La société lui avait tout de suite, d’emblée, à la fois, fait ses trois offres et donné ses trois dons, le mariage, la famille, la caste. Le mariage? il avait vu sur le seuil la prostitution. La famille? son frère l’avait souffleté, et l’attendait le lendemain, l’épée à la main. La caste? elle venait de lui éclater de rire à la face, à lui patricien, à lui misérable. Il était rejeté presque avant même d’avoir été admis. Et ses trois premiers pas dans cette profonde ombre sociale avaient ouvert sous lui trois gouffres.
(Society immediately had made him its three offers and had given him its three gifts, marriage, family and caste. Marriage? He saw the threshold of prostitution. Family? His brother has shot him and the next day, awaited him with a sword at hand. Caste? It has only just laughed at him, to his face, to him the patrician, to him the wretched. He was rejected almost even before being admitted. And his first three steps in this profound social darkness opened under him three chasms.)
Author: Victor Hugo
Rating: 4.5/ 5
Victor Hugo is the master of the tragic ending and at this point (after Les misérables, Notre-Dame de Paris and this), I doubt that he is capable of writing otherwise in prose. The setting is Stuart England and the novel opens with a prologue from Victor Hugo saying that the novel’s true title is “Aristocracy,” introducing this as the English counterpart of royalty in France. The story is a social critic much like Les misérables and readers are early on acquainted with the Comprachicos (from the Spanish verb comprar – to buy, and chicos – children), a criminal cartel specializing in the kidnapping and mutilating of children, tolerated under James II for services rendered to the king and persecuted under William and Mary. Flash to a solitary child encountering morbid scenes that no child should see and carrying an infant girl in his arms. It is winter in Portland and the children are taken under the wing of a wandering philosophe, Ursus who soon recognizes the work of the Comprachicos in the horrible grin engraved into the little boy’s face. Enter the critique of the English aristocracy when we find out after a very long parenthesis (readers of Les misérables, remember Waterloo?), that Gwynplaine, was kidnapped and mutilated under the orders of James II as a sort of post-mortem revenge on the boy’s father, Lord Linnoeus Clancharlie, a famous republican during the Stuart Restoration. Grown Gwynplaine, now a famous circus freak, “The Man Who Laughs,” is in love with the infant girl, now grown, beautiful (yet blind and frail) and christened Dea. He lives in ideal, however unusual domesticity with Ursus, Dea and the domesticated wolf, Homo, when he is reinstated in all the titles, lands and priveleges accorded to the Clancharlies including an engagement with the King’s bastard daughter, the Duchess Josiane. Cue quotation above which includes the House of Lords deaf to the plight of the people which Gwynplaine, as his father before him, champions and is made the laughing stock of parliament. Ultimately disenchanted by the inhumanity of the class, Gwynplaine flees back to Ursus and Dea who believe Gwynplaine dead and are subsequently chased out of England through the manipulations of the turncoat slave of the nobility, Barkilphedro. Dea, of a fragile disposition, longs to follow Gwynplaine and he and the truth arrives mere minutes before she dies. Following her last wishes, Gwynplaine walks the length of the moving boat until he falls into nothingness so that they may be reunited in death.
Hugo is doubtless a master of the tragedy and while he does not keep the outrageously high death toll of Les misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (Survivor count: Les mis — 2; Notre-Dame — 1), but this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know how to touch where it would hurt. Let’s talk about Ursus first. Mr. Tough Love – gruff, cynical, etc. but nevertheless a very loving father. The means he uses to keep Gwynplaine’s “death” from Dea is the definition of touching. His own reaction is pitiful and as if that was not enough, Dea reveals that she knows the truth and follows suit. Gwynplaine re-appears for a brief, joyful moment then joins Dea in the tomb. Not only does he lose one child he has raised and loved as his own, he loses both. Children are supposed to outlive their parents, yet here he is, old, weary but alive while his children are not. As youth symbolize joy and hope, Dea and Gwynplaine bring these into Ursus’ life as children, with them gone so are these gone from Ursus’ life along with love –what could be more heartbreaking than that? Now, onto Gwynplaine and Dea. It’s heartbreaking enough that as small as the deathtoll is, it is the two central characters that are star-crossed; yet even in happier episodes, the love story reeks of tragedy. Quoting Hugo, if Dea was not blind, would she have chosen the difformed Gwynplaine? If Gwynplaine was handsome would he have chosen the sickly Dea? Heaven has expressly given them one to the other because of these circumstances and as sweet as the match-made-in-heaven concept is, the fact that their happiness is due to their unfortunate circumstances is depressing. Oh, add a social context and we see the only champion of the people throwing himself off into the unknown.
On the note of the love story, I need to point out that this is not the almost other-worldly chaste romance of Marius and Cosette. Relax and keep your shocked expressions to yourself, Dea and Gwynplaine did not do anything sexual and both died virgins, this was written after all by a romantic writer in the nineteenth century, but there are several references to the flesh, which is discussed at length. Marius, lost in love, feels no physical desire for Cosette whose form he can feel when he catches her. Gwynplaine, lost in love, can no longer sleep in the same bed as Dea because he is afraid of the power of his manly desires for her. I’m not trying to be a prude but the shift is pretty disconcerting from the innocence of Les Mis.
On the writing style, what I especially love about Hugo’s style is how he seems to close a story, begins another that seems unrelated but just as interesting and as the plot thickens, unites both plots and moves forward again. This was a common device in Les miserables (not as extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris as far as I can remember, but I really need to re-read that one) and it is used just as effectively here. It creates a kind of suspense and gives you the knowledge that you can’t let even the smallest details slip through because they may come back as big surprises later on when the plot unites and progresses. Of course, part of Hugo’s writing style are the long, somewhat ranting discourses which insightful as most of them are, can get tiring, which is my only comment on the novel, But well, for readers of Les mis, if you’ve survived Waterloo, you can survive anything.
It’s underrated, true, but it’s a Hugo masterpiece and still one of the best and most heart-breaking novelsI have ever read so, 4.5 stars. I have yet to see a published English version of the novel but Project Gutenberg has a translation: HERE and for French speakers, France released a new film version the same time as the US released Les mis. I have yet to see it streamed or available for download online, but if you find it, I’d be grateful if you let me know.
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