Les Miserables 46: Paris Atomized

Les Miserables is structured to break out into five sections.  The first three tell their own story more or less, and each contain their own mini-climax.  These mini-climaxes build in intensity and scope while pointing inexorably toward the main climax of the entire story, which occurs at the beginning of the fifth section.  After each mini-climax and resolution, Victor Hugo breaks off for a lengthy expository passage, then leads us back into the story but at an almost completely different place in the action.  All of these streams of action, however, flow into one large raging river which leads us inexorably to the main climax of the story.

We are currently just past the second mini-climax and resolution.  The first mini-climax was the courtroom scene at Arras where Monsieur Madeleine, mayor of MSM, gave himself up as Jean Valjean.  The second was the chase sequence where Javert found Valjean and Cosette and hounded them out of Gorbeau, which ended with Valjean and Cosette winding up in the Petit-Picpus convent.

Since we are at a natural break in the story’s action, let us take out the trash and look at a couple of things which I found laying around, as it were.

–First of all, here is a link to the official Montreuil-sur-mer website.  (It’s all in French.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)  Here you can take a virtual walking tour of the town as it is today.  Note that the sea, which came right up to the town in Victor Hugo’s day, is now some eight to ten miles away.

–And here is the official Montfermeil website (it’s all in French).  From what I understand, Montfermeil is home to the Les Bosquets housing project and is a pretty thugged-out area of Paris these days.  According to the official Montfermeil website (my French is not the greatest in the world but this is what I can make out), Les Bosquets was built in 1960 and underwent a renovation sometime during the 80’s which saw the demolition of 350 units, the rehabilitation of 320 units, and the addition of several services including a post office and a police precinct.  Apparently there is currently an effort underway to redevelop Les Bosquets.

–Back to Victor Hugo’s thing about convents:  I know that many evangelicals have significant issues with the institution of monasticism.  There are good reasons for this.  I get that.  But monasticism has much to commend it, and I don’t think it gets all the props it deserves.  For instance:  What is there for those of us who are single, who have no plans to marry anytime in the foreseeable future and see ourselves remaining single for an extended season of life?  Surely for those of us who fall into this category, there must be something more than just the next bachelor pad, something more than just an endless string of bachelor pads all over the city until we one day settle down and marry.  Why not have a group of guys, or a group of women, living together in the same house, intentionally practicing Christian community and discipleship?  This is definitely something which monasticism has to commend itself.

Now, on with the story.

Victor Hugo now breaks off into a lengthy essay on the street child of Paris, known by the word gamin.  He leads us into it as follows:

Paris has a child, and the forest has a bird; the bird is called the sparrow; the child is called the gamin.

Couple these two ideas, the one containing all the heat of the furnace, the other all the light of dawn; strike together these two sparks, Paris and infancy; and from them leaps forth a little creature.  Homuncio, Plautus would say.

This little creature is full of joy.  He does not have food every day, yet he goes to the theater every evening, if he wants to.  He has no shirt on his back, no shoes on his feet, no roof over his head; he is like the flies in the air who lack all these things.  He is from seven to thirteen years of age, lives in gangs, roams the streets, sleeps in the open air, wears an old pair of his father’s pants that come down to his heels, an old hat from some other father that covers his ears, and a single suspender of yellow selvage, runs around, is always on the lookout, kills time, puffs a pipe, swears like an imp, hangs around the bistros, knows the thieves and robbers, is cozy with the street girls, rattles off slang, sings dirty songs, and is not at all bad at heart.  This is because he has a pearl in his soul, innocence, and pearls do not dissolve in mud.  So long as man is a child, God wills him to be innocent.

If one asked this vast city, “What is this creature?”  it would answer, “It is my cub.”

This child typically lived on the streets of the city.  He might venture out into the communities which back then were known as the outlying suburbs, but those communities represented the absolute edge of his universe.  He had a very sunny and joyful disposition, typically, though upon reaching adulthood his prospects were very uncertain.  The gamin had a sense of humor and was usually given to witty repartee with all passers-by; Hugo notes one instance where a gamin saw a funeral procession which just happened to have a doctor in it passing by, and called out, “Since when do doctors take their work home with them?”

The gamin was a distinctive of 19th-century Paris, one about which Victor Hugo has very mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the gamin is a point of pride which encapsulates the best of what Paris is.  On the other hand, the plight of the gamin is a reproach to Paris and must be dealt with.  This is best summed up in the following quote:

The gamin is a beauty and, at the same time, a disease of the nation–a disease that must be cured.  How?  By light.

Light makes whole.

Light enlightens.

