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Reflections in Progress–Les Miserables “Fantine”

Way back when I decided to read Les Miserables, I also decided to take a cue from Carrie at Reading to Know and respond to this book while in the process of reading it.  I am reading the unabridged version, after all, and at around 1400 pages, it is by far the longest book I’ve ever read.  (I’m fairly certain I’ve never read anything else over 800 pages.)  I started reading this book around February 1, and since I’m composing this post on February 11 and I’ve only finished 300 pages in this novel (the first division, entitled “Fantine”), I would say that I’m off to a pretty slow start.  My post-childbirth memory is very poor (never-you-mind that my baby is three), so I want a place where I can keep my “running thoughts” about the long novels I read; hence, the Reflections in Progress category of Hope Is the Word.

Contrary to what the fact that I have read an average of only thirty pages a day since starting this book seems to indicate, I am really enjoying it.  The only section of “Fantine” that really made me question my resolve to read the unabridged version was Book III, “The Year 1817.”  This is the section in which Fantine’s sordid past history is discussed in plenty of detail.  It wasn’t so much the details about Fantine and her boyfriend and friends that I found so trying; it was the details about French history that were completely lost on me.  Once upon a time in a former life (B.C.–before children), some of this might’ve actually made sense to me, but I have forgotten nearly everything I ever knew about the French Revolution and Napoleonic France.  It’s a shame, too, because it sure would’ve come in handy here.

In general, I think I can already make a few observations about Victor Hugo’s writing:

  • He has an amazing ability to encourage sympathy for the underdog or those who are considered the dregs of society.  In fact, it’s more than sympathy; at times, it borders on empathy because he makes his readers realize they might not do any better in the situations that, for example, Jean Valjean or Fantine find themselves in.  He puts a very human face on their suffering.
  • He is a master at suspense.  I was completely drawn in during the false identity crisis of Monsieur Madeleine.  Completely.
  • This book is all about characterization.  I loved the Bishop of Digne, and it was all because of the portrait Hugo paints of him.  I love books with richly drawn characters (I would actually trade good characterization for an exciting plot any day), so this makes me very happy.

Did you know that the title of this blog, Hope Is the Word, comes from Les Miserables?  No?  Well, neither did I until this week.  : )  I happened upon the quote by Victor Hugo (look below the blog title if you’ve never noticed before) on a piece of artwork at a local art show during the summer of 2007.  I’ve forgotten what the piece of art looked like, but I’ve never forgotten the quote. When I got around to joining the blogging universe, that quote was still percolating in my brain, so I called my blog Hope Is the Word.  My blog has evolved from a general homemaking, child-rearing, miscellaneous sort of blog to a dedicated book and education blog, but I have been loathe to change the name to something more appropriate since the quotation is from a famous author and since it uses the word word in an interesting way.  Anyway.  I came across a version of this quote while reading Les Miserables (and I cannot for the life of me find it now, despite a copious marking of my paperback for favorite quotes).  Of course, what I read was not a verbatim version of the quote from which my blog’s title is taken (or vice versa, really), and it briefly made me consider axing the quote up top.  Then I decided that I wouldn’t because it captures the spirit of what Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, and besides, I really, really like it.

Victor Hugo was a master at writing aphorisms (although really, some of what he says is rather long-winded and not aphoristic at all).  Here are a few of my favorite quotations from “Fantine”:

M. Myriel could be called at all hours to the bedside of the sick and the dying.  He well knew that there was his highest duty, his most important work.  Widowed or orphan families did not need to send for him; he came on his own.  He would sit silently for long hours beside a man who had lost the wife he loved or a mother who had lost her child.  Just as he knew the time for silence, he also knew the time for speech.  Oh, admirable consoler!  He did not seek to drown grief in oblivion, but to exalt and dignify it through hope.  He would say, “Be careful how you think of the dead.  Don’t think of what might have been.  Look steadfastly and you will see the living glory of your beloved dead in the heights of heaven.”  He believed that faith gives health.  He sought to counsel and calm the despairing by pointing out the Man of Resignation, and to transform the grief that contemplates the grave by showing it the grief that looks up to the stars.  (17)

“The most beautiful of altars is the soul of an unhappy man who is comforted and thanks God.”  (M. Myriel, Bishop of Digne)  (21)

[T]he goodness of the mother is written in the gaiety of the child.  (Fantine and Cosette) (151)

[B]ooks are cold but sure friends.  (163)

He did a multitude of good deeds as secretly as bad ones are usually done.  (F. Madeleine) (165)

The old woman, Marguerite, who had given [Fantine] lessons in poverty, was a pious woman, a person of genuine devotion, poor and charitable to the poor, and even to the rich, knowing how to write just enough to sign Margeritte, and believing in God, which is knowledge.

There are many of these virtues in lowly places; some day they will be on high.  This life has a day after.  (181)

On entering the order, Sister Simplice had two faults that she corrected gradually; she had a taste for good food and loved to receive letters.  Now she read nothing but a prayer book in large type and in Latin.  She did not understand Latin, but she understood the book.  (214)

There is one spectacle greater than the sea:  That is the sky; there is one spectacle greater than the sky:  That is the interior of the soul.  (219)

One can no more keep the mind from returning to an idea than the sea from returning to a shore.  For a sailor, this is called the tide; in the case of the guilty, it is called remorse.  God stirs up the soul as well as the ocean.  (225)

I am eagerly anticipating continuing the story of Cosette and Jean Valjean, but I think I need a little break first.  I hope to finish Madeleine L’Engle’s The Love Letters for Semicolon‘s Book Club before continuing on this journey with Victor Hugo.

6 Responses

  1. […] Thoughts, Challenges, To Be Read — hopeistheword @ 5:59 am Unfortunately, it looks like Les Miserables is still going to have a prominent place on my nightstand for the month of March.  I truly, truly, […]

  2. […] Classics Bookclub–Les Miserables March 3, 2009 Filed under: Adult Fiction, Bookish Thoughts, Challenges, Reflections in Progress — hopeistheword @ 7:09 am Sigh.  I’m still plugging away at Les Miserables, with only about 900 more pages to go.  : )  Back when I started reading it near the beginning of February, I had so hoped to finish it by today.  However, by the time I had gotten well into the first section, I realized that this book requires the type of concentrated reading that I don’t get to do much.  I tend to read in spats and spurts, with maybe a good thirty minutes at night before I turn off the light.  It’s hard to get through 1400 pages quickly like that.  I am enjoying it, though, and I intend to keep posting my Reflections in Progress as I finish the major divisions of the novel.  I’m almost through with the second section, so stay tuned to Hope Is the Word for my thoughts on it.  You can read my thoughts on the first section, “Fantine,” here. […]

  3. How cool that you found that quote!!

    I’m with you on the history stuff. It’s just too much for my brain to handle.

  4. Love the quotes. There are many such like quotes that have struck me throughout this story.

  5. […] notwithstanding, I have thoroughly enjoyed this section.  In my first Reflections in Progress post about the first section of the novel, I wrote that I was really impressed by Hugo’s ability to create suspense.  After reading […]

  6. […] Les Miserables (read my thoughts on book one here and on book two here) (and this time I PROMISE to borrow the abridged version from the […]

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