Reading Paris by Reading Les Miserables

For one of my classes, while I was in Paris (for class, no big deal), I had to do a walk based on anything I wanted, and “read” the city, then write an essay about my walk. I’m not really sure what I concluded, but here’s my essay. This the kind of stuff I’ve been doing, preventing me from writing a proper blog post about Paris. Sorry.

Paris, like any old city, has a long memory; one that is conserved in its streets, its culture, its historical buildings, and in the minds of Parisians and tourists alike. For those of us outside, Paris is a fairytale land, a city where one might be inspired to write a poem or create a painting, debate philosophy in a cafe, or fall in love with a stranger.  The romanticization of Paris is largely maintained by media and art, and few if any cities are constructed to the same degree or with such variety of forms as is Paris. Most of my conceptions of Paris are informed by literature, especially the works of Victor Hugo. In Notre Dame, I could not help but imagine Quasimodo scurrying over the roof or along the corridors. However, walking through Paris at large, I could not escape visions of Hugo’s most famous work, Les Misérables. Seeing significant spots from the novel, especially those seen by Javert on the final night of his life, I pondered over the ghosts of Paris’ past, the real and the fictional, and how they are (or sometimes are not) still present in the modern city.

Before leaving, I found a list of Hugo’s most significant surviving locations in Paris. The city has changed much since the time of the novel’s writing, and had changed between then and its setting. Hugo would have been writing about pre-Haussmann Paris while living amidst the new modern buildings, so even he was writing about ghosts of a city that had dramatically moved on. Using the list of settings and a map of Paris in 1832, I created a walking route for myself, using as much as possible streets that existed in pre-Haussmann Paris.

I began at the site of the students’ barricade near Rue St-Denis, which today seems an unlikely spot for an attempted revolution. The actual location is a simple, unmarked alleyway made up of garbage bins and back entrances to surrounding stores. Coming out of the alley, I was accosted by sounds and sights and smells I associate with most cities – stores, crowds, and neon lights, especially garish as it was just after sunset. The stores on rue St-Denis were not those of the Champs-Elysees, but mainly dealt in sex and items that likely fell off the back of a truck. I was somewhat unsure how to react to such an unexpected collection, as they seemed such a far cry from the city I was expecting. I knew that the city would have changed, but I was not expecting it to be so kitschy. My confusion was exacerbated by the sight of the St Denis church, ignored amidst the glaring, glowing, modern chaos around it. The church clearly predated Hugo’s time and was a piece of valuable history that was being completely ignored. The juxtaposition of the old and new is present everywhere in Paris, more so than in many other cities I’ve visited, except perhaps London. Uncomfortably, I saw police officers hurrying past me as I stood pensively in front of the Church, so I headed toward the home of Marius Pontmercy’s grandfather. The street itself is unspectacular now, but the streets I used to get there were magnificent. Walking down Rue des Gravilliers was one of the highlights of my time in Paris; the street is still tight and winding, barely wide enough to admit traffic, so people strolled unabashedly down the middle of the road. It is not a popular tourist area, and I felt like an obvious outsider. The Parisians moved leisurely but purposefully, paying no mind to the history surrounding them, while I paused in front of nearly every building, marvelling at the late Victorian architecture. Small second-hand shops and take-away restaurants made up most of the stores on the street level, but beautiful old architecture was still obvious in the apartments above, with ornately carved iron fences in front of most of the windows. Converted gas lamps hung over the street, lighting it in pools of yellow.

The forgotten or ignored history of Paris was ever present on my walk. Parts of Paris are proud of the heritage, like the Louvre and Notre Dame, and they work hard to conserve it for the tourists. The booths of books and paintings along the Seine in some areas are clearly there for visitors, and even the image of Paris as a city of fashion is in some ways exaggerated for tourists. Paris, like any city, is less interesting to those who live there, and I wondered how they saw their own city. I was able to feel the way Hugo felt toward aspects of the city in his novels, but his city and modern Paris are a far cry from one another. Hints of it are still present, as in the rustic hanging lamps, but in some areas, like the area surrounding the church of St-Denis, it seems to have mostly disappeared.