All the generous sunrays of society spring from science, letters, the arts, and education.  Make men, make men.  Give them light, so they can give you warmth.  Sooner or later, the splendid question of universal education will take its position with the irresistable authority of absolute truth; and then those who govern under the French idea will have to make this choice:  the children of France or the gamins of Paris; flames in the light or will o’ the wisps in the gloom.

Victor Hugo sums up the heart of his essay on the gamin as follows:

As for the people of Paris, even full grown, they are still the gamins; to depict the child is to depict the city, and therefore it is that we have studied this eagle through the outspoken sparrow.

…What difference does it make if they go barefoot?  They cannot read; never mind.  Would you abandon them for that?  Would you make their misfortune their curse?  Can’t the light penetrate the masses?  Let us return to that cry:  Light!  And let us persist in it!  Light!  Light!  Who knows but that these opacities will become transparent?  Are revolutions not transfigurations?  Go on, philosophers–teach, enlighten, kindle, think aloud, speak up, run joyfully toward broad daylight, fraternize in the public squares, announce the glad tidings, lavish your alphabets, proclaim human rights, sing your Marseillaises, sow enthusiasms, tear off green branches from the oak trees.  Make thought a whirlwind.  This multitude can be sublimated.  Let us learn to avail ourselves of this vast conflagration of principles and virtues, which occasionally sparkles, bursts, and shudders.  These bare feet, these naked arms, these rags, these shades of ignorance, depths of despair, the gloom can be used for the conquest of the ideal.  Look through the medium of the people, and you will discern the truth.  This lowly sand that you trample underfoot, if you throw it into the furnace and let it melt and seethe, will become sparkling crystal; and thanks to such as this a Galileo and a Newton will discover the stars.

So why break off from the story for such a long essay on the gamin?  It is because of Hugo’s concern for the lot of children in France; remember that this is one of the dominant themes of the book.  At the end of this essay we meet a young child who falls into the gamin category; this child will play a role of immense importance in the story as it progresses.  Victor Hugo zooms in on him, and uses him to lead us back into the story:

About eight or nine years after the events told in the second part of this story, on the Boulevard du Temple, and in the neighborhood of the Chateau d’Eau, there could be seen a little boy of eleven or twelve, who would have quite accurately realized the ideal of the gamin previously sketched, if, with laughter of youth on his lips, his heart had not been absolutely dark and empty.  This child was decked out in a man’s pair of pants, but he did not get them from his father, and in a woman’s jacket, which was not from his mother.  Strangers had clothed him in these rags out of charity.  Yet he did have a father and a mother.  But his father never thought of him, and his mother did not love him.  He was one of those children so deserving of pity above all others, who have fathers and mothers and yet are orphans.

This little boy never felt so happy as when in the street.  For him the pavement was not so hard as the heart of his mother.

His parents had kicked him out into life.  He had simply taken flight.

His prospects upon reaching adulthood, like the prospects of any other gamin, were not very good:

When these poor creatures become men, the millstone of our social system almost always reaches them, and grinds them down, but while they are children they escape because they are little.  The slightest hole saves them.

We follow this child to the home of his parents.  It turns out to be in a place we are already familiar with:  the Gorbeau House.  A poor family by the name of Jondrette was living in one of the garret rooms.  The reception which this poor child received whenever he went home to visit was never good:

…When he came there, he found poverty and distress and, sadder still, no smile; a cold hearth and cold hearts.  When he came in, they would ask, “Where have you come from?”  He would answer, “From the streets.”  When he went away they would ask him, “Where are you going?”  He would answer, “To the streets.”  His mother would say to him, “What have you come here for?”

…Yet his mother loved his sisters.

We learn that the child’s name is Gavroche.  We will see more of him later on.  We will also see more of the Jondrettes and learn who they really are.  Victor Hugo gives us a slight inkling that perhaps there may be more to the Jondrettes than meets the eye:

…Why was his name Gavroche?  Probably because his father’s name was Jondrette.

To break all links seems to be the instinct of some wretched families.

This, plus the line about Gavroche’s mother loving his sisters, is for the astute reader who is paying attention, a clue that perhaps, just maybe, you’ve seen the Jondrettes before.  Good plot novelists do this all day long:  they plant things early in the story and then cash in later on.

We also meet the Jondrette’s next-door neighbor, a young man by the name of Marius.  We will learn more about him next time.


One thought on “Les Miserables 46: Paris Atomized

  1. Wow, thanks for this post. I have been frustrated with all the ‘commercial breaks’ but really appreciated your anaylsis. Seems like I’m reading this right along with you at this point. Keep the great posts coming so I can figure out what’s going on! :o)

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