Les Miserables 77: Argot

lesmiserablesLast time Victor Hugo showed us Gavroche up close and personal.  We saw him unknowingly care for his two younger brothers, and then we saw him unknowingly care for his father by helping him out of a jam as he was trying to escape from prison.  Hugo left us on a cliffhanger, with Thenardier and his gang fresh out of prison and plotting possible criminal mayhem against the place on the Rue Plumet.  (We know that this is the place where Valjean and Cosette are presently staying.)

And now, Hugo breaks off into another aside.  Get used to it; this is the pattern of the story.  Hugo takes us right up to a climactic or semiclimactic moment, and then breaks off and heads in a different direction.

A few rules about the nonfiction asides in Les Miserables:  First, remember that this is part of the pattern of the story.  Hugo will bring us right up to a climactic moment, then break off and launch into a nonfictional aside, then ease us gently back into the story.

Next, remember that Les Miserables is more than just a high-action thriller about Jean Valjean and friends attempting to negotiate the Parisian underworld.  Victor Hugo is one of the finest plot fiction writers ever to walk the face of the earth, and even if that was all there was to the story, it would still have a lot to recommend it.  But Les Miserables is much more than that.  It is an attempt by one of France’s leading citizens to speak prophetic truth to his country at a pivotal time in its history by shining a light on people whom his country’s society had forgotten and the horrific conditions under which they lived.  Argot, the subject of this aside, is a significant part of these people’s lives.

Finally, remember that Victor Hugo is one of the finest plot writers ever to walk the face of the earth.  If he includes something in his story, then we can rest assured that there is a reason for it.  We may not know the reason right away, but we will see as the story progresses.  For example:  The story begins with several chapters describing the bishop Monseigneur Bienvenu, whom we never see again after those early chapters.  Why?  Because Monseigneur Bienvenu makes such a huge investment in Valjean in their encounter that it is important for us to know who he was and how he got to be who he was before we continue with the story.  His act of grace toward Valjean becomes much more powerful because we have the context that leads up to it.

Other examples:  The Waterloo aside.  In spending several chapters describing the Battle of Waterloo for apparently no reason, Victor Hugo sets the mood for what will happen on the battlefield that night.  He also provides us with examples of true heroism at Waterloo to contrast with the actions of Thenardier, who claimed to be a hero at Waterloo.  Later on, Hugo takes several chapters to describe the history of the convent at Petit-Picpus and monasticism in general, because this place is where Valjean and Cosette would spend the next several years of their lives.  Later, Hugo takes several chapters to describe the July Revolution of 1830, because this event and its aftermath would impact the world in which the characters of the story lived and drive them, each in his or her own way, toward the story’s ultimate climax.

This brings us to the section on argot.  What do we do with this?

Argot can be loosely defined as the in-house language of any trade, profession, sport, hobby, activity, or other field of human endeavor used by those who are insiders in that particular field.  No doubt you have heard the term used this way before.  But that is not what Victor Hugo is talking about here.  What he is talking about here is much more specific: it is the semi-distorted French used daily by criminals and others living in the Parisian underworld.  The closest present-day equivalent to this would be ebonics.

Hugo begins with a brief defense of the use of argot (as he defines it) in literature and the arts.  Argot is a fact of life in the Parisian underworld.  Those who lived in polite French society did not want to have to deal with characters who spoke argot in their books or plays, because they considered it impolite.  But Hugo shows no shame about taking his readers right up to this particular aspect of French life, unseemly though it may be, and shining a light on it.

Here are some phrases Hugo uses to describe the argot of the Parisian underworld:

Argot is nothing more nor less than a wardrobe in which language, having some bad deed to do, disguises itself.  It puts on word-masks and metaphoric rags.

In this way it becomes horrible.

…Argot is the language of the dark.

…Each syllable looks branded.  The words of the common language here appear as if wrinkled and shriveled under the red-hot iron of the executioner.  Some seem to be still smoking.  A phrase affects you like the branded shoulder of a robber suddenly laid bare.  Ideas almost refuse to be expressed by these substantives condemned by justice.  Its metaphor is sometimes so shameless we feel it has worn the iron collar.

…Being the idiom of corruption, argot is easily corrupted.  Moreover, as it always seeks disguise as soon as it feels understood, it transforms itself.  Unlike all other vegetation, every ray of light on it kills what it touches.  Thus argot goes on decomposing and recomposing incessantly; an obscure and rapid process that never ceases.  It changes more in ten years than the language in ten centuries.

Hugo then goes on to wax eloquently about how society is evolving toward progress and enlightenment.  All up to the eighteenth century there were the rumblings of a possible revolt of the under classes, but the French Revolution released the tension.  Now (that is, at the time at which Les Miserables was written), the ignorance of the past appears to be resurfacing, but let us not give heed to that for it is a powerless monster.

Here Hugo shows himself to be an idealist, who sees society as automatically and of necessity evolving toward a better state.  All of history is a progression from ignorance to enlightenment, from corruption to virtue, from hatred to love for all.  We who live on the other side of World War I, World War II, the Cold War, etc. would heartily take issue with this, but remember that this way of looking at things was quite common back in Hugo’s day.  They had not lived through World War I, World War II, the Cold War, etc., so we can’t totally blame them for their unguarded optimism about humanity’s capacity to create a better world.

Now, what purpose might Hugo’s little discourse on argot serve in the story?

In all probability, this indicates that there is a significant event coming up in the story in which argot will play a part.  We got a hint of this with Thenardier and his gang’s discussion of a possible attack on the Rue Plumet house.  We will have to wait and see what transpires.

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One thought on “Les Miserables 77: Argot

  1. An important post, especially throwing light on Hugo’s asides. Thank you for resuming your commentary on this most powerful work.

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