Ok, so I finally finished Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.
I know some of you have probably been looking askance at my posts about the length and how long it has taken me to read it. However, I have one thing to say that sums up how I feel about this book.
While reading the book, you will have moments when you wonder what Hugo was really doing. Was he telling a story? Or explaining French history to us? Was he detailing and painting characters with a fine nuance? Or was he using fiction to deplore social conditions in France in the mid 1800s?
I think he was doing both. I think Hugo had a lot to say and poured most of it into Les Miserables. He had published prior books, but the length of time it took him to write this shows how much heart he put into it. I can’t imagine having to write it all by hand! Which he had to.
Chris Bohjalian was the author that picked Les Miserables as one of his top ten. And thinking of the books I’ve read by him, he also uses fiction to make a social statement. He’s a bit less obvious about it than Hugo, but almost two hundred years can make a big difference in narrative styles and techniques.
I cursed parts of this book to Dave over the last few weeks. Sometimes, I felt a little cheated. I’d be reading this great story and be really into what was happening. Suddenly I’m in a forever long section about Waterloo and Napoleon. Now, I do enjoy histories, however I don’t enjoy them when they’re slammed down in the middle of a book, with the sole purpose seeming to be the introduction of two characters who then really don’t become relevant for another 500 pages.
But, the thing that saved this book for me, and that makes me extremely happy that I’ve read it, is simply the story that Hugo tells. How he builds his characters and how invested you get in them.
Hugo follows these characters for years. Jean Valjean is a released prisoner, who simply can’t find anyone that will accept him. A bishop (whom Hugo spent chapters describing him, for the sole purpose of his role for Jean Valjean) accepts him. And through that Valjean finds religion, finds peace in Christ. He goes on to change his identity and basically save a town from complete ruin, in the process becoming very rich even though he has the tendency to give away large amounts of money.
The book details the beginning and descent of Fantine, a young woman who gets pregnant with a rich nobleman’s child, a rich nobleman who thought it would be funny to take her out on an outing, then just walk away and have a waiter deliver a note awhile later with the essence of “Been fun, gotta run”. She has the child, but can’t find work. As she leaves to go to a town, she finds a woman outside an inn with two of her own children. Fantine asks if they will watch her daughter, named Cosette, that she will send money for the upkeep. The woman agrees. And in comes the Thenardier family, Thenardier ending up being the reprehensible evil character. The story then goes on to describe Fantine’s descent all the way into prostitution and Valjean’s saving her. She makes him promise to get her daughter.
There is a detective in the story, Javert, who believes the mayor is Valjean (it is), which would make him a criminal of the worst sort. Now, you think Javert is a bad guy. However, he is just built in a very uncompromising manner. In the end, this manner takes him to his demise. Javert comes to arrest Valjean while he’s at the hospital with Fantine. Valjean goes. Fantine dies.
Time passes. One day, into the Thenardier inn comes a shabby looking old guy. Cosette has been mistreated by Mrs. Thenardier for years, and Mr. Thenardier has used the money he did receive before Fantine’s descent into poverty and death for his own purposes. Cosette is a scared little girl.
Then lots of time passes. Marius and his grandfather are introduced. They become estranged, as Marius discovers his father was a Napoleon guy and becomes utterly devoted to his father, after his father dies. His grandfather is a man who believes in the sanctity of royalty. Marius goes off on his own.
He & Cosette fall in love. They are parted.
A revolution, a street one, of 1831 occurs. Marius’s friends lead a movement, where they block off a tavern and fight. It all ends horribly wrong.
I don’t want to give the ending, as it will ruin the experience of reading it for yourself.
However, Jean Valjean is a pitiful hero. And I don’t mean that in the usage of pathetic that many do. I mean, you really have to pity the man. He has so little happiness in his life, and everytime he does, it gets ripped away. In the end, he only has the faith that the Bishop inspired and the love that Cosette showed him he had (oh yes, he rescues her from the Thenardiers).
The Thenardiers remain evil through and through, and the only surprise with Mr & Mrs is the depravity they have. Their daughter Eponine though? She surprises you. She starts out as someone you think of as definitely a Thenardier to the core. However, love changes her. In the end she makes a huge sacrifice that she knows will come to the worst possible outcome.
Javert…well he is a man of unbending principles. He has prided himself all his life on this, and has lived his life by these principles. Hugo shows the effects that life events can sometimes have on people like this.
Cosette, she is flighty. But her love for Valjean and for Marius is inspiring.
Marius, is noble in a way. During the whole time he was estranged from his grandfather, he lived in poverty. He very rarely borrowed money. He is the one who almost comes out as the “hero” in this, as he is the opposite of Valjean. For most of his life, he has good happen to him. When bad does happen to him, and he is miserable, good suddenly occurs. I like how he is almost opposite of Valjean, like almost mirror like.
These are the main characters. However, Hugo has filled in chinks of the story with more minor characters that sneak into the chinks of the story and cement the whole. The urchin, Gavroche, (who is the unloved son of the Thenardiers so he lives on the streets) is one. Marius’s friends who stage the revolution in the inn are others. He paints even the most minor characters in huge detail. For instance, Cosette & Valjean’s serving woman, has very little said about her. However, Hugo brings her to life. She stutters.
I can definitely see how this would make a great show. I have never seen the Broadway play…but want to. I also really want to see the movie but made myself wait until after reading the book. I think that is best in this instance. Otherwise, you’d expect the book to move like the show or the movie, which considering it’s over 1500 pages, it simply cannot.
Please, don’t let the size of this daunt you. It would be a great book to read a few pages of in a night.
However, just skim the pages about Argot. It’s hideously boring and I think Dave agrees with me, if anything could have been cut from Les Miserables and not have it hurt the story line…it’s this section.
Please be sure to check out Sage Magazine, where I talk about Peony In Love by Lisa See. It’s an amazing book, and I’d definitely put it up there in my favorites. It’s also a much shorter book haha.