Book 1 of Les Miserables: Fantine

Thursday, May 03, 2012

I don't usually post multiple times on one book, but Les Miserables is such a beast that I feel like one concise little review just isn't going to do it. I've decided to have some discussion-type posts for each book and then I will do a more general review after I finish. Because the separate "Book X" posts are more of a discussion format, spoilers are fair game here, so if you want to avoid them, avoid these posts.

Book 1 begins with Bishop Myriel of Digne, an essentially perfect man whose one worldly weakness is a love for eating with silver cutlery. He switches his handsome parish home with the small parish hospital because he doesn't feel he needs as much room as the sick. Whenever he acquires wealth, he instantly spends it on the poor. He risks life and limb to minister to small, underserved village. He is, in essence, a saint, excepting his one tiny worldly flaw of loving his silver cutlery.

However, when a vagrant comes into his home, a convict despised and rejected by everyone else in Digne of whom he has sought shelter, Bishop Myriel takes him in, and his final vice is tested and refined. Jean Val-jean, a released convict who spent nineteen years in captivity due to the fact that he stole some bread to feed his sister's starving family and then attempted multiple times to escape, has molded into what others expect of him by stealing the bishop's silver and attempting to run away. Instead of turning him in and relegating him again to a life of captivity, the bishop treats Valjean as if he offered the silver to him in the first place, relinquishing his last worldly desire.

Thus begins the tale of Jean Valjean, a man of the lowest status who elevates himself to a level of kindness and goodness comparable to the bishop himself. I love the way these men are painted and the time spent on the development of their characters. Hugo is absolutely thorough. Reading Les Miserables isn't like being carried along by a thread of narrative -- it is total immersion in the world and lives of characters that are realized to the fullest extent.

Several years later, Valjean is a success. He has helped the town he came to by revolutionizing an industry and taking over the factory. He is nominated the mayor. With his exceptional strength, he has even saved a man's life -- at risk of revealing his previous identity to a suspicious inspector, Javert, who is one of the best and most complex villains I have ever read about.

In Valjean's factory works Fantine, a woman whose innocence and love betrayed her, who is now living at the edges of life trying to support her daughter Cosette, who lives with a voraciously greedy innkeeper and his wife. I am very familiar with the musical Les Miserables, and while I read the book about eight years ago in a different translation, I still felt I was learning something new about Fantine this time around. In Book 1 we are given the chance to see the relationship that leads to Cosette, and in some ways it is very disappointing. She was passionately in love, but the truth is that her lover, Tholomyes, is pretty despicable and unlovable. Still, to her he was everything, and I suppose that is the way that love is for many people -- we see only the traits that make that person attractive to us and miss the rest. Once alone, Fantine exhausts every possible avenue to keep Cosette alive, and eventually it is her downfall.

In the past in Les Miserables, Eponine was the character I sympathized with most. A lovesick girl stuck forever in the friend zone -- that is an experience that rang true for me in high school more than once. However, this time around, I've been sympathizing much more with Fantine, and I was very touched by her experiences and her death. While I'm lucky enough to not be abandoned by my lover, I can relate to Fantine's fierce love for her daughter and desire to sacrifice everything to keep her safe and healthy. I haven't actually given birth to a child yet, but let's just say I am much closer to the motherhood phase of my life rather than the rejected crush phase of my life. I'm curious to see if I will still relate to Eponine once I am further into the book. (I think I will, just because I related so much to her for so long).

Now I am stuck in the beginning of Book 2, the dreaded Waterloo section. Hopefully I'll power through that tonight so I can write my Book 2 post soon!


  1. This is my absolute favorite book of all time. I read it every 5-7 years, wondering if it can still hold up, and each time I finish I love it even more.

    I totally agree with you about Fantine. I think she's such a complex character, and people who haven't read the book can't always understand how tragic her fall is, and the scathing comment it was on the society in which she lived.

    I relate to her too, and love Eponine too, but Javert is by far my favorite character. Can't wait to read the rest of your reviews. :)

    1. Have you read the Julie Rose translation yet? I've read the other translation once, and now going through this one is like night and day because it is so much better.

      It makes me happy that Javert is your favorite character. He is one of my favorites in the musical and I am looking forward to reading more about him in the book and remembering more details about him.

  2. You really have me interested in this book now. I'm going over to Amazon to read some of it and decide whether to add it to my Classics Club list.

    1. You should! It is an intense read, but definitely worth it.


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