Dak Reads Les Misérables / FANTINE: Book 1 and 2

About: Dak reads Les Misérables and recaps it here, so that she may better retain the information. Things not to expect: deep literary analysis. Things to expect: Spoilers. All the spoilers.


Fantine: Book 1:
In Which the Bishop of Digne is Awesome!!!

In which M. Myriel goes to Italy in his youth comes back a priest, and basically proceeds to be the best guy to ever walk the planet. We learn about all of his good works — All of the them. He lives with his sister, Mademoiselle Baptistine, and her maid, Madame Magloire. Also, he only has 11 movable chairs…and the only luxury item he owns is some silverware. I have a feeling this might be of some importance later on.

 

Fantine: Book 2: Jean Valjean is Redeemed

 

In which Jean Valjean can’t catch a break. As soon as he steps into town everybody knows he’s a dangerous convict. Seriously. I guess gossip has had a way of travelling like wildfire since the dawn of time. As soon as he attempts to grab a bite to eat with legit money, he’s turned out on the street and everybody and their brother knows he’s a con. (Valjean can’t even get a job without being cheated out of half his due pay. He should have applied at the Wendy’s I used to work at.)

Finally, after wandering in, out, and around town for a while and getting pelted by rocks, some lady who has somehow managed to not hear the news happens upon him. She directs him to the Bishop’s house, and ValJean accepts some ₣₣₣₣₣₣s from her before he goes.

Meanwhile, the Bishop’s sister and maid are making a case for putting locks back on the doors, because even they have heard the news that there’s some dangerous dude lurking around town. The Bishop, of course, is unconcerned, because God will take care of everything. I mean, I can’t really blame the guy…he travels through bandit infested mountains and the bandits actually return some of their ill gotten gains to him. He’s that good. Seriously, though, where do I sign up to go to this guy’s church?

In any case, this important conversation about security is interrupted by Jean ValJean himself, looking scary and famished. He blurts out his entire post-parol tribulations in one big long stream, having given up on trying to get by without mentioning it since everybody already seems to know. It’s almost funny in a “Here’s a laundry list of shit I’ve been through, go ahead and do your worst!” kind of way. Y’know, if it wasn’t such a downer.

The Bishop surprises him by welcoming him and treating him as any other guest anyway and instructs the ladies to set the table for company, full silver and all.

Later, as it turns out, they have set ValJean up to sleep in a room that can only be accessed through the Bishop’s room.  The ladies are duly worried that this arrangement can only lead to tears somehow, but the Bishop is again unconcerned.  ValJean manages to peep where all that silverware is kept in a cupboard next to the Bishop’s bed. We can see where this is going, right?

We learn a little bit about how ValJean came to be in this situation in the first place. He once made a legitimate living by pruning hedges, a job his father before him held. He had to take care of his sister who had lost a husband and had seven children to take care of, so he basically had no time for anything except working. One hard winter, when there was no work, he stole that infamous loaf of bread.

He was caught, literally red handed after cutting up his hand on the window pane that he broke with his fist. It was the desperate act of a desperate man at a desperate time, and he pretty much acknowledges that all of this could have been avoided if he’d A. asked for the bread, or B. just waited things out. He knows he just made things worse, and all the time he spent in jail only heard about the fate of his sister once. So, he only got five years for breaking and entering an occupied house, and had subsequent years tacked on for trying to escape (four times in all). Which he also knew was only making things worse, but at that point it was reflexive. When it was his turn to make a break for freedom, he was going to take it.

And this is how Jean ValJean spent nineteen years in prison for stealing some bread. (We also learn that he spent his time there being super strong, scaling walls, and getting a bit of an education.) In summary, he was not quite an innocent basket of puppies, but definitely felt unjustly persecuted for his crimes. Prison hardened him and instilled a hatred for man in him that was honed to a sharp point by the time he came to the Bishop’s house. So, in the middle of the night he absconds with the silver, which was worth twice as much as all the money he had earned in prison over all those years. I’m not quite sure if we’re meant to believe he actually contemplated doing the Bishop in at that point, because there’s a long passage about how benevolent and glowing with the light of God the Bishop looks when the clouds part and the moonlight crosses over his face as he sleeps while ValJean stands over him with some kind of heavy tool that sounds like it could easily be a weapon. (Which he then uses to pry open the Silver cupboard.)

In any case, the ladies are in a flutter over the stolen silverware the next morning. The Bishop remains unconcerned and makes inquiries about what other forms of cutlery they have. He is possibly the chillest dude ever, and does a little contemplation of his own.  Does the silver really belong to them and not the poor in the first place? Either way, ValJean is caught in short order and returned to the Bishop’s doorstep in the clutches of some gendarmes so they can get the real story.

I think what we can take away from this chapter is that ValJean is the worst at escaping. He should really rethink that strategy.

The Bishop welcomes his return by claiming that ValJean had forgotten the last, and most expensive, of the silver — the candlesticks. He hands them over and manages to confuse and astound everybody with this gesture.

With his story that the Bishop had given him the silver confirmed, the gendarmes have no reason to hold ValJean. He is released, and the Bishop sends him on his way having purchased his soul for God.

So, Jean ValJean wanders on his way down the road extremely conflicted about this massive influx of kindness toward him after nineteen+ years of terribleness from all corners of life. As he’s sitting there thinking about all this shit, in a sort of ‘too much good all at once’ shock, a boy comes down the road tossing some coins up in the air. He drops one near ValJean and once again the reflexes of a hardened man kick in and he steps on the coin, so the kid can’t get it. He doesn’t respond even when the kid begs for it back, and the boy eventually runs away crying.

Later, ValJean lifts his foot, spies the coin, and realizes what he’s done. He goes down the road shouting the boy’s name, Petit Gervais, but doesn’t find him anywhere. When he comes to a fork in the path (Nope, no symbolism here. None.) he has a total emotional breakdown right there in the middle of the road. It’s the first time he’s shed a tear in nineteen years.

 

 


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