to put intermissions closer to the halfway point, and we are not there yet – so let’s continue. *Ahem*
Eight or nine years have passed, and we are following Gavroche, a twelve year old street urchin who is not an orphan but might as well be, as he runs home to his father, who goes by the name Jondrette. Their next door neighbor is a young man named Marius.
We get a flashback of Marius living with his grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand, a man of 90 who is set in his ways, dislikes modern society, and thinks the “French Revolution was a load of scoundrels.” He also dislikes Marius’s father, Colonel Pontmercy, who was made a baron. Marius is told by the family that his father deserted him, because heaven forbid anyone here have a solid relationship with their real parents.
Marius is sent to his father on the man’s deathbed, but of course, he’s too late. There’s nothing left of the man’s possessions except a note asking Marius to help out the man who saved Pontmercy’s life at Waterloo – the one called Thénardier. *cue ominous music*
Marius goes to church and speaks with the churchwarden, Monsieur Mabeuf, who tells him what a hero his father actually was. A change comes over Marius, but while everyone thinks he must be in love, it turns out that he’s actually become obsessed with his own father. He turns on his grandfather and starts shouting newfangled political ideas. Monsieur Gillenormand kicks him out of the house and he heads off to the Latin Quarter, where the students hang out and form their little cliques.
The ABC Society is one such clique, headed by Enjolras, who is something of a radical. He is surrounded by fellow progressives, including Grantaire, who is described as astonishingly ugly, skeptical of everything, and has a huge crush on Enjolras, who despises him.
Marius is introduced to this clique by Laigle, a man who answered for him in roll call and was subsequently dismissed from class, more than happy to be free of law school. Marius joins the pack with barely 10 francs to his name and somehow muddles through a few more years, presumably living off of stale ramen and idealism like most college students.
Like Fantine before him, Marius has a rough life trying to make ends meet. Because he’s not a woman, though, he doesn’t resort to prostitution, and instead becomes a hermit. He somehow lives to be 20, with a few spare francs to help keep his neighbors, the Jondrettes, from being turned out of their home. On the street he occasionally passes a white-haired man he has nicknamed Leblanc and a girl, presumably his daughter or granddaughter. He pays them little attention until the girl turns from an ugly duckling into a walking bombshell overnight. Ah, puberty.
He stalks this girl for awhile, wearing his best suit all the time, getting weird looks from other people, and snatching up a handkerchief with the initials U.F. left behind from one of their bench sittings. From this, he ultimately decides her name is Ursula and that her soul resides in the handkerchief (hint: it’s not, and it doesn’t). After that, he never goes into town without clutching said handkerchief and kissing it. (Gentlemen: Please note that this sort of behavior is more than a little creepy to most women. You will not get sexy points for it.)
Monsieur Leblanc does notice all the stalking and to save his granddaughter from the creeper, the two disappear without a trace.
Months pass, and Marius doesn’t see them again until he eavesdrops on his neighbors through a hole in their shared wall (awkward) after finding a letter from one of their daughters. The Jondrettes are breaking their own windows and feigning wretchedness to play on the sympathies of an oncoming benefactor. It turns out to be Leblanc, who arrives with The Girl of Marius’s Dreams, and even though we’re still calling him Leblanc, we already know it’s Jean Valjean – no one else in town has white hair and travels with his granddaughter unless he happens to be a first generation Time Lord.
Marius tries to follow after them, but they elude him. He listens to the Jondrettes again, and because the man now pretends his name is Fabantou and not Jondrette, and because they recognize the girl and there are no coincidences in this novel, we figure out that they must be the Thénardiers. Marius doesn’t know this, of course, but keeps listening and overhears their plot to rob Valjean. (They do not, however, recognize him as Valjean.) Unlike the majority of protagonists, Marius goes to the police for help like a normal person. And because there are no coincidences, the policeman he talks to is Javert.
Marius then follows “Jondrette” to where he is getting money from “Monsieur Leblanc.” Not even the Thénardiers can keep track of all these names though, and slip up. Fortunately Thénardier’s backup arrives in the nick of time and hold Leblanc hostage. Thénardier reveals his actual name and I breathe a sigh of relief that there’s one identity out of the way. He gloats for awhile while they surround Leblanc – oh, forget it, I’m calling him Jean Valjean – offhandedly mentioning that he saved some guy at Waterloo (who happens to be Marius’s father, remember?)
When playing the senile old man card doesn’t work, Valjean tries to escape. He fails, of course, because he is Jean Valjean and his escape attempts are never successful. They tie him to the bed (but not in a fun way) and Thénardier forces Valjean to write to his daughter to send money. Valjean signs his name as Urbain Fabre, which isn’t the worst alias he’s had, but certainly not a great name either, and writes the wrong address on the envelope so it’s sent somewhere else to keep Cosette safe. (I sigh because now there’s yet another alias in play.)
