The Elephant in Place de la Bastille

Les Misérables logoAfter Gavroche and the “brats” devour their sou’s worth of bread, they continue down Rue Saint-Antoine to Place de la Bastille,where Gavroche has taken up residence, surreptitiously, in the belly of the Elephant. Yes, the Elephant. One is tempted to say that only Victor Hugo could have imagined the ensuing scene, but in fact the Elephant was a figment of Napoleon’s grandiosity. He conceived it in 1808 as a triumphal public monument that would be cast in bronze melted down from cannons seized in his military conquests. A full-scale plaster mockette was constructed before Napoleon’s demise, but it was never executed in bronze. By 1832, when it enters the narrative of Les Misérables, the moldering Elephant is an eyesore to the bourgeoisie and a refuge for our gaman. Hugo describes its eerie presence in IV.6.2:

Twenty years ago, there was still to be seen in the southwest corner
of the Place de la Bastille, near the basin of the canal, excavated in
the ancient ditch of the fortress-prison, a singular monument,
which has already been effaced from the memories of Parisians,
and which deserved to leave some trace, for it was the idea of
a “member of the Institute, the General-in-chief of the army of Egypt.”

We say monument, although it was only a rough model. But this
model itself, a marvellous sketch, the grandiose skeleton of an idea
of Napoleon’s, which successive gusts of wind have carried away
and thrown, on each occasion, still further from us, had become
historical and had acquired a certain definiteness which contrasted
with its provisional aspect. It was an elephant forty feet high,
constructed of timber and masonry, bearing on its back a tower
which resembled a house, formerly painted green by some dauber,
and now painted black by heaven, the wind, and time. In this deserted
and unprotected corner of the place, the broad brow of the colossus,
his trunk, his tusks, his tower, his enormous crupper, his four feet,
like columns produced, at night, under the starry heavens, a surprising
and terrible form. It was a sort of symbol of popular force.
It was sombre, mysterious, and immense. It was some mighty,
visible phantom, one knew not what, standing erect beside the invisible
spectre of the Bastille.

Few strangers visited this edifice, no passer-by looked at it.
It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached
itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. “The aediles,”
as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever
since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling,
surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen;
cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail,
tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the
place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years,
by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates
the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked
as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean,
despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois,
melancholy in the eyes of the thinker. There was something about it
of the dirt which is on the point of being swept out, and something
of the majesty which is on the point of being decapitated.
As we have said, at night, its aspect changed. Night is the real
element of everything that is dark. As soon as twilight descended,
the old elephant became transfigured; he assumed a tranquil and
redoubtable appearance in the formidable serenity of the shadows.
Being of the past, he belonged to night; and obscurity was in keeping
with his grandeur.

This rough, squat, heavy, hard, austere, almost misshapen,
but assuredly majestic monument, stamped with a sort of magnificent
and savage gravity, has disappeared, and left to reign in peace,
a sort of gigantic stove, ornamented with its pipe, which has replaced
the sombre fortress with its nine towers, very much as the bourgeoisie
replaces the feudal classes. It is quite natural that a stove
should be the symbol of an epoch in which a pot contains power.
This epoch will pass away, people have already begun to understand that,
if there can be force in a boiler, there can be no force except in
the brain; in other words, that which leads and drags on the world,
is not locomotives, but ideas. Harness locomotives to ideas,-
that is well done; but do not mistake the horse for the rider.

At all events, to return to the Place de la Bastille, the architect
of this elephant succeeded in making a grand thing out of plaster;
the architect of the stove has succeeded in making a pretty thing
out of bronze.

This stove-pipe, which has been baptized by a sonorous name, and called
the column of July, this monument of a revolution that miscarried,
was still enveloped in 1832, in an immense shirt of woodwork,
which we regret, for our part, and by a vast plank enclosure,
which completed the task of isolating the elephant.

It was towards this corner of the place, dimly lighted by the reflection
of a distant street lamp, that the gamin guided his two “brats.”

The reader must permit us to interrupt ourselves here and to remind
him that we are dealing with simple reality, and that twenty
years ago, the tribunals were called upon to judge, under the charge
of vagabondage, and mutilation of a public monument, a child
who had been caught asleep in this very elephant of the Bastille.
This fact noted, we proceed.

[A Note on Sources: This text comes from the Project Gutenberg etext of Les Misérables, a 19th-century translation by Isabel F. Hapgood which is now in the public domain.]

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