Title: Les Misérables (orig. 1862, ed. 1987)
Author: Victor Hugo
Translator: Lee Fahnestock and Norman McAfee
Publisher: Signet Classics
Read: 1st – 31st May 2019
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean–the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread–Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope–an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.“ (Synopsis source)
Les Misérables is a book with whom I have a history. My undergraduate dissertation is based, in large part, on this novel and its adaptations, and I’ve been to see the musical itself many times – it’s probably my favourite musical, all things considered. I’m more than familiar with its soaring themes of justice, redemption, faith, atonement etc. and its characters (I was a big observer of the barricade boys fandom on Tumblr and on fanfiction sites). Despite all this, I’d never fully read the novel, cover to cover; anyone who has ever done a dissertation on a book will tell you that selective skimming of it is sufficient so long as you close-read specific, well-chosen sections that advance your overarching argument. But I always felt a little bit of a fraud as I could never bring myself to legitimately say I had read the novel – I ran the Misérables May readalong to correct this.
“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
Victor Hugo’s novel is a huge sweeping tale based around its central character, Jean Valjean. A former convict, Valjean was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to try to save his family from starvation and, as he kept trying to escape, his sentence became longer and longer when he was caught. When we start the novel he has been released on parole but this means he has a proverbial black mark against his name and he isn’t exactly welcomed in many of the rural towns of France that he wanders through. He finds work but isn’t paid fairly, inns turn him away because he’s a former convict, and it seems as though he has hit rock bottom even though he has done his time and ‘paid’ from his crime. Enter the Bishop, a too-good-for-this-world character, who, after Valjean steals his silver from him, willingly gives him a pair of silver candlesticks, and with them ‘buys his soul for God’. This starts off many a philosophical and moral dilemma for Valjean who didn’t have faith and didn’t feel like the world was on his side – with the Bishop forgiving him for his crime and telling him God would still have his soul, Valjean starts a journey of redemption.
“Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God.”
Of course, the story is much more complex – we have tenacious police officer, Javert, as Valjean’s antagonist; we have Fantine, a poor young girl blinded by love and left as a single mother trying to provide for her daughter before dying; we have the Thenardiers who exploit Fantine’s desperation and adopt her daughter, Cosette, to a loveless life of servitude; we have Marius, grandson of a royalist who ends up having rebellious republican feelings; we have Gavroche, a young urchin child in Paris that stands for all orphaned children on the streets at the time; and we have a group of enterprising Parisian revolutionaries hoping to incite rebellion in the now-little-known June Rebellion of 1832. Regardless of what else you think of Victor Hugo’s novel, the mastery of weaving together so many threads of story and sustaining them for 1000+ pages is undeniable.
“There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.”
Often commented on when it comes to Les Misérables is its length – the edition I read stood at some 1400 pages and it’s not lightly that its fans call it The Brick. As you might expect through such an expansive novel with a huge cast of characters, certain moments of the story are more gripping than others – for example, I found the sections where the Thenardier family disguise themselves as the Jondrettes and con people out of money particularly fun and engrossing, the section in the Parisian sewer system less so. What I’ve always found intriguing about the musical of Les Misérables is how different themes and characters interest different people – I most enjoy the sections on the barricade with the revolutionary group Les amis de l’ABC, whereas a friend of mine loves the clash between Valjean and Javert the most. The novel is no different. Well, except in one way – Victor Hugo is known for his digressions, digressions which test the very notion of the word by lasting for 50 pages at a time. These digressions serve to enrich the context of the novel’s story – the aforementioned journey into the sewer system is one such digression, another on the subject of Waterloo happens. However, none of these digressions are crucial to the advancement of the plot and I think this is why they, and the novel as a whole, can be hard to get through. Similarly, there are sections of the novel which read like treatises or polemics on particular social or political issues of the time – they aren’t strictly necessary for the sake of following the story, but they do enrich the understanding of the context around the characters which has produced the circumstances in which the story can happen. It still doesn’t make 50+ pages about literal shit any easier to stomach, though.
“To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.“
In conclusion, Les Misérables is a sweeping, expansive 19th-century novel that explores French history and politics, moral philosophical issues, topography and architecture of Paris, and antimonarchist sentiments, alongside universal themes of justice, faith, and love. To try to summarise or review it is a nearly impossible task. For all its high and lofty themes, it’s also a compelling story of complex characters with moments of light and shade which is probably more so why it has endured the centuries and become thought of as one of the greatest stories of all-time.
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century – the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labour, the ruin of women by starvation and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.”