At this point, Marius realizes that the U probably never stood for Ursula and that he’s been sniffing Valjean’s handkerchief this entire time. I’m going to assume Valjean also smells like roses.
When the villains return with the news of the fake address, Valjean leaps up to reveal that he’s been cutting his ropes the entire time and purposely burns his hand with a chisel so he can no longer write (which… was probably not the smartest thing he could have done at that moment). Marius throws a bit of plaster wrapped up in Éponine’s letter through the window and everyone panics thinking it’s the cops – which it isn’t, until, suddenly, it is.
Javert walks into the room like an old-timey sheriff, daring the men to make the first move. They’re all cowards, though, so they’re all arrested – except Valjean whose odds are finally coming around and he escapes… for real, this time. When Gavroche returns home later expecting to see his family, it turns out they’re all in prison. Oops.
After another history lesson in which Enjolras prepares to organize a revolution and Grantaire fails miserably at assisting him, we return to Marius, passing his days by starving and pining over Cosette. For some reason, Éponine (one of Thénardier’s non-jailed daughters) has developed a crush on him and has inquired from his old friend, Monsieur Mabeuf, how to track him down. It turns out she’s not just stalking him, but also has the address he asked her to find – the place where Cosette resides. Éponine seems to enjoy hopeless cases, so she assumes that finding the location means that Marius will notice her. Oblivious boy that he is, he tries to give her money for her troubles, and she realizes she’s been friendzoned.
Meanwhile, we backtrack on Jean Valjean, who has continued to be paranoid, owning two different houses and moving between them at the first hint of danger. He and Cosette still manage to live comfortably until Cosette discovers that she is pretty, and vanity ensues along with teasing Marius. Jean Valjean is terrified that she might (gasp) fall in love one of these days and he attempts to prevent it by keeping an eye on Marius. When he comes home from the incident with the Thénardiers, his wounds are awful enough that Cosette devotes herself to his care and he is content.
It doesn’t last forever, though, as Marius now has her address and can resume his stalking. Cosette is scared out of her wits several nights in a row by unidentified thumps and bumps, until she finds a love letter from Marius and spends the next chapter or two being nauseatingly twitterpated. She puts on her low-cut dress and gets her hair did, and goes out to meet her stalker. He’s waiting in the garden (obviously) and starts rambling proficiently. Cosette swoons, though I imagine it’s only so he can catch her and they declare their love for one another and it’s all very romantic and then they remember to introduce themselves.
Fortunately we get a break from the treacly romance by following Gavroche. Gavroche is a decent sort of kid, actually, which is surprising given his parentage. When he witnesses an old man beat up a would-be mugger and leave him his money, he then steals that same money from the mugger to give to the destitute Mabeuf. In contrast, we get the story of how Madame Thénardier hands her other two sons off to Magnon, a neighbor who’s just lost her own kids to the croup and needs replacements to keep receiving support money from her employer, Monsieur Gillenormand. She then pays the Thénardiers part of that money to rent the kids. When the Thénardiers are arrested, so is she, and the kids are left to wander the streets.
Gavroche finds them there, gets them food, and takes them back to his den of Lost Boys without recognizing them. It’s a busy night for Gavroche, though, and he is called away to help bust a man out of prison. The man, whose escape rope is too short, happens to be none other than Thénardier. (No coincidences, remember?) Gavroche’s reaction to this is “Blow me, if it isn’t my father! Well, no matter.” He helps him anyway and scampers off. When one of Thénardier’s friends ask him if that was his kid, his reaction is a similar tepid sort of “You don’t say.” Ah, such fond, familial ties these Thénardiers have.
We go back to the dull lovey-dovey happiness of Cosette and Marius. Hugo is very adamant that we know that there was no sex whatsoever. NONE, do you understand? Cosette is a chaste little angel and Marius walks about in a drugged lovestruck stupor, so the most they do is kiss, despite the fact that Cosette’s choice in low-cut dresses suggests that she is not as innocent as Hugo wants us to imagine she is – but I guess that’s all part of his fantasy.
Éponine for her part, keeps watch over the house. She says hello to Marius while he’s in his stupor, and gets irrationally angry when he’s not really paying attention to her. Still, she’s a loyal person and threatens to scream when her dad and his gang try to ransack Valjean’s house (again).
Cosette is unhappy when she tells Marius that her father is thinking of moving to England (which, really, he probably should have done the first time around). Marius gives her his address and goes home to reconcile with his grandfather, Gillenormand, and ask for his consent to marry. Granted, neither Marius nor Cosette have a job or money to their name, but Marius is pretty sure they can eat love. It goes about as one would expect it to, and the old man snorts and suggests he make her his mistress. Marius is offended to the utmost and storms out, which Gillenormand immediately regrets. Marius goes to bid Cosette farewell, but they have already left, and instead, he is summoned to the barricade where his friends are hanging out – er, no, wait, they’re actually fighting now.
