August 21, 2012

Les Miserables

I picked up the unabridged Les Miserables late last month, daunted by reports of Hugo's endless harangues, but determined that if I was going to read this thing, I was going to make it worth my while.  After all, the abridged version is only 200 pages shorter; what's a couple hundred pages?  (We'll ignore the fact that the abridged is in a completely different, probably much less weighty format.)  So, trudging a bit at the start, I began.

Last week I finished the book.  Objectively it didn't take me so very long; in fact, I read it faster than I did The Count of Monte Cristo last year.  But I confess, it felt at times as though the end would never come.  The sheer amount of wordage Hugo uses in detailing things that have almost no impact on the plot is by no means exaggerated.  He starts out the book by introducing the bishop who sets Jean Valjean on the path of morality, admits on the very first page that the following accounts have no immediate importance, and then launches into a 50+ page novella of the bishop's life.  "M'gawk!" I say, profoundly.  Such passages crop up frequently and on a variety of subjects: the battle of Waterloo and the history and purpose of convents are just two subjects that get significant page-time.  And Rachel Heffington, the Ink Pen Authoress, remarked that only Hugo could leave the reader wondering whether Marius dies in order to detail the entire history of Parisian sewers.

"Lean" is by no means the adjective to describe Hugo's style.

In reading the classics, I've learned that getting used to large chunks of dialogue-less narrative is simply a matter of survival.  What bothered me far more than Hugo's verbosity was his sad ignorance in regard to spiritual matters.  Not that this was unexpected: without making him any less culpable, it is accurate to say that he was a product of his environment.  Deism rather than Christianity was the rule of the day, as even a glance over the pages of Les Miserables will show.  Thus, while he speaks of God and even, at times, Jesus Christ, everything is flavored by his philosophy: God appears as an unknowable cosmic Power, existing in every emotion or object that is "good"; Jesus Christ is afforded no higher place than that of a "good" man.  Morality, not redemption, is to be found in the characters of the bishop and of Jean Valjean; good works and not God lead to heaven.  Again, this is present in many if not most of the classics, although I found it particularly prevalent in Hugo and his contemporary Dumas.

At this point, you're probably thinking that I must not have liked the story.  In fact, this wasn't the case at all; I have a strange ability to pick things apart and criticize, and still end by enjoying the whole.  Such was the result with Les Miserables, for despite my irritation with the two matters mentioned above, there were other things that thoroughly caught my interest and won my appreciation.  Being a character-driven writer myself, I was naturally delighted by Hugo's rich cast: in his tying together of the threads of many different lives, he's like a French Charles Dickens.  (Except that it would be Dickens who was an English Victor Hugo.)  Characters come from all over France and from all walks of life: Jean Valjean, the convict-turned-"saint"; Fantine, the miserable prostitute, and her daughter Cosette; Javert, the relentless hound of a police inspector; Marius Pontmercy, a dreamer; Enjolras, the visionary leader of a band of republicans; Thernardier, a certifiable creep; Eponine and Gavroche, Thernardier's children.  These are the main players, who emerge complete from the pages.

In fact, although Jean Valjean is a nuanced character, he is hardly even the main character for the majority of the novel.  After the infamous "hump" in the story, in which Hugo tells in painful detail all about him, Marius is the primary narrator; Gavroche, a young boy living on the streets of Paris, also gets a fair share of this page-time.  In this section Jean Valjean moves to the background, seen through other characters' eyes, until Hugo returns to him after the fall of the barricades. 

Of the good characters, I think I would class Enjolras as my favorite.  He is something of an odd choice, as he doesn't play as major a role as Marius or Cosette or Gavroche; but I still liked him and found him an intriguing character, because he is so very cold and unapproachable.  (I seem to like unapproachable, as evidenced by my liking for Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans.)  As for Jean Valjean, while I sympathized with him in a detached way, his character never fully grabbed me.  Perhaps because he had a tendency to lie down and be a doormat, and I always want to grab character-doormats and shake them.  Marius and Cosette - well, I like a good romance as much as the next gal, but I confess I had a strong to desire to knock their heads together and tell them to wake up and smell the gunpowder.

Among the villains, there were really only two of any importance: Thernardier and Javert.  The former was an excellent sneak, I must say, but it was Javert who caught my interest.  He was the perfect villain for a hero like Jean Valjean, a phenomenal villain on any level.  For he was the sort of character who seems at first like a hero: dedicated, scrupulous, upright, just, even humble.  Oddly enough, as I read, Micah 6:8 often sprang to mind; Javert did justice and walked humbly (although not with His God - it would going much, much too far to say that).  But in all that, he wasn't a hero, because he never learned mercy.  This vein through his character made his struggle with Jean Valjean all the more fascinating, and his ending the more apt.

