Les Miserables 34: Waterloo

At this point, all of the action relating to Fantine has been resolved.  Fantine is dead, the good mayor Madeleine has been outed and arrested as Jean Valjean, Valjean has busted out of jail and is now en route toward Paris, presumably to fetch Fantine’s daughter Cosette who is still in the Thenardiers’ care.  Cosette’s fate is still up in the air, as is Valjean’s, but that will be dealt with in the next section of the story.

But before getting to any of that, Victor Hugo takes a pause and takes us back to 1815 for a 58-page, blow-by-blow account of the battle of Waterloo.  He eases into it by starting with the account of a traveler walking along the road past the field of Waterloo on a calm, peaceful day, some fifty-plus years after the battle took place.  By following this traveler we reach Hougomont, where it all began.

Here Victor Hugo transitions into an account of the ugly struggle at the farm of Hougomont.  Napoleon began the battle of Waterloo by attempting to take this farm, with the idea of drawing off several of the English batallions away from where the principal action would be.  But the English resistance at Hougomont was very strong, and this did not make too much of a dent in the English resources.  From here the action shifted toward the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean, which was a slight rise at the top of a large plain next to Hougomont.  At around 4 PM that day, Napoleon attempted to charge the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean.  Unfortunately for him, his charge was thwarted by the sunken road of Ohain, a road which cut right across the battlefield and which formed a trench which was impossible to see until you were right up on it and it was too late to do anything about it.  Lots of horsemen were lost from falling into this trench.

Despite everything, the battle was going very well for Napoleon.  But then the Prussians showed up to help the English, and it was all over.

That is a rough idea of how the battle of Waterloo went.  But what is this account doing in the middle of our story?  Why does Victor Hugo take a 58-page timeout to tell us about Waterloo?  Here are some thoughts about this section of the story:

–Victor Hugo’s coverage of Waterloo was innovative at the time, because the vast majority of historians who had written about Waterloo up to that point had written about it from Wellington’s point of view.  Victor Hugo, on the other hand, wrote about it from the point of view of Napoleon, and took great pains to show the heroism of the French soldiers, even in defeat.

–One of the big ideas that Victor Hugo keeps coming back to in this section of the story is that the driving force in Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was Destiny, or Providence, or God, or whatever you care to call it.  Wellington does not deserve credit for winning this battle; he was getting his ass kicked by Napoleon until the Prussians showed up.  Neither does Blucher, the Prussian general, deserve the credit; if he had shown up an hour later he would have found the battle won by Napoleon and been powerless to do anything about it.

Throughout his account, Victor Hugo highlights the little twists of fortune that went against Napoleon during the battle.  First of all, it rained all night the night before.  This meant that Napoleon had to get started later than he would have liked; he had to wait until 11 AM in order for the ground to dry out enough for his artillery to move around and not be stuck in the mud.  Had there been no rain, Napoleon would have been able to get started at 6 AM, and would have finished up by 2 PM, long before the Prussians arrived.  Next there was the sunken road of Ohain, which just happened to cut across the battlefield and which swallowed up a goodly portion of his cavalry.  There was his guide, whom he had asked about this and who had led him wrong.  There was a shepherd who met the Prussians en route to Waterloo and showed them the one road that would have gotten them there safely.

What we admire above all, in an encounter like that of Waterloo, is the prodigious skill of fortune.  The night’s rain, the wall at Hougomont, the sunken road of Ohain, Grouchy deaf to cannon, Napoleon’s guide who deceives him, Bulow’s guide who leads him right; all this cataclysm is wonderfully carried out.

…And those things were done, and those kings resumed their thrones, and the master of Europe was put in a cage, and the ancien regime became the new, and all the light and all the shadow of the earth changed places, because, in the afternoon of a summer’s day, a shepherd said to a Prussian in the woods, “Go this way, not that way!”

Victor Hugo best sums up the role of Providence in the outcome of Waterloo in the following quote:

Might it have been possible for Napoleon to win this battle?  We answer no.  Why?  Because of Wellington?  Because of Blucher?  No.  Because of God.

For Bonaparte to be conqueror at Waterloo was no longer within the law of the nineteenth century.  Another series of acts was under way in which Napoleon had no place.  The ill-will of events had long been coming.

It was time for this titan to fall.

The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the equilibrium.  This individual alone counted for more than the whole of mankind.  This plethora of all human vitality concentrated within a single head, the world rising to the brain of one man, would be fatal to civilization if it endured.  The moment had come for incorruptible supreme equity to look into it.  Probably the principles and elements on which regular gravitation in the moral and material orders depend had begun to mutter.  Reeking blood, overcrowded cemeteries, weeping mothers–these are formidable plaintiffs.  When the earth is suffering from a surcharge, there are mysterious moanings from the deeps that the heavens hear.

Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed.

He annoyed God.

Waterloo is not a battle; it is the changing face of the universe.

–So why does this account of Waterloo even appear in the story in the first place?  Remember, this is not just the story of Jean Valjean and friends.  Rather, it is Victor Hugo painting on a canvas as broad as the nation of France itself, in order to speak prophetic truth to his people.  Part of his message is that violent military combat was no longer enough to affect social change, and that the change he wished to see was not dependent upon the outcome of military battles.  We see this in the fact that he chose the failed student uprising of 1832 as the climax of his story.  We see this also in the following quote:

Neither illustrious England nor august Germany is in question in the problem of Waterloo.  Thank heaven, nations are great aside from the dismal ventures of the sword.  Neither Germany nor England nor France is held in a scabbard.  Nowadays when Waterloo is merely a click of sabers, above Blucher Germany has Goethe, and above Wellington England has Byron.  A vast rising of ideas is peculiar to our century, and in this dawning England and Germany have their magnificent share.  They are majestic because they think.  The higher plane they bring to civilization is intrinsic to them; it comes from themselves, and not by accident.  The advances they have made in the nineteenth century do not spring from Waterloo.  It is only barbarous nations that experience sudden growth after a victory.  It is the fleeting vanity of the streamlet swelled by the storm.  Civilized nations, especially in our times, are neither exalted nor degraded by a captain’s good or bad luck.  Their specific importance in the human race results from something more than combat.  Their honor, thank God, their dignity, their light, their genius, are not numbers that heroes and conquerors, those gamblers, can cast in the lottery of battles.  Often a battle lost is progress attained.  Less glory, more liberty.  The drum is stilled, reason speaks.  It is the game in which he who loses gains.

