The Elephant of the Bastille
Place in the narrative
Hugo immortalizes this monument in Les Miserables as the humble abode of the street ‘gamin’ Gavroche who lives in it. Gavroche is the youngest child of the Thenardier’s who was turned out into the streets very young by his mother who didn’t want sons.
The most memorable episode that happens here is Gavroche sheltering his younger brothers who are wandering the streets of Paris. Although he doesn’t know they are his brothers, he cares for them as if they were. He shares his meal for the day with them, buying a loaf of bread and keeping the smallest amount for himself. ‘One piece was smaller than the others; he kept this for himself.’ This shows us a compassionate side of Gavroche before he is killed on the barricades, and makes us empathise with him. ’ He agrees with what the barricade represent too as he shows compassion to his fellow ‘gamin’ and people who live on the street but despises the upper classes His generous nature is displayed when he gives a shawl to a beggar girl in the street. .. ‘…unwinding all the comfortable woollen which he had around his neck, he flung it on the thin and purple shoulders of the beggar girl…’. The reader is also shown his comic way of getting through his challenging life by making funny remarks, which makes it even more tragic when he dies.
Hugo tells us that the Elephant of the Bastille was conceived by Napoleon to demonstrate the country’s military prowess after the fall of the Bastille in the 1700s. The statue however was only built in plaster, not the bronze finery Napoleon envisaged, as construction halted after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. He indicates that it could be a symbol for what people thought about the previous history, reflected in the structure.
‘ Twenty years ago, there was still to be seen in the south-west 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 had already been effaced from the memories of Parisians….We say monument, although it was only a rough model…..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 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 falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it….There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by rotten palisade…..Being of the past, he belonged 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 replace the feudal classes. It is quite natural that a stove should be the symbol of an epoch in which a pot contains power.’
‘This huge monument, which had embodied an idea of the Emperor’s, had become the box of a street urchin…..That was what the elephant of the Bastille was good for. This idea of Napoleon, disdained by men, had been taken back by God…..God had done a grander thing with it, he had lodged a child there.’
What I wrote in Paris
I think that this particular area of Paris has probably changed beyond all recognition since Hugo was here! Cars run round this busy shopping as do people and it’s an real tourist area compared to many of the other locations. The Column of July stands strong in the middle on the plinth the elephant once stood as bustle happens around it. In the corner of the Place de Bastille, a demonstration appears to be taking place with red flags. (Very Les Mis!) Nice to see people are still interested to see it still happens today on more controlled terms. (May day sellers of lily of the valley on every corner! Bizarre!) Really busy place.
Of all the locations we visited. I think this one is the most changed since Hugo lived here almost 200 years ago. In Les Miserables, he describes the area as run down and ill kept. Today it is a rat run of traffic surrounding the Column of July or Hugo’s ‘gigantic stove’. Tourists all flock to the shops and modern café surrounding the square which is one of the busiest locations we visited. Hugo minutely describes the area where the Elephant was in the south east corner of Place de la Bastille by the canal, however today there is no way of knowing which direction you were going or of a canal. The Column of July rises up out of the chaos in its green bronze glory on top of the plinth where the elephant once stood, the only piece of history left in the area. We walked around the perimeter of the Place de la Bastille and on our way around we saw a group of demonstrating socialist protesters. They were waving a red flag which evoked certain elements of the barricade for me and made me interested and pleased to see that people still have the passion to protest what is important to them in 2014. One of the days we spent in Paris was May Day bank holiday, which meant that there were people selling lily of the valley with no added tax on every street corner in Paris to commemorate the socialist revolution in Russia. And the Place de la Bastille was no different. Many sellers turned out even in the rain to sell their flowers. It was interesting to see the change that had taken place since Hugo wrote Les Miserables and how the insurrections that happened then still happen now in a more controlled manner.