I might as well get this written too.
I finished the books last night at three. Very sad story it was.
My favourite thing about these books was the character of Jean Valjean, and the author’s thesis that people are not always to blame when they end up with lives the entire society condemns. This, in my experience, is not common even in our highly ‘progressive’ society, and people are, as ever, inclined to cast stones, instead of trying to understand and think of the causes that might have pushed a person into a life like that.
I found it somehow comforting to read about people who had a bad time of it in life too, and those people were indeed my favourite characters: in addition to Jean Valjean, also Eponine and Gavroche. I thought – perhaps I’m biased – these people had much more character than Marius or Cosette, who seemed like cardboard figures of the highly typical 19th century (and prior) hero and heroine. I did not like Marius much and I did not enjoy the middle parts of the book where he was prominent. It was mostly a bit boring. By that time, Hugo had also managed to kill my suspension of disbelief when he introduced even more unlikely coincidences. It began to feel a bit like the sequels of Pirates of the Caribbean or some movie like that where the first part works, but then it just gets stale and tiresome.
When Jean Valjean re-appeared and was on centre stage, I started liking the book again, was not bored and read eagerly. He is such a magnificent character, even an impossible plot can be believed (L).
But Marius, Marius. He struck me as another Angel Clare figure and that was even before he kicked Jean Valjean out and caused his death. His loyalty to Thernardier made no sense. That kind of ice cold morality is completely perplexing to me, and ultimately unlikeable, I suppose. Thernardier was a horrible bandit, surely seeing that would make it doubtful whether he deserved the loyalty. I would call this the King Arthur style morality, which is without much compassion. It killed Tess, it killed Jean Valjean, both good gentle souls, and in no way at fault for what happened to them.
Similarly to Hardy’s novel, and perhaps also those of George Eliot, the author ultimately, in spite of challenging contemporary attitudes, fails to go all the way. Hardy killed off his highly likeable “fallen woman”, because the morality of the time would not permit a novel ending with Tess living happily ever after. Hugo did the same to Jean Valjean, but also to Eponine, Fantine and Gavroche. George Eliot denied
his her women the chance to find an outlet for their independence of mind and spirit. I suppose these things would have been too revolutionary and impossible in the context of these books, but it is still very sad, and I wish the authors had been more scandalous. And Eponine and Gavroche, surely, had done nothing that would scandalize society if they were granted a bit of good times too.
If I wasn’t so tired, I’d say I want to be Jean Valjean and he is my role model, but I’m tired.