Some general points:
Hugo glorifies Bruneseau, yet he completely ignores Parent-Duchâtelet, whose 1824 publication of his own researches and trips into the sewer Hugo heavily relies on, both for facts and as it relates to his major theme. This is abundantly clear in Parent's work on prostitution, which he explicitly compares to the sewer system: "Prostitutes are as inevitable in an agglomeration of men as sewers, cesspits, and garbage dumps; civil authority should conduct itself in the same manner in regard to the one as to the other: its duty is to survey them, to attenuate by every possible means the detriments inherent to them, and for that purpose to hide them, to relegate them to the most obscure corners, in a word to render their presence as inconspicuous as possible.”
And as explained and paraphrased by Charles Bernheimer in Figures of Ill Repute: Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth Century France
, “Just as the task of the the public hygienist is to sanitize the sewers so as to promote their cleanliness and efficiency, so his task with regard to les filles publiques is to assure the salubrity of the sexual canals used to drain the seminal excess of male desire. Both channels for the disposal of human waste, Parent argues, are necessary for the orderly maintenance of civilized society”. (p. 16) (Creepy as hell, eh?)
This link between the sewers and the dangerous classes constantly comes up in the way Hugo describes the way Valjean travels through the sewers. The descriptions contain the exact same allusions to the “night of the soul” as every passage on the “lower depths” of society. And this is even before Thenardier turns up. “It was no accident . . . that Hugo found a far more impressive topography of the crime and poverty of Paris in a description of the sewers than in the criminal districts. Parent-Duchâtelet . . . was merely reproducing a widely-held opinion” (Louis Chevalier, Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris During the First Half of the Nineteenth Century
, p. 110). It's constant in the 18th century as well: both Mercier and Restif de la Bretonne were authorities on prostitution and on the sewers.
Yeah, I've done a lot of reading (I own all the books I've been citing), but once you start really looking at Hugo's imagery, the connection just hits you in the gut. Every description seems to have a double meaning – the physical necessary for the chapter and the metaphysical that is the through-line of the entire novel. I mean, from the first chapter, “The pupil dilates in the night, and at last finds day in it, even as the soul dilates in misfortune, and at last finds God in it.”
This whole sewer section is in many ways the centre of the novel. It takes Hugo's thesis on the poor and throws it directly into contemporary comparisons between the dangerous classes and the sewers.
Also, Hugo is generally clueless about the sewers. He complains that the later additions, in the 1820s, were done on the cheap. However, concrete could be molded into different shapes much more easily than hewn stone, which was all to the good. The stone sewers “had rectangular bases and silted up easily. . . . This new procedure allowed the introduction of curved sewer floors, which made flushing easier.” Don't take his word for anything.
“The track of the sewers echoes, so to speak, the track of the streets that overlie them.” “So to speak” covers a multitude of sins – only with Haussman did a lot of streets get sewers at all. There are nearly 1100 streets in Paris in 1832 and only 40,300 meters of sewer, which without even looking at total length of streets should prove that you can't get everywhere in the sewer system.
I think there's a double meaning in here: between Valjean's false start and the zig-zags of the sewer system, no matter what happens, everything will eventually come to the river. Many starts, false starts, lost direction, but invariably the same end. I can't quite parse it, but it feels like something is there.
If Marius is still gushing blood all over Valjean, why is he not dead by the end of this? Victor, you're pushing too much drama needlessly.
I'm rather curious why Valjean doesn't just head down and camp out not far from an entrance until nightfall. He doesn't predict the cops coming down there, so this isn't a roundabout way of avoiding patrols – he's actually acting against logical instincts and making everything much harder on himself and Marius. Is it because a hard journey is necessary? Valjean's parts of the novel are full of harsh journeys – he crosses all of France in 1815, he must climb a “sacred mountain” to reach the convent, and here he must journey through all of hell in order to save Marius (and his own soul?). It's very much a theme, but it's one that here seems more dramatic than logical.
Love the quick paragraph on language shifts, the way “bousingot” is a transitory term.
We've got another double meaning here in the way the police lantern suddenly comes into view, a flare of “evil” in the darkness that is night and/or hell – the red flame of the lantern gives the labyrinth a feeling of hell.