The date is June 5, 1832 and there’s an uprising going on in the streets that will later be known as the June Rebellion. A funeral procession for a general becomes an ambush by a couple dozen unhappy youths. Among the rebels is Gavroche, running into battle with a broken pistol and joining up with Enjolras’ group. Also joining the ragtag bunch is Monsieur Mabeuf, the old man who gave the money Gavroche left him to the police in case someone came to claim it. He considers himself a failure, so he hasn’t got much to lose by joining the battle to overthrow the government.
During the funeral procession, some of the ABC Society had been hanging out in the tavern (Grantaire had been drinking himself into a stupor because Enjolras doesn’t like him back) but when Enjolras calls them all to arms, they don’t hesitate to build a barricade right where they are. Enjolras tries to get Grantaire to go sleep off his hangover elsewhere, but the man is determined to snooze at the table where he’s sitting. That’s dedication.
After the barricades are built and the rebels wait (and by wait, I mean sit around and recite love poems – I’d blame Marius, but he isn’t even there yet), Gavroche spots a suspicious looking man who turns out to be Javert. Javert, for his part, is a terrible undercover cop and gives his name and position easily when asked. They tie him up.
Marius, meanwhile, has become suicidal with the thought of living without Cosette. (Can you hear me rolling my eyes? I think I’ve done that so often with this guy that I’ve strained them.)
Speaking of suicidal people, the group is standing their ground against soldiers, who blow the flag off their barricade. Mabeuf climbs up to hoist it again, but he’s fatally shot in the process. They decide the next flag they raise will be Mabeuf’s holey bullet-ridden coat.
When the soldiers begin to swarm the barricade, Marius transforms from sniveling puppy to Rambo, mowing down the men about to kill his friends and frightening the rest of them off by threatening to blow up the barricade with a torch and powder keg. The guards retreat from the crazy man, and Enjolras nominates him as the leader (yes, I’d say they are all doomed).
Éponine (remember her? Marius doesn’t) appears once more, dressed in men’s clothes, with a gaping bullet wound through her hand and her chest. In spite of the wound, she’s able to ramble on quite well, remarking “I’m so happy! We’re all going to die!” And, well, she’s not wrong. She manages to give him a letter from Cosette before she dies and gets a promised kiss on the forehead afterwards. We later learn that she had switched clothes with a youth who thought it was amusing to dress up as a woman (I would like to know more about this guy and whether or not he’s presently fighting in a dress). Cosette, thinking Éponine was a messenger boy, gave her the letter to deliver. Marius writes a reply and sends Gavroche to deliver it right this very minute, mostly to get him out of the way.
Valjean intercepts the letter, gives Gavroche some extra money and encourages him to smash as many streetlamps as his juvenile delinquent heart desires. Valjean reads the letter, is tempted to let Marius die, but ends up dressing up as an armed guard and heading out. Probably not the best plan he’s ever had.
Speaking of plans, the plan of living behind the barricades has not been well thought through, as the fighters are slowly starving. Enjolras has acquired four uniforms from dead guards so that some of them can escape the barricade and live. Everyone stands their ground, of course, so Enjolras tells them to think of their helpless women and children and they start outing each other as having wives or sisters. Finally, they put it to a vote and select five men to take the uniforms (because apparently counting is not a strong point of theirs). Fortunately a fifth uniform comes flying out of nowhere, as does Jean Valjean, who likes to sneak into meetings unannounced because that is how he rolls. Marius recognizes him, but has momentarily forgotten to obsess over Cosette (finally).
Javert, meanwhile, is waiting patiently for someone to kill him, but he gets ignored because their hands are a little full with shooting people and immediately regretting it. When their ammo runs out, Gavroche cheerfully goes out to collect some more from the corpses in the streets. He dodges most of the shots, but unlike the average Stormtrooper, one of the guards gets lucky and lands one on him. Gavroche is killed, leaving behind his two brothers to fend off swans in the park for soggy bread.
Valjean requests the opportunity to shoot Javert, but instead of actually doing that, he unties the man and helps him over the barricade, releasing him back into the wild. Just in case we weren’t sure if Valjean had an ounce of self-preservation, he also tells Javert where he is living. Javert politely replies that he finds this whole thing embarrassing and would rather Valjean kill him. The others hear a gunshot and assume that is the end of Javert.
