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Thread: comparing Val Jean to Christ & ????

  1. #1
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    Jul 2011

    Question comparing Val Jean to Christ & ????

    I am reading Les Miserables for 5th time in the 20 years I've known of it. I've wondered about this question before, but this time I'm taking more time to try and answer it correctly! Book Seventh, part III - A Tempest in the Skull. I'll take the text directly from this site. Monsieur Madeleine has returned from hiring a horse after hearing (via Javert) that another man was to be punished in his place. As he describes Valjean's state of mind, Hugo makes two comparisons.

    First, "...which said to him: "Think!" as it said to another condemned man, two thousand years ago, "March on!"

    Second, "Eighteen hundred years before this unfortunate man, the mysterious Being in whom are summed up all the sanctities and all the sufferings of humanity..."

    The second reference is clearly to Christ. This first puzzles me. If we go from when it was written, the reference is to 138 BC, but of course, it could be a rounded figure.

    Any insights?

  2. #2
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    Nov 2010
    Here is the original French:

    Quote Originally Posted by Victor Hugo
    Au bout de peu d'instants, il eut beau faire, il reprit ce sombre dialogue dans lequel c'était lui qui parlait et lui qui écoutait, disant ce qu'il eût voulu taire, écoutant ce qu'il n'eût pas voulu entendre, cédant à cette puissance mystérieuse qui lui disait: pense! comme elle disait il y a deux mille ans à un autre condamné, marche!

    Quote Originally Posted by Victor Hugo
    Ainsi se débattait sous l'angoisse cette malheureuse âme. Dix-huit cents ans avant cet homme infortuné, l'être mystérieux, en qui se résument toutes les saintetés et toutes les souffrances de l'humanité, avait aussi lui, pendant que les oliviers frémissaient au vent farouche de l'infini, longtemps écarté de la main l'effrayant calice qui lui apparaissait ruisselant d'ombre et débordant de ténèbres dans des profondeurs pleines d'étoiles.
    The translations are pretty direct- which means it's exactly as Hugo wrote it rather than a translator 'contributing' in some way- see here:

    Quote Originally Posted by Victor Hugo
    ... il y a deux mille ans...
    Quote Originally Posted by Victor Hugo
    Dix-huit cents ans avant...
    Both references occur in Chapter III Tome I. The first reference, '... il y a deux mille ans...', occurs about halfway through the chapter. The second reference occurs at the very end. Chapter III Tome I is about 7,000 words long (in French) and there are approximately 4,000 words between the two references.

    Both references may be a comparison of Valjean to Jesus. Les Misérables is a long book, so it's expected that Hugo could at parts be inconsistent in the way he references things. One thing to consider is the difference in when the story was written and when the story is set (the story actually spans several decades). A precise chronological reference would be complicated- is the reference in relation to when the work was written, or to the time of the story itself? If the latter, what year? And etc., etc.

    Most likely, because the two references were so close together and probably more inclined to get a solid edit if any error was made, Hugo wrote what he intended to write. Most likely these are both references to Christ, based on what we know about the nature of the story and the character of Valjean. A legitimate conclusion, perhaps, is that Hugo provided two different 'figures' for poetic device/prose stylization/etc. within the same chapter.


    EDIT: Perhaps, to make the comparison clearer- in the New Testament, a condemned Jesus is forced to carry his own cross to Golgotha in a kind of death 'march' (although the French verb marcher has a bit of a faux-ami aspect to it. It doesn't definitely mean the same thing as the English word it resembles, but it has certainly been translated as so in your original passages).
    Last edited by Jack of Hearts; 07-03-2011 at 03:02 AM.

  3. #3
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    Jul 2011
    Thank you, J, for your reply. You've raised an aspect of the time frame problem I hadn't considered. Combined with the more obvious difficulty I pointed out, there's probably no way of knowing when he was referring to until I'm sure I'm satisfied about what he was referring to!

    Laying that question aside, the "faux-ami aspect" you mention is what moved me to post this question. It's actually the tone of the words (as translated to English) that makes the reference more unclear to me than the timeline. From the different translations I've looked at, I've been left with a variety of impressions, none of which strike quite the right chord with me when I imagine Jesus' post-arrest treatment. They all seem to some degree too mild, too good-natured.

    However, though I can't remember any instance of mercy being shown by the guards around Jesus, the gospels mention a couple who were capable, at least, of independent thought, so there's a lot of leeway there. You brought an example to mind with your suggestion about the "march" to Golgotha. There is, too, the difference between the way I interpret even an English word when I'm clear about the reference and when I'm not. My point is that, though I say the translations haven't struck quite the note I'd expect if the reference is to Jesus, I realize that my interpretation is personal and made up of all kinds of different influences.

    In any event, what I'm understanding you to say is that the more or less slightly good-natured "tone" I'm picking up may be something that's added by the translation. I'm used to things being lost through translation, even expect it. This, though, is a new (to me) and interesting idea.

    I'll keep your thoughts in mind and see if I can read it apart from the tone I've previously picked up. And, as of now - unless someone has somehow pinned it down - I consider going at this from the timeline angle to be a lost cause! Thanks again, J.


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