Fantine (after the French of Victor Hugo)
As long as there shall exist three paradoxes, a moral Frenchman, a
religious atheist, and a believing skeptic; so long, in fact, as
booksellers shall wait—say twenty-live years—for a new gospel;
so long as paper shall remain cheap and ink three sous a bottle, I
have no hesitation in saying that such books as these are not
utterly profitless. VICTOR HUGO.
To be good is to be queer. What is a good man? Bishop Myriel.
My friend, you will possibly object to this. You will say you know what a good man is. Perhaps you will say your clergyman is a good man, for instance. Bah! you are mistaken; you are an Englishman, and an Englishman is a beast.
Englishmen think they are moral when they are only serious. These Englishmen also wear ill-shaped hats, and dress horribly!
Bah! they are canaille.
Still, Bishop Myriel was a good man,—quite as good as you. Better than you, in fact.
One day M. Myriel was in Paris. This angel used to walk about the streets like any other man. He was not proud, though fine-looking. Well, three gamins de Paris called him bad names. Says one,—
“Ah, mon Dieu! there goes a priest; look out for your eggs and chickens!” What did this good man do? He called to them kindly.
“My children,” said he, “this is clearly not your fault. I recognize in this insult and irreverence only the fault of your immediate progenitors. Let us pray for your immediate progenitors.”
They knelt down and prayed for their immediate progenitors.
The effect was touching.
The Bishop looked calmly around.
“On reflection,” said he gravely, “I was mistaken; this is clearly the fault of Society. Let us pray for Society.”
They knelt down and prayed for Society.
The effect was sublimer yet. What do you think of that? You, I mean.
Everybody remembers the story of the Bishop and Mother Nez Retrousse. Old Mother Nez Retrousse sold asparagus. She was poor; there’s a great deal of meaning in that word, my friend. Some people say “poor but honest.” I say, Bah!
Bishop Myriel bought six bunches of asparagus. This good man had one charming failing: he was fond of asparagus. He gave her a franc, and received three sous change.
The sous were bad,—counterfeit. What did this good Bishop do? He said: “I should not have taken change from a poor woman.”
Then afterwards, to his housekeeper: “Never take change from a poor woman.”
When a man commits a crime, Society claps him in prison. A prison is one of the worst hotels imaginable.
The people there are low and vulgar. The butter is bad, the coffee is green. Ah, it is horrible!
In prison, as in a bad hotel, a man soon loses, not only his morals, but what is much worse to a Frenchman, his sense of refinement and delicacy.
Jean Valjean came from prison with confused notions of Society. He forgot the modern peculiarities of hospitality. So he walked off with the Bishop’s candlesticks.
Let us consider. Candlesticks were stolen; that was evident. Society put Jean Valjean in prison; that was evident, too. In prison, Society took away his refinement; that is evident, likewise.
Who is Society?
You and I are Society.
The Bishop thought so, too. He meditated profoundly for six days. On the morning of the seventh he went to the Prefecture of Police.
He said: “Monsieur, have me arrested. I have stolen candlesticks.”
The official was governed by the law of Society, and refused.
What did this Bishop do?
Love is a mystery.
A little friend of mine down in the country, at Auvergne, said to me one day: “Victor, Love is the world,—it contains everything.”
She was only sixteen, this sharp-witted little girl, and a beautiful blonde. She thought everything of me.
Fantine was one of those women who do wrong in the most virtuous and touching manner. This is a peculiarity of French grisettes.
You are an Englishman, and you don’t understand. Learn, my friend, learn. Come to Paris and improve your morals.
Fantine was the soul of modesty. She always wore high-neck dresses. High-neck dresses are a sign of modesty.
Fantine loved Tholmoyes. Why? My God! What are you to do? It was the fault of her parents, and she hadn’t any. How shall you teach her? You must teach the parent if you wish to educate the child. How would you become virtuous?
When Tholmoyes ran away from Fantine,—which was done in a charming, gentlemanly manner,—Fantine became convinced that a rigid sense of propriety might look upon her conduct as immoral. She was a creature of sensitiveness,—and her eyes were opened.
She was virtuous still, and resolved to break off the liaison at once.
Fantine’s native place had changed.
M. Madeline—an angel, and inventor of jet-work—had been teaching the villagers how to make spurious jet.
This is a progressive age. Those Americans—children of the West,—they make nutmegs out of wood.
I, myself, have seen hams made of pine, in the wigwams of those children of the forest.
But civilization has acquired deception too. Society is made up of deception. Even the best French society.
Still there was one sincere episode.
M. Madeline was, if anything, better than Myriel.
M. Myriel was a saint. M. Madeline a good man.
M. Myriel was dead. M. Madeline was living.
That made all the difference.
M. Madeline made virtue profitable. I have seen it written,—
“Be virtuous and you will be happy.”
Where did I see this written? In the modern Bible? No. In the Koran? No. In Rousseau? No. Diderot? No. Where then?
In a copy-book.
M. Madeline was M. le Maire.
This is how it came about.
For a long time he refused the honor. One day an old woman, standing on the steps, said,—
“Bah, a good mayor is a good thing.
“You are a good thing.
“Be a good mayor.”
This woman was a rhetorician. She understood inductive ratiocination.
When this good M. Madeline, who, the reader will perceive, must have been a former convict, and a very bad man, gave himself up to justice as the real Jean Valjean, about this same time, Fantine was turned away from the manufactory, and met with a number of losses from Society. Society attacked her, and this is what she lost:—
First her lover.
Then her child.
Then her place.
Then her hair.
Then her teeth.
Then her liberty.
Then her life.
This is necessarily the end of Fantine.
There are other things that will be stated in other volumes to follow. Don’t be alarmed; there are plenty of miserable people left.
Au revoir—my friend.