Read “Fantine,” Bret Harte’s Victor Hugo parody

Fantine (after the French of Victor Hugo)

by

Bret Harte


 

Prologue

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.”

Then he added to himself: “For the sous will probably be bad.”

II

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.

My friend, you and I stole those candlesticks!

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