Sunday, March 18, 2012

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo - Post 1 {Fantine}

It's time for post #1 in the Les Miserables readalong - the end of Part 1, "Fantine".  If you're participating, please feel free to link up via the linky below.  (You can link up any time throughout 2012, so don't feel rushed!)  If you don't post or don't have a blog but would like to join in the conversation, leave your thoughts in the comment section below!  

Also, since this is a fairly well known story I'm not really thinking about spoilers.  So, if you do not know the storyline already and wish to be surprised you should read with caution!

The first thing that struck me as I began Les Miserables was the quality of the writing.  I should really stop having these preconceived ideas, but I was expecting the writing to be less conversational than it was.  I found it very easy to "get into" the story, especially when Jean Valjean was introduced as a character.  (At first I was just trying to figure out who this Bishop guy is...)  Does this happen to anyone else?  You have a fixed idea about what a book will be like, and in some cases it makes you put that book off for far too long.  In reality, the story is nothing like you pictured it, or the writing is far more enjoyable and accessible than you pictured it - and you find yourself wondering why it took so long to take it off the shelf!

The most striking element to the story so far has been the extreme injustices countered with moments of selflessness and giving, often despite these same injustices.  Darkness with pinpoints of light.  

The story opens with Monseigneur Bienvenu, a wonderful example of giving and sacrifice.  Although I enjoyed him as a character, I was wondering - as I mentioned above - who he was and how he fit into the story I was familiar with.  

After meeting Jean Valjean the first time, I was pretty shocked.  This was not the character I was expecting.  In hindsight, the character development of Monseigneur Bienvenu makes complete sense as the catalyst Jean Valjean needed to become the man he is supposed to be.  

I found Jean Valjean's background story to be so discouraging.  This is a man who has been completely beaten down and dehumanized by the system by committing the stereotypical ethical crime; stealing food to feed your family.  His reappearance in society is no better than his incarceration.  Did anyone else find it absolutely shocking and appalling that first, a person could face such a criminal charge for such a small crime, and second, that upon release, ex-convicts were forced to carry and present cards that identified themselves as such?  Basically, any misstep with the law ends up being a life sentence - if not physically in chains, then in metaphorical ones in the eyes of society.  Seeing Jean Valjean emerge from this experience as a man who is only willing to give to others is certainly a point of light in the darkness of his life up to this point.  

Fantine's story is heartbreaking.  I am always struck in these situations by the lack of options given to women.  The fact that Fantine had a child out of wedlock condemns her to a life of destitution.  I can't imagine giving away your child in order to be able to find work.  How unfortunate that her path crossed the Thenardiers' doorstep.  As far as I'm concerned, they are the darkest points of this story - even more so than Javert.  Javert sees the world as black and white, and given his background, I believe that although he is in the wrong and incapable of seeing past the technicality that Jean Valjean is an ex-convict, he believes that he is doing the right thing.  The Thenardiers on the other hand, they are motivated by pure greed, and any wrongs that they cause are worse because of this.  Fantine's spiral downward was hard to read, but it is contrasted beautifully by the kindness that Jean Valjean shows her.  Just when you think a situation is hopeless, a window is opened and there is a beam of light - in this case, Jean Valjean.

Finally, Jean Valjean's selfless actions on behalf of Champmathieu are amazing to read.  I am still surprised that the officials were unable to see all the good that Jean Valjean has done and forgive him his small crimes (especially if he was willing to repay these crimes, which I'm sure he was).  I was pretty disgusted by the reaction of the townspeople.  

A few words about Javert.  I find him to be a pathetic character.  I know he is the villain of the story, but part of me just feels bad that he was molded into the man he is.  I know there are people out there who see the world as black and white, right and wrong.  I find these people to be very dangerous.  Every situation is unique, and the mere fact someone has served a prison sentence should not outweigh the extreme good then have done after that sentence was completed.  The world is made up of shades of gray, and anyone trying to lighten or darken it to black or white is not seeing the complete picture.  Although I've never read this story, I do know the basic storyline - I'm looking forward to seeing any mental struggles that Javert has in regards to Jean Valjean's character.

I love the book so far!  If you're reading it as well, I hope you are enjoying it as much as I am.  See you on or around May 26 - the approximate completion of Part Two, Cosette!       

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