As it turns out, grammar does matter, and Hugo knew it damn well. Something has always bothered me about this sentence, and now I know why. The difference doesn’t exist in English translations, because both “à” and “en” translates to “in”, hence Grantaire’s “I believe in you”. But it isn’t the case in French :
“Je crois à toi” isn’t grammatically correct. In French, you don’t believe “à” someone, you believe “en” someone. “Je crois à” is restricted to things and fictional beings, as in :
- Je crois à la Petite Souris (I believe in the Tooth Fairy)
- Je ne crois pas à la Révolution (I don’t believe in the Revolution)
There are a few exceptions (because otherwise grammar wouldn’t be grammar) but one thing is certain : “à” can not be used to introduce a noun or pronoun referring to a real person :
- Je crois en lui (I believe in him)
- “Je crois à lui” sounds wrong, as wrong as “I believe to him” sounds
Then, why does Hugo use both? Because Grantaire knows the difference as well. Grantaire is good with words and proves it more than once. Remember this quote : “Who has been unhooking the stars without my permission, and putting them on the table in the guise of candles?” ? Grantaire says it drunk. DRUNK. If this man can be that lyrical while smashed to high hell, why would he forget fundamental grammatical principles, all of a sudden?
Answer : he wouldn’t. He does it on purpose.
He’s mirroring Enjolras’s speech :
“Tu ne crois à rien.”
“Je crois à toi.”
This may sound insignificant and, yes, considering the length of the brick, it may be but bear with me. Grantaire is having a laugh, in this passage. Yes, he is serious, he does want to prove his value to Enjolras, but at the same time, he’s Grantaire. He can’t help himself but to play with words. And my best guess is that he’s teasing Enjolras, hence the “Be serious” “I am wild” that comes soon after.
Then what about “Je crois en toi”? Well, it’s a question of context. Look at the description preceeding Grantaire’s declaration :
“Grantaire,” [Enjolras] called, “go and sleep your wine off somewhere else.
This is a place for intoxication but not for drunkenness. Don’t dishonor
The sharp rebuke had a remarkable effect on Grantaire, as though he
had received a splash of cold water. Suddenly he was sober. He sat down
with his elbows on a table by the window, and looking with great
sweetness at Enjolras called back:
“Tu sais que je crois en toi”
Grantaire is serious this time. This isn’t a joke anymore. This is real declaration he’s making here. Enjolras is yelling at him, and yet, Grantaire’s attitude is all but belligerent. I would even argue that “great sweetness” is far from the reverent and loving “inexprimable douceur” from the French text.
Unfortunately, Enjolras is so used to his lack of faith and seriousness that he dismisses it. Grantaire has disappointed him more than once by that point in the brick, so his attitude is understandable. But if Grantaire lacks faith in the cause, he doesn’t lack any in Enjolras. The tragic thing is that Enjolras doesn’t realise it and Grantaire’s serious profession of faith is dismissed. One last nail in your coffin? Look at what comes after :
“Grantaire, you are incapable of believing or thinking or willing or living or dying.”
“You’ll see,” said Grantaire gravely. “You’ll see.”