LOL: “probably to put the first in warmer clothes”. Snarky narration FTW.
I love Javert here – the forehead-smacking “duh” when he sees the sewer grate, the patient waiting as he knows this is the safest place to both enter and exit so it is unlikely his quarry will use the sewer as a road rather than a hidey-hole.
We also see a considerably softened Javert here. It comes on the heels of the cops in the sewer being given the benefit of the doubt by the narrator – once they are cops, any sense of evil dissipates, and here we have Javert described as a domesticated pointer rather than a wild predator. He has a human master rather than the amoral dictates of nature, and he can be approached and even petted without fear of losing one's hand. It's interesting that in this chapter, as our main character is fleeing the police yet again, the police – and Javert in particular – are a more benign presence than they have been previously.
Maybe Valjean dies of rabies from the rat that bit him! (Hey, it's better than a broken heart.)
“had anyone asked him where he was, he would have answered: in the night”. Valjean spends a lot of time in the night. Here's, he's rescuing Marius but can't quite believe it – after all, it's in this chapter that he looks upon the boy with “inexpressible hatred” yet he keeps dragging the almost-corpse along. At this moment, his soul is definitely wavering between the passions of the night (that inexpressible hatred) and the dictates of the light (the mercy that drives him onward with his burden). I really do love him for this wavering – that look of inexpressible hatred is what keeps him human rather than saintly, and I wonder if he knew Marius better if he'd be wavering still more
Sunset would be a little before 9 pm on 6 June, so Valjean's gonna have to hang around a very long time in the sewers.
Wow, random misogynistic chapter title!
I don't think the cloud of sand fleas would be all that joyous. Or, well, they are joyous, I'd be freaked out.
Hugo is spouting a lot of received wisdom (aka crap) on quicksand. Mythbusters, and various scientific work, has exploded this particular idea for years. It isn't the quicksand that'll kill you in the way Hugo describes – it's the rising tide on that beach where you're stuck that'll actually drown you. I'm going to link you to a really awesome article on Slate, Terra Infirma: The Rise and Fall of Quicksand
. There's some historical stuff on depictions on page 3 and the scientific stuff is on page 5.
But this traditional use of quicksand works as a metaphor as applied to the track of the novel as a whole. The whole “drowning alone in the night” thing. It's just that having read the Slate article, I know way too much about quicksand to do more than laugh.
Oh, Victor, way to make drama out of nothing. 6 months work on one section – but it was raining for four and a half months of it? Of course the work was constantly delayed and water causing odd settling was going to be an issue.
The end of the chapter - “his soul filled with a strange light” - the real horrors of the spiritual journey have ended? It definitely feels like a companion to his entrance to the convent, the physical journey rewarded with spiritual peace.
And like with the convent, just when he thinks he finds peace, he instead finds additional trials in this chapter.
Oh, Valjean, you've just walked into Thénardier's trap. He's waiting to see if you get away or if he can hear you get nabbed. Either way, that'll clear the way for him to get out. Not that you could know that Javert is possibly out there, but you should have a little more suspicion.
Note that during their conversation on the barricade, Javert addresses Valjean in the familiar, with contempt, until pleading with him to kill him after Valjean has let him go. Here, Javert continues to use the formal, more respectful form of address that he began with his final words in that previous scene.
I think the mention of suicide here, meant to foreshadow Javert's solution, is really awkward. Why are we suddenly talking about suicide when referring to a strong man who is really good at escaping?
I give Mlle Gillenormand credit for not going so far as “I told you so”. That takes a lot of restraint.
Poor M. Gillenormand. The man can't shut up when he's well and he can't shut up when he's suffered a reverse like this, so it's really no wonder Marius has so many problems with him. But the poor man, you have to feel sorry for him here.
I wonder if there's a reasoning behind Marius' injuries. I mean, Hugo is very careful so that none are disfiguring – it's as if he could, to all observers, go about life without the barricades having meant anything. It's all superficial (except for the broken shoulderblade), and Marius' presence at the barricade was superficial. Is it really just the shallow reasoning of “I can't make my handsome hero deformed”, or is it so that all the effects of the barricade are hidden and thus more problematic?
What kind of literature and what kind of life is the same question. - Tom Stoppard