Let me begin with painful honesty: I read very little of Les Mis this past week. These past two weeks, even. This was not actually because of the Thenardiers, repellent though they are. This is because Victor Hugo’s writing style is boring.
Yes, I said boring. It is. Either that or I am morally deficient. Which cannot be ruled out, for any human; on the other hand, there is a reason that, as Melina noted, everyone wants to have read Les Mis but nobody wants to actually read it.
Exhibit A: Part 1: Fantine; Book 4: To Trust is Sometimes to Surrender; Chapter 3: The Lark. (1.4.3) (Also, if I may be allowed an interjection, who the heck divides a story into parts and subdivides the parts into books? Every other story I have seen does it the other way around.) This is the chapter that describes the two years that Cosette spends with the Thenardiers, from age three to age five, during which she is verbally and physically abused.
It is a horrifying chapter. It is also dull. I studied history; I’ve been more stirred to outrage by statistics than by Hugo’s account. Statistics. I am not joking: numbers are more moving than this incredibly passive, oddly impersonal narration. Hugo really could have done with an editor.
Here, have some imaginary editor’s notes:
- Use the active voice
- Use concrete details
- Add a scene or two of specific occasions of ill-treatment (show, don’t tell)
- Include dialogue
- Consider narrating from Cosette’s POV
It was profoundly disturbing to me that somehow Hugo’s narrative voice removed me, the reader, from feeling the horror of child abuse.
It was heartrending to see her, a child not yet six, shivering in scanty, tattered garments, busy before daybreak on a winter’s morning sweeping he pavement outside the house with a broom far too big for her small chapped hands. (p. 154)
That is the closest the chapter gets to stirring compassion. Ya know, Hugo, telling me that it is “heartrending to see her” is not the same as showing me how trapped Cosette is, how betrayed by her caretakers, how miserable she is in body, mind, and spirit. Reading It was heartrending to see her is not the same as having my heart rent in twain by a taste, a shared taste, of her daily life.
So. Yeah. I stopped reading.
Then I started again, because hey! this is a blog, and I have to. Also, that bloody Victor Hugo and his tendency toward poverty porn are not getting the better of me. I’ll finish the damn book and write something better myself.
Let’s skip over the whole Fantine’s downward spiral part (and reasons 14 through 51 of Why We Want To Kill The Thenardiers) and get to Jean Valjean, whom Hugo makes an amusingly over-idealized paragon.
I’m not kidding, Hugo goes waaaaay over the top to a degree that should be funny but mostly has me gaping in disbelief at how he got away with writing things like this. If every line of praise Hugo wrote was a golden chain, Valjean would be so burdened that even he wouldn’t be able to walk. (And I am talking about a man who lifted a cart and possibly a horse off another man.) If Les Mis were fanfiction, Hugo would get harsh reviews and no kudos.
Fortunately, we finally meet Javert, at which the point the whole story has gained so many focal characters that it ceases to be a novel and becomes a multi-player game. More specifically, Dungeons and Dragons. Javert is clearly the paladin (Lawful Good) who conflates the law and authority with good, and consequently tramples on the downtrodden. He has no understanding of mercy or of small offenses; all are Evil and must be destroyed. Javert is the paladin who cannot comprehend mercy, or grace, and so loses justice and the true cause he ostensibly serves. The Law becomes his god, and not Good.
Jean Valjean was Chaotic Good in his youth; prison realigns him to Chaotic Evil; the bishop realigns him to Good. Lawful good is slightly out of the question – Valjean becomes Neutral Good.
Fantine is Neutral Good, and suffers for it. Maybe Neutral Neutral.
The Thenardiers are Chaotic Evil.
The bishop, his sister, their servant, and Sister Simplice are Lawful Good. (If Lawful Goods are allowed to break the law once or twice, in the name of good? Because both the bishop and Sister Simplice, deeply honest and truthful people whom you would think are the very embodiment of the ideal paladin, tell lies to their harsher brethren in order to spare Jean Valjean.) Sister Simplice’s two lies are described as “a sacrifice” and form the most poignant passage in that chapter.
Maybe I’m as heartless as Howl Pendragon but the whole story is a lot easier to swallow when I read it as an extended series of D&D campaigns.
[ALSO: I thought I was the first to think of Les Mis and D&D, but someone else has and made a short sweet fic. Warning: spoilers, Les Amis but! with a happy ending.]