–Let me seize upon one incident from the battle.  It was down to the end; the Prussians and English were kicking the French’s asses, but the French were still fighting valiantly.  They suffered unspeakable losses, yet still they fought on, all the way down to their last man, an officer named Cambronne.  The English called upon him to surrender, and he responded with “Merde!” (That would be the French equivalent of “Bullshit!”)  Victor Hugo heaps lavish amounts of praise upon Cambronne for this act of defiance in the face of certain death:

To speak that word, and then to die, what could be greater!  For to accept death is to die, and it is not this man’s fault, if, in the storm of grapeshot, he survived.

The man who won the battle of Waterloo is not Napoleon put to rout; nor Wellington giving way at four o’clock, desperate at five; not Blucher, who did not fight; the man who won the battle of Waterloo was Cambronne.

To burst out with such a word at the thunderbolt that kills you is victory.

To give this answer to disaster, to say this to destiny, to supply this base for the future lion [the monument that would be installed to commemorate the battle of Waterloo], to fling down this reply to the rain of the previous night, to the treacherous wall at Hougomont, to the sunken road of Ohain, to Grouchy’s delay, to Blucher’s arrival, to be ironic in the sepulchre, to act so as to remain upright after falling, to drown the European coalition in two syllables, privies that the Caesars were already privy to, to make the last of words the first, by associating it with the glory of France, to close Waterloo insolently with a Mardi Gras, to complete Leonidas with Rabelais, to sum up this victory in one supreme word that cannot be spoken, to lose the field and to recover history, after this carnage to have the laugh on his side, is immense.

It is an insult to the thunderbolt.  It attains the grandeur of Aeschylus.

–Finally, what purpose in the story does this account of Waterloo serve?  First of all, Victor Hugo’s account of Cambronne provides his idea of a real hero at Waterloo.  It is essential to hold this in mind so you can contrast it with another character whom we will meet later on who claims to have been a hero at Waterloo.

But overall, the account of Waterloo helps to set the mood for what happens on the battlefield that night.  We would not appreciate the somber mood that hangs over the battlefield that night if not for Hugo’s full description of the carnage that took place there during the day.  We would not appreciate the suffering of those who died and were buried alive in the sunken road of Ohain if not for Hugo’s lurid description of that incident.

And this is how Hugo transitions us back into the story.  That night, amidst all the carnage, the suffering and somberness of the battlefield, a robber is walking along the sunken road of Ohain, plucking valuable items from the corpses of the dead soldiers there.  As he is in the process of robbing one particular corpse, he feels a hand grabbing on to him.  It is the hand of a soldier trapped underneath all the dead bodies, who is still barely alive.  After stripping him of all his valuables, the robber extricates this soldier from the mass of dead bodies and carries him to safety.  We learn from their conversation that the robber’s name is Thenardier and the soldier’s name is Pontmercy.  We have already come into contact with Thenardier; Victor Hugo alluded to this scene earlier in the story as follows:

This Thenardier, if we can believe him, had been a soldier, a sergeant he said; he probably had been in the campaign of 1815, and had even been brave, it seems.  Later, we shall see what his bravery consisted of.

Contrast this act of “heroism” with Cambronne’s defiant obscenity in the face of certain death at the hands of the English, which Victor Hugo praised so lavishly, and you will get the idea of what Thenardier is all about.

Hold on to this scene, because it plays immense importance in what is to follow down the road.

9 thoughts on “Les Miserables 34: Waterloo

  1. Thank you for this insightful commentary. I got to the Waterloo section and debated whether or not to skip it, but now I will keep reading and value it!

  2. Yes thank you. A search of Ohain Road brought up your entry. Much appreciated.
    Hoping all is well.
    Merry Christmas,

  3. Oh! Thank you so much!! I was rather put out from this distraction to the story, and I wanted to know why it was there! I am so grateful for the insight and I now appreciate it as an interesting addition to the book. Best wishes!

  4. Great job analyzing this section. Les miserables is such a readable story, but i think a lot of people get bogged down at this point. I only wish Hugo could have made the Waterloo chapters (and okay, some of the parts about the bishop) a wee bit more concise.

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  7. I just read the scene at the end with Thenardier and Pontmercy; there was no way I could slog through fifty-eight tedious pages about a battle took place before the story even started. As far as I’m concerned, the first section about the bishop dragged on far too long; I kept screaming at Hugo, “ENOUGH! I get it–the Bishop is a good man! Can we get on with the story?” The Waterloo section, if I’d tried to read it, would have finished the Brick for me forever.

  8. I hear that! Enough is something I yell at Hugo frequently these days. I agree that the initial section with the priest was overly long; however it provided a lot of context to what Valjean was attempting to live up to later. I am driving long distances for work between states and have long loved the musical. I am listening to the book as an audiobook. Overall I love it but this Waterloo section was a SLOG. I put the iPhone on 2x speed to get through it a little quicker. But what a payoff! To be rewarded with the first meeting of Marius and Eponine’s fathers, with that much context, is truly awesome. Plus, I now know a bit about Waterloo, which was a huge gap in my education ;-)

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