Les Misérables | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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Les Misérables | Part 2, Book 7 : Cosette (A Parenthesis) | Summary

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Summary

The narrator begins with a parenthesis, saying, "This book is a drama, whose first character is the Infinite." The "convent," used more broadly as a metaphor for seclusion for religious purposes, occurs in all religions, and the narrator mentions Paganism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. He then continues with a vigorous critique of monastic life; while the monastic system was useful as a civilizing effect in the early part of civilization, it is now "injurious to the adulthood of nations." He mentions the "hideous and magnificent images" of Christianity (for example, graphic depictions of the crucified Christ), and the dungeons that existed in medieval monasteries to punish the disobedient. The author himself saw the dungeons at the Abbey of Villars outside Brussels, and one consisted of a type of torture chamber that was something like a coffin into which a living person was put.

The narrator concludes monasticism cuts off life, in whatever religion it is practiced. Although a revival of asceticism took place in the 19th century, he stands in strong opposition to it. He then continues in a different vein, comparing monasticism with Republican ideals. The monastic chooses to live in community and equality with likeminded people, under a strict rule, which is essentially a body politic of equality and fraternity, albeit no liberty. But the rights of man must be considered along with the rights of the soul. Man as a "starting point" and "progress as a goal" make sense only if the "two great driving forces ... [are] faith and love."

Returning to the convent, the narrator says the choice to become a monk is "supreme egotism resulting in supreme self-denial," or "a suicide reimbursed by an eternity." The monk renounces so he may reign. Nevertheless, the narrator "bow[s] to the man who kneels," because "a faith is a necessity to man." Moreover, it is wise to remember one's inevitable death. Finally the narrator is in favor of religion, even if he is against "the religions," and he sees a grandeur in austere practice and self-sacrifice, even when it is misguided. Such is the case when people choose monasticism.

Analysis

Hugo is somewhat at war with himself in this "parenthesis," in which he both castigates and praises monastic life. On the one hand, he finds monasticism stultifying to the human spirit, because it takes away a person's freedom and choices. Moreover, those who rule over the monastics can become petty tyrants, and it is true some monasteries had dungeons to punish the wayward of their communities. Those who choose a religious life are practicing the worst kind of egotism, from one perspective: they believe in eternal life after death and are thus renouncing now only to enjoy the treasures of the next life.

Still, the narrator cannot help but see the good in religion, in the general sense—meaning a belief system that imbues a person's life with meaning and tames the ego. Religion also reminds people of their finitude, which is not a bad thing. The narrator finds a type of grandeur as well in self-sacrifice, which ennobles a person, even if that person has chosen an incorrect path. Finally, secularism by itself will not do; politics needs faith and love to guide it, or else it is impossible for the human race to make progress.

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