Les Misérables Chapter-a-Day Read-along: The Monstrous Waters

Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1819

Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1819

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?

Deacon Nick

Nick Senger is a husband, a father of four, a Roman Catholic deacon and a Catholic school teacher, vice principal and technology coordinator. He taught junior high literature and writing for over 25 years, and has been a Catholic school educator since 1990. In 2001 he was named a Distinguished Teacher of the Year by the National Catholic Education Association.

7 Responses

  1. tracybham says:

    I am keeping up with the reading and enjoying every chapter. I sometimes read a chapter or two ahead but then I fall back behind for a day or two so it works out well. I did not know what to expect; I have heard very little about the story, although the character’s name, Jean Valjean, was familiar.

  2. Ruthiella says:

    The Denny translation is “Sea and Shadow”. These distinctions in translation are so interesting!

    The metaphor of drowning (or being submerged) for a period of imprisonment is interesting! I am a little reminded of A Tale of Two Cities and Dickens’ chapter titles alluding to Monsieur Manette having been buried alive and then brought back to life.

    I am keeping up pretty well I think! Occasionally I have to read two chapters in one day (like today!) but that is totally do-able. I am so interested in Jean Valjean. I haven’t seen the movie but based on what I have read so far, Hugh Jackman seems like perfect casting!

  3. BJ says:

    The chapter is titled “Billows And Shadows” in my Barnes and Noble version. I did not realize that Victor Hugo was known for his poetry, but after this chapter I can certainly see why.

    I’m happy to report that I am caught up with my reading! I am going to try to stick to the schedule and read one chapter everyday and enjoy the slow read. 🙂

  4. Melisa says:

    I am enjoying this read along immensely. I have been pretty consistent in reading one chapter each day. I am excited to read all of the insights from other participants as well. Hopefully, I can manage soon to get some of my own reflections sorted out of my notes and shared more consistently.

  5. Ruthiella says:

    I just looked at the original chapter title and it is rather poetic with a nice alliteration: L’onde et l’ombre. I would have translated this as “The wave and the shadow”.

  6. My translation names the chapter “Deep Waters, Dark Shadows.” I wondered at the significance of this chapter, and it makes more sense to me that it relates drowning to imprisonment. I also wondered if it might be like a fall for Jean Valjean or that he would be swallowed up by his experiences since his release.

    I’m generally keeping pace with the read-along, but I have fallen behind a couple of days and then caught up.

  7. Brona says:

    I will check my Rose translation when I get home again (it’s a holiday long w/e in Australia & I only packed one edition of Les Mis in my bag 😉)

    I’m up to date with my chapters, but our hectic schedule means that I often read ahead a day or 2 when I know I’ll be busy. Which is fine, but I do really love the advantages of the leisurely read & hope to settle into a chapter a day routine soon, so I can savour each chapter properly.

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