Les Miserables, the American Civil War, and Healing from Wounds

Part of a Series

In Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, the students’ revolution fails. The barricades fall, and all of the leaders—except Marius—are killed. Marius falls wounded and unconscious, rescued by Jean Valjean. Valjean realized that his adopted daughter, Cosette, is in love with Marius and is determined to try to save the boy. In a harrowing section of the book, Valjean enters the sewers of Paris, carrying Marius and attempting to avoid the police who are looking for both the reformed convict and the revolutionary student. Valjean eventually carries Marius to the boy’s grandfather’s home, leaving him to the care of his aged family member and the caring servants. 

Several chapters weave the story through the aftermath as Marius returns to consciousness, receives medical care, reunites with Cosette, and spends at least four months recovering from his injuries. The details of 19th Century medical care woven into this part of the novel are worth noting and drawing comparisons to the American Civil War, and the book’s description of what modern medicine would define as post-traumatic stress offers a lens to consider that experience among American soldiers. If they read the book during periods of hospital treatment and recovery from their wounds and trauma, what did they read and how might it have compared to their own real-life experiences? 

Jean Valjean, Marius wounded on his back, fleeing in the water of Paris Illustration of the novel “Les Miserables”” by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) Illustration by Emile Bayard –  The Holbarn Archive.

Les Miserables is surprisingly detailed about Marius’s physical wounds. 

“The doctor examined Marius and, after establishing that there was a steady pulse, that the wounded man had no penetrating chest wounds, and that the blood at the corner of his lips came from the nasal cavities, he had him placed flat on the bed, without a pillow, his head on a level with his body and even a bit lower, his chest bare so as to make breathing easier…. The body had not received any interior lesion; a bullet, deadened by the notebook, had deflected, and grazed the ribs with a hideous gash, but not deep, and consequently not dangerous. The long walk underground had completed the dislocation of the broken shoulder blade, and there were serious difficulties there. There were sword cuts on the arms. No scar disfigured his face; the head, however, was as if covered with hacks; what would the result of these wounds be to the head? Did they stop at the scalp? Did they affect the skull? That could not yet be determined. A serious symptom was that they had caused the fainting, and people do not always wake from such faintings. The hemorrhage, moreover, had exhausted the wounded man. From the waist down, the lower part of the body had been protected by the barricade.”

The following scene may have been familiar to soldiers, surgeons, and nurses in Civil War America. The fictional women created bandages, and then “the doctor stopped the flow of blood from the wounds temporarily with rolls of cotton. Beside the bed, three candles were burning on a table where the surgical instruments were spread out. The doctor washed Marius’s face and hair with cold water. A bucketful was red in a moment.”

A few chapters later Hugo explains that fictional Marius had a fever, delirium, and “serious cerebral symptoms” from a concussion. Some of the gashes “suppurated,” and the bandaging was difficult. Female servants and, later, Cosette made lint for the wound dressings by scraping large sheets. Gangrene (probably not helped by Marius’s journey through the Paris sewers?) set in, but was treated with “chlorinated lotions and the nitrate of silver.” It took three months before a doctor declared Marius was “out of danger” and would probably live.

The treatment combination of time, medicines, and wound dressings were enacted thousands of times in Civil War hospitals. Other cultural norms also reflect or contrast against the story. 

For example, Cosette shows her dedication from afar—making a package of lint every day which Valjean leaves at the gate of Marius’s family home. She is not allowed to see him until the doctor declares Marius is out of danger. Civil War women started pushing into the hospital and medical setting to care for loved ones, becoming volunteer nurses or arriving to care for sick or wounded family members; still, many women cared for their hospitalized soldiers from afar—lacking the means or ability to travel to them and instead sending care packages…or scraping lint for relief society supply boxes.

(Left to Right), Jean Valjean, Marius, Cosette – 2012 Musical Movie

Les Miserables explored more of the barricade’s aftermath than Marius’s physical wounds, though. It explores the concept of mental trauma in bold language for the 19th Century. The novel’s treatment and description of Marius’s mental trauma is particularly vivid and also serves as plot device since he cannot remember how he got from the barricade to his grandfather’s home. One of the first hints Hugo gives that all was not well in Marius’s mind is a piece of dialogue, jarringly juxtaposed in the midst of a generally happy visit with beautiful Cosette. 