In the end, taking the book as a whole, I did enjoy Les Miserables.  The characters and the plot, woven together until they really can't be looked at separately, were enough to hold me to the pages from laborious start to depressed-but-exultant finish.  But if you read it for yourself, don't anticipate a happy ending.


  1. I'm glad someone survived it! I consider myself a pretty good reader, but I made the mistake of getting Les Mis on my kindle. It's just...It's awful. I can't see how far I've gotten *sobs* I need to know!! That, and I love paper, and the smell that accompanies large books.
    Oh dear, is this one of those 'everyone dies in the end' books? I have seen the movie *ducks rotten tomatoes* and thought it had a fairly good ending...

  2. I loved Les Miserables. I had to read it for school. But in a way there is a happy ending.

  3. I've seen the movie as well (that is, if you're talking about the Liam Neeson version) and enjoyed it very much; it was part of the reason I started reading the book. The film did have a much more uplifting ending, however. Not everyone dies in the book, but I didn't like the ones who lived. How typical.

    I can only imagine the pain of reading Les Miserables on an e-reader. Not that I'm a fan of e-readers to begin with - but when reading a book like that, it really is critical to be able to see your bookmark progressing through the pages. I had heard that there is a bar on Kindle that shows your percent progress; is that not the case?

  4. I *love* Les Miserables. Definitely in my top 5 books. I started reading the full book this summer, but alas, the library demanded I return it after four renews.*shakes fist at library* So I only got about 1/2 through it. (yes, I'm a bit of a slow reader - other things were calling. :D) But what I did read of it was so enriching - I loved it. Oh, and now I can tell backstories from Waterloo that I didn't even consider to be part of the bargain. ;)

  5. I concur. There is little else to say, I find. :] And as for the knocking-together-the-heads-of Marius and Cosette? Have at em! :P

  6. Ah, Les Misrables! I have watched a 1978 version of the story which I really enjoyed, and an audio drama by Focus on the Family Radio Theater. Sarah has watched the one with Liam Neeson and she liked most of it...

    However, I will not pretend to say that the novel does not daunts me to say the least. I am not so sure I will be so brave in reading it, but I do attempt to try :).

    About the Christian element... definitely, it is very much a "Catholic" story, and stresses "good works" and Deism overtly so like many other novels of the time (Dickens one of them). However, (I do not know about the actual book) but the audio drama and to a great extent the movie I watched had that strong element of the Grace of God, and grace and mercy vs. justice which I really found quite Biblical... I suppose a measure of "adaption" went into both of them to stress those virtues. Anyhow, from the movie and audio drama, I love Jean Valjean's character, and Cosset too... I agree that Marius is such a dreamer and romantic that I think he needs a good shaking or two, but on the whole it was quite sweet love story :D. I so enjoyed the character depth of the villein in this story, Javert, too.

    Ah... it was a good review, Abigail; I congratulate you on completing such a hefty novel (in one month mind you, wow!!) and being able to come up with such a well-thought review of it as well.

    Well done!

  7. I have not read Le Miserables but I have begun to read the abridged version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame(it is the reader's Digest edition and is only about two hundred pages long compared to the original) and I am enjoying it very much. But I try not to read it at night because it is dark at times.

    Yes! Word of advice to writers like Victor Hugo: if you must kill off two of your main characters in a beautifully tragic way at the end, then at least leave behind a likable character who actually notices their death and learns from it and changes the evil of the "good people of Paris".

  8. Bree - That's what I don't like about libraries: once you get the book, you have to read it within their time frame or ELSE. And somehow that takes away all my incentive...

    Rachel - "You hold, and I'll punch! Eh heh heh...! ...Or not."

    Joy - Hmm, yes, I would venture to say that Focus on the Family probably revised those bits, as you said, to make the virtues more obvious. Although there are such traits in the original, they are overwhelmingly Man-centered. The grace of God doesn't play much of a part; it's much more Jean Valjean working to redeem and escape his past, than finding redemption in the work of God in Jesus Christ. Not that I expected such orthodox views as these from Victor Hugo, or any "classic" author of the time!

    Writer - If any author deserves to be abridged, it is, in my opinion, Victor Hugo! And he really did need advice about killing off characters. That was just not cool, Mr. Hugo: not cool.

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  10. A handful of brave souls risked torture and fire to liberate others.
    They were pacifists, believers in equality of all before God.
    This their story,
    and of those who came to love them,
    and of those who ruthlessly hunted them. These courageous teachers called themselves "Brethren".


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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