As I mused on this, I realized that my walk was taking longer than I had anticipated, so I gained some speed on the way to Jean Valjean’s final home. I continued down the older streets and passed a few poorly maintained historical sites, which I could only identify by tiny, dirty plaques denoting them as such. Hugo was very particular about how he represented his city, using existing locations and describing them in detail. However, Valjean’s house at 7 Rue L’ Homme Armé does not exist, and never did, according to the map of Paris in 1832. I had included in my map the street’s probable existing equivalent, but meant to just look briefly and move on. However, when I glanced down Rue Pecquay from rue Rambuteau, I saw Valjean’s house as it was in my imagination. It was unspectacular, a town house in a row of many without any distinguishing characteristics. Yet looking at the second-storey window of this house, I knew that it was the one. In typical Parisian fashion, an intimate couple occupied the street-level doorway of the house next door (which now holds an art gallery), so I waited until they left to inch closer. I could vividly imagine Javert walking dejectedly down the narrow street, which was still largely untainted by trappings of modernity. When the couple returned inside, I walked up to the house and realized that I was standing, appropriately, in front of number seven. The number plaque was too small to read from the other end of the street where I had started, and I wondered briefly if I was in touch with some kind of deeply-buried Parisian memory. I have no way of verifying whether or not this was the home that Hugo was thinking of when he wrote the novel, but for me, it was getting in touch with an entirely fictional world. Paris does then hold onto memories, but people need to unearth and interpret them. To anyone else, this was an ordinary townhouse, but to me it was both my imagination come to life, and a portal into the past.

I moved quickly through the more tourist-cluttered areas to get to the spot, near Pont Notre Dame, where Javert plummeted into the Seine. In my hurry, I got lost, and I never made it to the exact spot, but I did get to look out onto the Seine at night, and try to image what it would have looked like in the 1830’s. The light of the city reflecting in the Seine looked peaceful, like an impressionist painting, and I could imagine why it would seem appealing to someone experiencing extreme mental turmoil. With that thought, my tour was concluded.

Perhaps tourists can unearth Paris’ memories because they seek them out more than Parisians do. Our own ideas and preconceptions about a city do influence our reading of it, and a person living in a city is less likely to think what it means to them beyond home. The definition or conception of a city is made up of a plethora of factors, all of them experiential, so cannot be defined by the experiences of one person. Hugo’s Paris is still there, and it may be well-hidden by cheap stores and fashion districts, but those things comprise simply one aspect of Paris. Like a person, or indeed, a work of literature, many facets make up “Paris;” it is an experience more than it is a geographical location. So, perhaps a painting of Paris through a novel, especially one as varied and complex as Les Misérables, is not inaccurate. It is incomplete, certainly, but no one description can ever be said to represent the whole of the phantasmagoria that is Paris.


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  1. I have a sudden urge to watch "Midnight In Paris" and listen to Les Mis and read "Hunchback of Notre Dame" now. Full on Parisian experience! This was beautiful Allison! I loved taking a tour around with you and feeling your emotions as you looked for the right places in the city. I've not been back to Paris since I was 16. I think I'd appreciate it more now! Lovely stuff! 😀

  2. Thanks so much Kelly! That means a lot! ❤

  3. Also you used the word "phantasmagoria". Props dude. 😉

  4. Such a beautiful essay! I have no way with words, so describing my trip to Paris sounded much like "ajdgdsgsjd…!!!" to my friends…but reading your experience, all I could think was "yes! That's exactly it! This is it!" Congrats mon ami, and thanks for sharing!

  5. Les Misérables is my favorite book, so I enjoyed this post immensely! I wrote a thesis on it during my senior year of high school for an advanced program I did. After seeing all these places did you have the urge to stop by Toulon to see where Valjean was imprisoned, Digne to see where Monseigneur Bienvenu gave him a second chance, Motreuil-sur-Mer to see where Valjean thrived and Fantine suffered, or Montfermeuil where the Alouette never sang? When I finally do visit France I have these crazy ideas to see all of those places.
    I hate to be THAT GUY, but I talk about Victor Hugo a lot in my blog and if you’re really into his work you might like it.


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