“By the way!”

“What, [grand]father?”

“Didn’t you have an intimate friend?”

“Yes, Courfeyrac.”

“What has become of him?”

“He is dead.”

The conversation ends there, briefly and emphatically shut down by Marius. His best friend and brotherly confidant is dead, and it provokes no response from him. The way the dialogue is woven into the rest of the scene suggests Marius does not want to think about it or is numb to emotions on the subject, even though he knows his friend is gone. 

The story runs on, and Cosette and Marius are happily engaged to be married. Jean Valjean acts as chaperone for the young couple and is known by a different name to Marius. The sight of Valjean triggers memories for the student-turned-fighter. Victor Hugo creates a powerful section of paragraphs describing the effect of trauma on the mind and memory:

At times doubts about his own recollections would come over him. In his memory there was a hole, a black place, an abyss scooped out by four months of agony. Many things were lost in it. He was led to ask him if it were really true he had seen [Valjean], such a man, so serious and so calm, in the barricade.

This was not, however, the only quandary that the appearances and the disappearances of the past had left in his mind. We must not suppose that he was released from all those obsessions of the memory that force us, even when happy, even when satisfied, to look back with melancholy. The head that does not turn toward past horizons contains neither thought nor love. At times Marius covered his face with his hands, and the vague past tumultuously crossed the twilight that filled his brain. He would see Mabeuf fall again, would hear Gavroche singing under the hail of bullets; he felt again the chill of Eponine’s forehead against his lip; Enjolras, Courfeyrac, Jean Prouvaire, Combeferre, Bosseut, Grantiare, all his friends, would rise up in front of him, then dissipate. All these beings, dear, sorrowful, valiant, charming, or tragic – were they dreams? Had they really existed? The emeute had cloaked everything in its smoke. Great fevers have great dreams. He would question himself; he groped within himself; he was dizzy with all these vanished realities. Then where were they all? Was it really true that all of them were dead? A fall into the darkness had carried off everything, except himself. It seemed to him to have disappeared as if behind a curtain at a theater. There are such curtains that drop in life. God is moving on to the next act.

And he, was he really the same man? He, the poor man, was rich; he, the abandoned, had a family; he, the despairing, was marrying Cosette. It seemed to him that he had passed through a tomb, that he had gone into it black and had come out white. And in this tomb, the others remained. At certain moments, all these beings of the past, returned and present, formed a circle around him and made him gloomy; then he would think of Cosette, and become serene once more; but it required nothing less than this felicity to erase that catastrophe.

Hugo implies that Marius is saved from his memories by the woman he loves. But what could it have been like for Civil War soldiers reading this translated novel by flickering camp lights or in hospital beds? Thus far, commentary on this particular passage from a Civil War soldier or veteran has not surfaced during the research for this blog series. Perhaps such writing does exist and will someday lend more to the discussion.

Hugo’s depiction of fictional Marius’s inner struggle to make sense of the fighting and process the loss of his friends seems unique in popularized mid-19th Century literature. He gives Marius some manly qualities and allows him to be “redeemed” by his love for a woman, but he also crafted a highly emotional male character and then explored how such a person might respond after combat stress. Marius is not given an unscathed experience. Neither does he emerge as the hero of the story. He does not view himself as a hero, and he is not cast in that light. Survivor’s guilt seems to trouble him. He will survive and eventually learn that Valjean rescued him.

Since Les Miserables was a popularly read book among Union and Confederate soldiers, perhaps it is not too far of a stretch to wonder if reading Marius’s struggle and survival might had helped soldiers or veterans in similar circumstances? Could Marius’s story have given words to their own feelings and war memories? If it did, it would not be surprising if a soldier did not write about it. At this time, perhaps it is best to conclude that there are strong parallels between the fictional character’s experience and known primary sources about medical care and “soldier’s heart” (19th Century term for post-traumatic stress). The words are there. Civil War soldiers read them. What happened next?

Is it possible that Marius’s words to Valjean in the final confessions of the novel could echo with Civil War connection to the combat aftermath of the story?

“I owe my life to you, why not have said so?”

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