Tuesday, May 15, 2012
For me, Book 2 seemed to be divided into four parts. Two were plot-dominated and two were information-dominated. While the information sections were definitely relevant to the story, they made getting through this second part of Les Miserables tedious for me at times. However, the more plot-heavy sections more than made up for it.
The first section is the dreaded Waterloo section. I remember being completely daunted by this section when I was in high school -- I knew absolutely nothing about Napoleon and Waterloo and was completely confused. Now, after several years of French language and culture classes, I have a little more insight into it, although I definitely wouldn't be comfortable saying much more than that it was Napoleon's last and defeating battle. It was interesting to read for me this time around, but I struggled with all of Hugo's geographical descriptions. As far as spatial awareness goes, I actually have an IQ test result that is below average -- I have a really hard time visualizing places in my head. Even with maps, I usually get a headache just trying to follow them. All Hugo's talk of "this river" and "that mound" were tempting for me to skim over, although I managed to read the words even though my brain wasn't making much sense of them.
The second section (remember, these are just arbitrary sections that make sense in my mind) refers to Cosette's life with the Thenardiers and Jean Valjean's rescue of her. The musical, which is the version of Les Miserables I am least familiar with, neglects to mention that Eponine (as well as another girl, Azelma) are the Thenardiers' daughters. I think the most heartbreaking aspect of Cosette's life there is that the Thenardiers did treat their daughters well and with love. Not only did Cosette have to deal with the fact that she alone was rejected among the children in that house (I guess I should amend that to the girls -- Madame Thenardier doesn't really like her son, Gavroche, either), the girls never reach out to Cosette. Hugo excuses it as related to the fact that they just never learn to see her as a person because their parents don't treat her as a person, but I still think it is pretty depressing. While I really feel sorry for Eponine later in the story, in some ways I think she is getting a little bit of karma for not being kind to Cosette in their younger years. I also want to quickly mention that I love how Jean Valjean and Cosette's relationship develops. I love that they both were without someone to love for essentially their entire lives but they are able to instinctually latch on to each other and support each other. I think that is a very moving part of the story.
The third section is about convents. When Cosette and Valjean first leave the Thenardiers, they live in a little slum, but suspicion soon arises around Valjean because he lives and dresses like a poor man but clearly has money. Soon Javert is on their trail and they have to sneak away. The refuge that awaits them is a small, forgotten convent hidden by a high wall, which Jean Valjean naturally is able to climb due to his above-average strength. After they are safely hidden by a man who coincidentally works there and who owes Valjean a favor, Hugo launches into some of the history of convents and why he thinks they are on the decline in his era. It was an interesting discussion, although some of it was difficult for me to follow just because I am not as familiar with Catholic saints and historical figures (and was too lazy to look up all the footnotes -- there were hundreds!) but it was interesting.
The fourth section was my favorite. While Jean Valjean and Cosette are safe in the convent for the night, Fauchevelent knows they can't stay there -- he is the only man (the gardener) and must wear a bell so the pure, celibate women do not have to cross his path. He needs to get Cosette and Valjean out in order to have them legitimately in (by pretending that they are relatives and that the work is too much for Fauchelevent), but Valjean can't just leap back over the wall, because Javert is guarding it night and day. The series of unfortunate (and fortuitous) events that result in Valjean's escape and reentry were hilarious and brilliant. I won't go through the whole process because it is complex, and I don't want to give you the whole plot even though this post is fair game for spoilers. However, suffice it to say that I laughed out loud several times, while also experiencing some tense moments. It is definitely one of the more entertaining parts of the book so far.
I'm about halfway through Book 3: Marius, which is fantastic and not quite so information-heavy. I'll be posting on that one once I finish it.