Les Miserables 60: The Ambush

Today, it is time to address a shortcoming of Victor Hugo’s writing, one which many critics have noted, not just myself.  That is, his rather heavy reliance upon coincidence as a device to move the plot forward.

Now, this is not just a Victor Hugo problem.  This is something which is common to many Romantic writers of the early to mid 19th century.  Alexandre Dumas, one of the leading Romantic writers of this period, uses coincidence quite frequently in his writing.  In The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance, how else do you explain the fact that three mutual acquaintances from the same suburb of the same fishing town in southern France all make it big and wind up in Paris at the same time?  And how else do you explain how, when Dantes was placed in prison at the Chateau d’If, his cellmate JUST HAPPENED to be a priest who could help him escape, place a massive fortune at his disposal, and give him the education he would need to use it well?

Up to this point in the story, we have seen a number of coincidences:

–Marius and the Thenardiers wind up, not just in the exact same part of Paris, on the exact same street, but as next-door neighbors in the exact same apartment building.

–Moreover, this is the exact same building where, some eight years before, Jean Valjean and Cosette stayed.

–Javert JUST HAPPENED to be in the police station nearest the Gorbeau House, on duty at the exact time when Marius came to report the Thenardiers’ planned ambush of Valjean.

–Valjean JUST HAPPENED to be in the habit of attending Mass at the church of Saint-Jaques-du-Haut-Pas, which was near the Gorbeau House.

–Eight years ago, Javert JUST HAPPENED to be in Paris and in the neighborhood when Valjean and Cosette were staying at Gorbeau, and to catch enough of a glimpse of Valjean to put himself on the trail.

–That fateful night, there JUST HAPPENED to be a convent in Valjean’s path, on the opposite side of the very same wall that Valjean chose to scale in his desperation.

–Moreover, that convent JUST HAPPENED to be the exact same convent where, as mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer, he had had Fauchelevent installed as gardener.

But Victor Hugo had one redeeming virtue in his use of coincidence, which is that most of his coincidences were believable.  For instance, it is believable that Valjean, Marius, and the Thenardiers could all wind up staying in the same apartment building.  Marius, a college student trying to live on a student budget, would have been attracted to Gorbeau by the cheap rent.  Valjean, a convict trying to elude Javert’s relentless pursuit, would have been attracted by the solitude and anonymity offered by this building at the remotest end of the Boulevard de l’Hopital.  The Thenardiers, seeking a cheap place to live and operate their criminal enterprises without police scrutiny, would have been attracted to it for the same reasons.