Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean – the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread – Les Misérables (1862) ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope – an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart. This Signet Classic edition is a new version translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the classic nineteenth-century Charles E. Wilbour translation.*
You might have wondered how come there are copies of Les Misérables out on the market with only 500 pages while there are others that are a staggering ~1500 pages long. What could possibly be in the unabridged version that only a third of the book remains for abridged consumption? I am not going to lie. I totally understand how a thousand pages could be shaved off and honestly, you could still get the meatiest parts of the plot. Victor Hugo has a knack for relating the histories of the most obscure things in painfully long paragraphs filled with meticulous details that you could live the rest of your life not knowing. There are whole chapters on battles (those were interesting for me), goings-on in secluded convents (slightly interesting), and sewers (not at all). It’s crazy and even the most patient reader could get a tad annoyed. If you are to read Les Misérables, though, I would still insist on reading the unabridged version. All 1463 pages of it, like my paperback version. In all its full glory.
(WARNING: As E.M. Forster would say: ‘One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it.’ So get ready.)
Les Misérables is one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful, and thorough books I have ever read. I know I use ‘beautiful’ quite a lot in my past reviews, but this is just a whole other level. It transcends beauty. I picked up the book expecting to read about some character’s life journey, because that’s the only way this book could reach that many pages, right? Wrong. I expected to get myself acquainted with the characters and their lives, but in the end I got their entire world. This goes complete with history, geography, politics, with bonus philosophy, and several others things thrown in that I certainly didn’t bargain for, but you know what? For all the difficulties reading those things gave me, I loved it.
Hugo’s (somewhat) helpful supplications of history and explanations gave me the background information I didn’t know I needed, making me appreciate the setting more. I felt like I lived within French society in the early 19th century because of the information I gathered that only a resident could possibly know.
And goodness, the characters. I cannot even begin to say how much I loved them all. Hugo’s detailed descriptions of their personalities, back stories, memories, thoughts, actions, and internal conflicts created a myriad of people with intersecting lives, making the main parts of the story very interesting. I particularly love Jean Valjean, Fantine, Gavroche, Enjolras, and Eponine, but honestly, you could like any character and I wouldn’t be surprised. They all had several facets in their personality that goes beyond your first impression of them. You couldn’t help but understand why they do what they do once you understand their motives. I really felt sorry for all their hardships, even the difficult ones, because you know they all need to survive, but only do them in their own ways.
I was lurking around Goodreads when I stumbled across this quote by Mick Foley:
“A big book is like a serious relationship; it requires a commitment. Not only that, but there’s no guarantee that you will enjoy it, or that it will have a happy ending. Kind of like going out with a girl, having to spend time every day with her – with absolutely no guarantee of nailing her in the end. No thanks.”
When you pick up Les Misérables, don’t expect to read something gripping that’s supposed to make you fly through the pages till the end. There are several books out there for that purpose, and Hugo never meant for it to be like that. Don’t expect happy endings. Sometimes a perfect ending is nothing you expect it to be. Don’t expect instant enlightenment. Like the characters, you would have to journey and think about it for a while. Do expect a commitment. It’s not going to be easy reading this book, but I promise, it will be worth it. Don’t leave it, and it won’t leave you. Do expect change. The two weeks it took me to read through this book turned out to be my own personal journey, because when I finished it, I honestly wanted to be a better human being. Really! I know it sounds preposterous and silly, but it’s true. I feel engulfed in a halo because I swear, the book changed me. I may forget some characters’ names, or some parts of the book, but I will never forget the emotions it got out of me and the way it has touched and inspired me in so many ways.
Les Misérables is a beautiful story of humanity in all its forms, good or bad, in all its beauty and filth, in all its problems and triumphs, as it goes through life in its constant struggle for redemption. Just please, please, please, read it and be inspired.
I feel the need to mention the highly successful musical and film adaptations here. I loved them so, so much. I am pretty much still reeling from watching Les Misérables in the cinema last night. If you loved them, I promise you, you will love the book. It’s all really beautiful.
Day 6: Or, it’s already been six days since you finished the book. Just get over it already. To which my heart says: No.
In a nutshell…
Author: Victor Hugo
Original Language: French
Genre: Classic, Drama