This book is rightfully considered one of the most compelling novels of all time. Victor Hugo certainly writes gorgeously. His command of the words and sentences is excellent, and the philosophic detours, though tiring at times, are very touching. I hope not much was lost in the translation, but even in English I felt the power of words under Hugo’s pen. The level of English is slightly more difficult than other literary reads.
Les Miserables, in short, is the story of Jean Valjean. He lived with his sister and her family in extreme poverty in France after the French Revolution. In one act of desperation, he broke a window and stole a loaf of bread. Arrested, his sentence was lengthened by multiple escape attempts until he was finally released 19 years later. His hardness and bitterness was increased by the response he got when he was required to show his papers at each new town he visited, resulting in lower pay and refusal of the townspeople to rent him a room or serve him a meal because he was an ex-convict. An act of grace shown by a bishop resulted eventually in transforming him.
When he traveled into a new town, his help in saving someone’s life and the confusion and excitement around the event resulted in the town officials’ forgetting to ask him for his papers. He was hired to work in a factory and devised a way to improve the factory’s production, leading to his promotion, eventually to the head of the factory, and further still to his being elected the mayor (all the while going by the name M. Madeleine). He was known as a quiet but kind and benevolent man, using much of his wealth to aid those in need.
Thus it would seem his life was set on a new course of usefulness and happiness, except… except…
Except for Javert, a former prison guard who became the new police inspector in Valjean’s town, who thinks he recognizes the mayor as an ex-convict who has broken his parole.
Intersecting Valjean’s story is that of Fantine, a young, naive girl who gave herself to a man who only wanted to use her as a diversion one summer, leaving her with child, Cosette. Fantine’s situation was considered an utter scandal, so Fantine found an innkeeper and his wife, the Thenardiers, whom she paid to keep her child while she went to Paris to look for work. She ended up in Valjean’s factory, where she was fired after it was discovered that she had a child. In the meantime, the Thenardiers made up stories about Cosette needing more clothes, medicine, becoming very ill, all in an effort to extort money from Fantine. Worried and desperate, Fantine sold her perfect teeth, her fair hair, and eventually her body in a form of slavery (cue the tissues). She became gravely ill from neglect of her own care, and an altercation in the street brought her to the attention of Valjean. When he heard her story, he felt responsible for her situation since she was dismissed from his factory, and he paid her care and promise to take care of her daughter. The Thenardiers resented Valjean’s recuse of Cosette and the subsequent loss of income.
Hugo then turns to another leading character, Marius. Marius is a seventeen-year-old who lives with his grandfather, M. Gillenormand, a relic of the Old Regime. In a nearby town, Georges Pontmery, Marius’ father, a hero of the Napoleonic wars, lives in retirement. M. Gillenormand, by threatening to disinherit Marius has forced Georges Pontmercy to relinquish custody of his son. He has completed the estrangement by communicating his aversion for Pontmery to Marius. Consequently, the young man reacts almost impassively to his father’s death. A fortuitous conversation reveals to Marius the depths of his father’s love for him, and indignant at his grandfather’s deception, he leaves home. He takes refuge in the Latin Quarter and falls in with a group of radical students, the Friends of the A.B.C. Marius, who under his father’s posthumous influence has just switched his allegiance from the monarchy to Napolean, falls into a state of intellectual bewilderment. Material difficulties increase his unhappiness. Finally, he manages to create a tolerable existence by finding a modest job, living frugally, and withdrawing into his inner dreams.
His peace is shattered when he falls passionately in love with a beautiful young girl in the Luxembourg Gardens. She is Valjean’s ward, Cosette. Too timid for bold actions, he courts her silently. Absorbed by his love, Marius has been unaware of the deteriorating political situation. Now his private crisis is echoed by the crisis of an imminent insurrection.
The rest of the book details the pursuit of Valjean by Javert (and at times, Thenardier), his care of Cosette, her growth into a young woman, and her falling in love with Marius (much to the dismay of Valjean, who has never loved anyone else and is afraid of losing Cosette).
I especially felt for the descriptions of poor and hungry people in this book – extremely credible. Reading the book makes you feel true emotion for these people, particularly children. You feel as though you can relate to their hardships, and you suddenly feel extremely thankful to have a roof over your head and food in your stomach. It’s also amazing how strong Hugo depicts the characters. Eponine, Gavroche, Father Mabeuf – young or old, these people have been beaten by the sufferings of life enough to develop certain power and a way to look life right into the eyes.
That is the basic plot, but there are so many more layers, subplots, and characters in Les Miserables. This is a book about everything – right and wrong, love and hate, war and peace, goodness and evil, rich and poor. The characters are believable, and in fact developed extremely well. Hugo doesn’t just throw random characters into the storyline. Any one has his place, and is described sufficiently well for the reader to relate to him. This is true about other facets of the book as well; although being very long, you won’t find needless things in it. Everything has a reason, and Hugo knows how to collect facts and bring them together in a masterful, creative way, sometimes surprisingly.
The main message in this book—as I see it—is living with your conscience. What is really to a person is not what others think of him and how they judge him, but what he feels about himself, his inner peace of mind. Jean Valjean was certainly very hard on himself, ever after doing so much good. I even felt that he’s a bit too self-criticizing, but the moral is clear – you can run from the police and hide from people, but you can never escape yourself.
Side note: Keep a box of tissues nearby. Hugo is an emotional writer, to be concise.