I have a fear of long books, a fear I have been attempting to confront this year by reading some of the big thick books I’ve put off (usually because there are so many other books to read!) I’m trying to get in one a month, and in February I tackled what’s probably the thickest of them all, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. My copy had 920 pages of very small font, and with that much text to get through, it’s a good thing I enjoyed the story so much!
I’ve seen the musical, both as a play and the recent movie, and I think that was beneficial reading the original. The musical felt (to me) like it was predominantly accurate to the book–not in every particular, but in most ways. Knowing the soundtrack so well, I frequently had relevant lines running about in my mind as I read the corresponding scene. That was fun, but more importantly, knowing the musical meant I had a pretty good idea where Hugo was going–which is not always obvious!
Before I go further, I should confess something. I didn’t actually read all of the book. I’m guesstimating I read a solid 750 pages. You see, Hugo has this habit of going off into history or social commentary for twenty pages at a stretch. And…I started skipping those chapters. In a way, it’s actually a compliment to the rest of the book–I was far too eager to get back to Jean Valjean and the rest, and couldn’t stomach the amount of reading time it would take to wade through the other bits. I never found that I was having any trouble following subsequent chapters after skipping sections, so it seemed to work out.
The book is subdivided into five volumes, but I think really reads like three clear sections. Volume I and II focus on Jean Valjean and, more briefly, Fantine. Volume III is Marius’ story. Volume IV and V are about the revolution, in the middle of which all the earlier plot threads intersect. I could give you a very, very long review…but as you likely surmised from the title, I’m going to break this into three parts instead. So today, we’ll start with the first two volumes.
Set in France in the early 1800s, Volume I begins the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict on parole who finds himself at a crossroads when he meets a particularly sainted bishop (Hugo drives the point home rather). Valjean struggles with whether or not to steal from the bishop…and I won’t give the details away, but he ends up resolving to shed his former identity and go forward to lead an honest life.
Jump ahead several years and we meet Fantine, a woman left alone with a child born out of wedlock. She falls on worse and worse times, eventually turning to prostitution to provide for her daughter, Cosette, who has been left in the care of two innkeepers, the Thenardiers.
The first observation I have to make is that Hugo likes backstory. The first 35 pages are the backstory for the sainted bishop; I was still feeling dedicated at that point and read them. They’re not bad, but the story picked up a lot for me at the beginning of Book Second, when Valjean arrives in the story. I loved learning more about Valjean’s backstory, and about Fantine’s as well, when we come to her. I loved getting the details that the musical only hints at, and I loved the depth of the character exploration.
Valjean is a wonderful character. It was fascinating to find out his history, and also how he developed (or perhaps I should say, regressed) during his time as a convict. We then watch his struggle at the turning point to reclaim his humanity and his faith…and then his struggle for the rest of the book to keep them. More on that later, though. These first two volumes demonstrate Hugo’s ability to make mental struggle fascinating. I think I recall that “man vs. himself” is one of the standard conflicts of literature, but I’ve rarely seen it explored to such an extent.
We meet several other principle characters in the first two volumes, particularly the Thenardiers and Inspector Javert. I was actually a bit disappointed that we didn’t meet Javert sooner. He turns up fairly far along, and there’s just a few references to establish that Javert knew Valjean while he was a convict. So many other things are so much more elaborated upon, I hoped for more here. What was here was good, though, and we delve into Javert’s mind some too. I know people who just love Javert; I can’t say I’m one of them, but I do find him an intriguing character.
The Thenardiers probably diverged farthest from the musical version of the characters. In the musical, they are nasty individuals, but they’re played for humor. In the book, they’re not even remotely funny. They’re just nasty, horrible, awful people. Cosette’s situation living with them is incredibly heartrending. Imagine whatever other “poor orphan waif” story you’ve read, multiply it a few times, and you’ll probably have it. I think that was one of the most gripping sections of the book.
Volume II ends on what’s essentially a happy note, and we’ll leave it there for today. Come back tomorrow to meet Monsieur Marius in Volume III!
Buy it here: Les Miserables