Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along: The Monstrous Waters
With day twenty-two of the Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along upon us, we reach “The Deep and the Dark,” one of the most fascinating chapters of the book so far — at least to me. Hugo’s considerable poetry skills are on full display, and from this chapter it is easy to see why Hugo is more famous in France for his poetry than for his novels or plays.
“The Deep and the Dark” is a chapter-long metaphor that uses the sea to represent the fate of convicts. The chapter attempts to poetically portray what happens when a criminal is imprisoned and forgotten by society. Here are just a few of the more vivid images that Hugo uses:
The man disappears, then reappears, he sinks and rises to the surface again, he calls for help, his arms reach out. No one hears.
He is in the monstrous waters. He has nothing underfoot anymore but shifting and treacherousness.
Nevertheless he puts up a fight. He tries to defend himself. He tries to keep above the water, he strives, he swims. He, this puny force, immediately exhausted, combats the inexhaustible.
He feels simultaneously buried by those two infinities, the ocean and the sky: the one is a tomb, the other a shroud.
The sea is the inexorable social darkness into which the penal system casts its damned. The sea is immense wretchedness.
“The sea is immense wretchedness.” That line alone takes on tremendous meaning when one remembers that Christine Donougher translates the title of Les Misérables as The Wretched. Who are the wretched? Who are les misérables? Some of them at least are these men lost at sea. Jean Valjean appears to be one of them.
Oceans, seas, shipwrecks — Hugo returns to these water images again and again in the novel, as when the bishop calls Jean Valjean “monsieur”:
‘Monsieur’ to a convict is like a glass of water to one of the shipwrecked survivors of the Medusa. Ignominy thirsts for respect.
Here Jean Valjean is again compared to a man lost at sea, but this time Hugo evokes the story of the Medusa, one of the most shocking nautical events of the 19th century:
Through inept navigation of her captain, an émigré given command for political reasons but incompetent as a naval officer, Méduse struck the Bank of Arguin and became a total loss. The 400 people on board had to evacuate, with 151 men on an improvised raft towed by the frigate’s launches. When the launches gave up and left the raft behind, a terrible ordeal developed. Dozens were washed into the sea by a storm, others, drunk from wine, rebelled and were killed by officers. The survivors engaged in cannibalism. When supplies ran low, several injured men were thrown into the sea. After 13 days at sea, the raft was found with only 15 men surviving.
The scenes on the raft instilled considerable public emotion, making Méduse one of the most infamous shipwrecks of the Age of Sail. Two survivors, a surgeon and an officer, wrote a widely read book about the case. The case was immortalised when Théodore Géricault painted his Raft of the Medusa, which became an icon of French Romanticism.
I love all these nautical metaphors. They really work for me, probably because I’ve always loved sea stories like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series.
How about you? What did you think of “The Deep and the Dark”? How did your translation render the title of this chapter?
And how is the read-along going for you? Are you falling behind, racing ahead, or generally staying on pace? What parts are you enjoying the most?