Paris. April 4, 1862. The city is slowly coming out of its gentle slumber. The sweet scent of the first flowers of Spring fills the morning air, while sleepy workers tread the cobblestone in their faded clothes, under the lamps of Paris. In the quartier Notre-Dame, a latched door opens. A boy of nine steps out into the dark street, crossing his woollen jacket over his chest. He stops at the bakery for a loaf of bread before running off to join the queue that has formed in front of a small shop. While he waits, he listens to the hushed chatter of people and watches the sparrows feed from the litter left about. Shops and cafés are slowly opening their doors. As he makes his way to the front of the line, the boy clutches the coins in his pocket. Finally, he trades them for a small packet wrapped in brown paper. At once, he presses it against his chest and races home. Entering the house, he climbs the steps two by two, stops on the threshold of the kitchen where his father awaits at the dining table. Dawn is lighting up the room with its first rays.
“Well, bring it here at once!”
The boy drops the loaf of bread on the table. Then, coming around to his father, he places the package in front of his expectant hands. He watches as the man unties the string, folds back the brown paper. The boy reads in a whisper: Les Misérables.
Within a day, the first 6000 copies of Part I of Les Misérables were sold out in Paris alone, not to mention other European capital cities where it was also released. Victor Hugo’s fame was made and his name etched in history. Translations, musical adaptations and, much later, movies retold the story of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Inspector Javert and little Cosette.
A few years ago, I reacquainted myself with this story. Inspired by the 2012 screen adaptation, I decided to read the novel, perhaps for the first time, since only excerpts are studied in french schools. It was a revelation of precision and grace. Though I had written a small piece after seeing the movie (here), reading the book unveiled some missing parts and shed new light onto the characters.
This is how the story begins…
From Dreams to Chaos
We first meet Fantine as the mistress of Monsieur Félix Tholomyès. Fantine is a dream of beauty, discretion, innocence, happiness, hope and faithfulness. She is passionately in love with Tholomyès, a man of eloquent and persuasive speech, strength, pragmatism and deceit. After a three-year liaison, Tholomyès decides it is time for the long awaited surprise he promised Fantine. At the end of a lovely day, the moment arrives: he leaves the café never to return.
Very little attention is paid to this character in most renditions of Les Mis. In fact, he is the first shadow, the first illusion, the first lie that drives Fantine’s story into the bitterness of despair and the darkness of death. Feeding Fantine’s illusions, giving her hope to dream, Tholomyès is a master of deceit and uses love for a season. When he sees he has dragged it on for long enough and that their relationship might compromise his status, he leaves her coldly and indifferently, satisfied with himself that he has done what was right for his career and future family. As for Fantine, not only does she bear the sadness of rejection and loss, but a child has come into her care as a fruit of their affair. The social dishonour and shame of being a mother without a husband in the 1800s means she will face hardship to provide for them both.
On her way out of Paris and towards a new life where she hopes her past will remain unknown, she meets Madame Thenardier, who accepts to look after little Cosette while Fantine works and sets up a home for them. Little does she know that she has entrusted her precious child into the hands of greedy and vicious people. As the story unfolds, Fantine’s work situation falls apart: she sacrifices her beautiful locks and her teeth in order to pay the Thenardier, and finally, destitute, she sacrifices her body as a prostitute.
Fantine’s descent into chaos is strikingly (though unknowingly!) well described by psychologist and author Jordan Peterson. He provides valuable concepts for character analysis, particularly when it comes to understanding what happens to a human being when life falls apart. The first step into Fantine’s descent is, as I have mentioned, Tholomyès’ betrayal. Her ‘place of bedrock security was in fact not stable, not certain (…) The ice she was skating on was simply too thin. She fell through, into the water below, and is drowning’ (1). As circumstances become even harsher for Fantine, Hugo notices that her beautiful smile had suddenly taken on ‘a melancholy fold which resembled the beginning of irony’. Soon after, ‘her heart grows gloomy’. And while humanity had been cruel, and circumstances caused her to despair, Peterson writes that it is the ‘continual rejected sacrifices (…) that will bend and twist people into the truly monstrous forms who then begin, consciously, to work evil’ (2). Desperate for money to pay the ever so greedy Thenardier, Fantine sacrifices her beauty, her dignity, and finally her very body to no avail. All of her sacrifices are rejected by reality and her descent continues. As Hugo describes: ‘the lower she descended, the darker everything grew about her’ until ‘nothing is left to Fantine of that which she had formerly been’. ‘She has become marble in becoming mire. Whoever touches her feels cold’. In Peterson’s words, ‘she has been hit so hard that her anger, terror and grief consume her. Where is she? In the underworld, with all its terrors'(3). Fantine reaches the final destination of her ‘downward spiral’ (4) when she is thrown into prison, a symbol of hell. She has become a monster and inspires no sympathy or pity from Inspector Javert. Not a soul would care for such a demon of a woman. Everything is lost. Dreams have turned to chaos.
And what about little Cosette? She has had it no better than her mother. Visual renditions of her condition could not possibly reflect the state of her body and her soul depicted by Victor Hugo in the novel. Like Fantine, she has been stripped of her beauty, innocence, happiness, even life. She is beaten daily, trembles in her rags, sleeps on the cold floor without a blanket, is forced to walk barefoot in the snow, carrying buckets of water too big and too heavy for her bony figure. Victor Hugo says: ‘She was only eight years old, she had already suffered so much that she reflected with the lugubrious air of an old woman.’ And later, ‘the expression in the glance of that child of eight years was habitually so gloomy, and at times so tragic, that it seemed at certain moments as though she were on the verge of becoming an idiot or a demon.’ Like her mother, her descent has caused her beauty to vanish and her soul to perish. And nobody takes notice. Not a soul has pity. Everything is lost. Dreams have turned to chaos.
At this point in the story, the end of Part I, the reader is left wondering: what hope is left for these wretched creatures? Who will pay for all this evil? Who will bring justice and make things right? Knowing these questions, Victor Hugo ends this part with a profound word:
‘He who knows that sees the whole of the shadow. He is alone. His name is God.’
(Part 2 of this blog will be up soon!)
(1) Peterson, Jordan. 12 Rules for Life. An Antidote to Chaos. p.269
(2) Ibid., p.177
(3) Ibid., p.269
(4) Ibid., p.177