The infantry breaks through the barricade and the rebels take refuge. Most of them don’t make it. Enjolras is backed into a corner of a room, surrounded by soldiers, when Grantaire finally wakes from his nap and makes his way downstairs to join him. They hold hands and smile while their brains are blown out. It would be cute, except, you know, the part where their brains are being blown out.
Marius is bloody and faint, but fortunately Valjean the White has the strength of a dozen men and carries him off to the sewers. Victor Hugo then waxes poetic about the glorious bounty that is human excrement (right around the time I was unlucky enough to be eating dinner while reading) and he goes on to give the history of the Paris sewer. This is all entirely relevant, of course, because Valjean does not know the history of the sewer and is therefore lost down there for awhile with Marius, avoiding cops and slipping into pits. I cringe to think of all that filth getting into the poor guy’s open wounds.
Speaking of filth, Thénardier has also chosen this moment to go for a stroll in the sewers. Valjean’s escape is foiled by a locked grate, and conveniently, Thénardier has the key. Thénardier thinks Valjean’s killed the body he’s carrying and offers to help him get rid of it, throwing in some extra suggestions in exchange for all the money on Marius’s person. Valjean finally makes it outside, only to run into Javert, who had been pursuing Thénardier. You mean he also chases after criminals other than Jean Valjean? Valjean offers to turn himself in on the condition that Javert helps him take Marius home. It didn’t work the first time he tried that kind of plea, but it works now. They take Marius back to Gillenormand, who is probably thrilled to receive the not-yet-dead body of his grandson covered in blood and crap. When Marius sits up, the old man faints.
Not understanding the phrase “last request,” Valjean next wants Javert to take him home to say goodbye to Cosette. Javert offers to wait outside the house, but when Valjean looks out the window, he is gone. You see, Javert the robo-cop has come to a difficult decision. Arresting Valjean would be bad, but letting him go would also be bad. The equation does not compute and Javert goes into self-destruct mode. He goes home, writes a list of complaints about the prison conditions, notes the time, takes off his hat, and throws himself into the Seine.
Marius still happens to be alive, but he takes a few months of delirious ramblings about Cosette to fully recover. How these ramblings are different from his usual state, I’m not sure. He still wants to marry her, but now his grandfather is on his side. The families meet, and Valjean calmly tosses 600,000 francs on the table as her dowry, which he had buried in the forest all along. That, in addition to the money Marius will inherit from his grandfather, makes the pair very wealthy. The lovers are not as impressed by the money as they are by the fact that they’re in love. Let’s just hope they remember to eat on occasion. Marius shows his priorities by declaring to Valjean that he will use his money to find and thank the man who saved him in the sewers. Awkward.
The wedding is small and cozy. Valjean has an “accident” that prevents him from signing the marriage documents (since he would have to use his fake name, nullifying the validity of the marriage) and slips away from the reception early, one presumes because the lovebirds are nauseating to watch. He goes home and sobs into the outfit Cosette was wearing when he first took her away.
Valjean visits Marius the next day (Hugo would like you to know that the newlyweds did indeed consummate the marriage) to confess that he is an ex-convict and that Cosette is adopted. Cosette enters the room and wants to listen, but they shut up about the whole thing and it becomes very awkward how long they drag out the conversation so that she shouldn’t hear anything, because apparently they don’t think she can comprehend the sacrifices made for her. Valjean spends weeks attempting to distance himself from Cosette, but doesn’t do a very good job of it. Instead he begins to wither away.
Marius is visited by Thénardier one last time (I’m not going to bother with his pseudonyms at this point), who hopes to blackmail him with the truth about Valjean. When Marius foils him by already knowing these facts, Thénardier accuses Valjean of robbing Monsieur Madeleine and murdering Javert. Marius happens to have evidence to the contrary of these claims, so Thénardier brings up the point of the body in the sewer (and why didn’t he just lead with that one…) which helps Marius learn who rescued him. Surprise – it was Valjean all along. Taking a page from Valjean’s book, Marius throws money at Thénardier in hopes that he will take his other daughter and go to America, never to be seen again. He does, and goes into the slave trade when he gets there, to the surprise of no one.
With a life-debt owed to Valjean, Marius grabs Cosette and rushes to Valjean’s house. They have arrived just in time for name-clearing, confession-speaking and forgiveness-giving before Jean Valjean passes away from Lonely Heart Disease.
Phew. That was a long one. Next time I’ll aim for something short and sweet. In spite of its overly depressing subject matter, though, this is a good book. I wanted to poke fun at the details, but every time I started to write a snarky question, I would have to delete it when Hugo answered it a page later. (How did Grantaire sleep through the cannons – oh, I see, he was in a drunken coma. Thanks, Hugo, for stealing my thunder.) It was a little eerie how well he did that, but I suppose that just shows how much attention he paid to every sentence.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I have a musical to watch.