“…there comes a point moreover, where the unfortunate and the infamous are grouped together, merged in a single, fateful word. They are les miserables – the outcasts, the underdogs. And who is to blame? Is it not the most fallen who have most need of charity?”
How do you begin to review a book like this one? Les Miserables is one of the longest books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of long books) and as someone with very little knowledge of French history, it was also one of the most challenging. Of course, I could have bought an abridged version but I make a point of never doing this as I prefer to read a book the way the author intended.
If you’re unfamilar with the plot, here is a brief summary:
Jean Valjean has just been released from prison after nineteen years (he had been sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and then a further fourteen years for making several attempts to escape). As an ex-convict arriving in the town of Digne, Valjean finds himself rejected by everybody he approaches until the kindly Bishop Myriel takes him in and gives him shelter for the night. However, Valjean repays him by stealing his silverware. When the police catch him and take him back to the bishop’s home, the bishop tells them they’ve made a mistake – he had given the silverware to Valjean as a gift. He then tells Valjean to “never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man”. The bishop’s simple gesture of kindness has a profound effect on Valjean, filling him with the determination to be a better person.
After establishing himself as a successful factory owner and becoming mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Valjean promises a dying woman that he will take care of her daughter, Cosette. The rest of the book follows Valjean’s attempts to escape the investigations of Inspector Javert and to build a new life for himself and Cosette. Along the way we meet a gang of criminals, a group of revolutionary students, and a greedy innkeeper called Thenardier.
Most of the characters are very well developed and Hugo spends a considerable amount of time introducing us to them. In fact, he spends the first 50 pages of the book describing the personality of the Bishop of Digne. This is not vital to the plot and could quite easily have been shortened to just a few pages, yet it helps the reader understand why Jean Valjean was so touched by the bishop’s kindness and compassion and why it was a life changing experience for him. However, I didn’t find the characters of Marius and Cosette very interesting, despite their central roles in the book – I thought some of the secondary characters were much stronger, such as the street urchin Gavroche and the Thenardiers’ eldest daughter Eponine.
I did find my attention wandering in places because of all the lengthy digressions on the Battle of Waterloo, life in a convent, the July Revolution of 1830, the Paris sewer system etc. Although these pages are often interesting and informative and contain some beautiful writing, they have very little direct relevance to the plot and interrupt the flow of the story. However, this is really the only negative thing I can say about the book. It’s worth perservering through all the social commentary, politics and history to get to the actual story itself – and the wonderful, moving, thought-provoking, suspenseful story is why I loved Les Miserables.
Genre: Classic/Pages: 1232/Publisher: Penguin Classics – translated by Norman Denny/Year: 1862/Source: My own copy bought new