Les Miserables is about suffering, poverty, greed, selfishness, exploitation, war, hatred, prejudice, cruelty, loneliness and revenge. It is also about family, selflessness, rebellion, sacrifice, redemption, obsession, and above all else, of course, love. When it comes down to it, then, it is a novel about life, and everything that goes into it, the good alongside the bad, the beauty as well as the ugliness.
Insofar as you can adequately summarise a novel that is about 600,000 words long, Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned as a starving young man for stealing food, and who then had his sentence repeatedly extended for trying to escape from what he considers an unjust judgement. By the time he is finally paroled, decades later, Valjean is institutionalised, and brutalised by the system. He immediately breaks the terms of his parole and steals from the house of a bishop. When caught, he lies to the police and tells them that the bishop gave him the items to sell. The police decide to humiliate him by taking him back to the bishop, who can deny it to his face. But instead the bishop also lies, and claims Valjean told them the truth. They have no choice but to release him.
This simple, inexplicable act of charity is the event upon which the entire novel pivots, reverberating through the decades as Valjean seeks to earn the forgiveness he knows he didn’t deserve by paying that mercy forward. When he encounters the fallen woman Fantine, cast out and abandoned after falling pregnant to a man she loved but who didn’t really love her, Valjean sees part of himself in her. She is someone he can save, and earn his own redemption doing so. But he fails, unable to save her. And his attempts to redeem himself simply serve to bring him back to the attention of an officious, vindictive detective named Javert who knows Valjean has broken the terms of his parole. Valjean flees into hiding, taking Fantine’s young daughter Cosette with him.
Years later, in a Paris simmering with revolutionary tension, Javert catches up with Valjean once again. The childless father has devoted his life to the orphaned daughter, but she is a beautiful young woman now, and Valjean fears she will fall like her mother. Just as Javert is obsessed with Valjean, a young man named Marius is obsessed with Cosette, and Valjean can’t protect her from the world. Not least because that world is about to explode, and everyone in the novel is going to be consumed in that fire.
By turns, Les Miserables is a tragedy, a bawdy comedy, a rollicking adventure, a crime thriller and a romance. It is the longest novel I have ever read, but did not feel like it. As straightforward a read as a book that handles such themes could be, I can’t emphasise enough how accessible it is to someone who read “600,000 words” above and was put off committing the time to read this masterpiece. The pages flew by, largely unnoticed, and by the time I reached 400 pages in, when many novels would be drawing to a close, Les Miserables was taking off again, in a new direction, and one I wanted to follow. When I reached the halfway point, with some 600 pages still to read, I began to lament the fact that the book had less to give me than I had already taken from it.
I don’t keep a conscious list of my favourite novels, because some fade with reflection. The rest float in no particular order, and there are some, like The Grapes of Wrath, like A Tale of Two Cities, like The Kite Runner, that have never left, and never will do. At the moment they are all moons orbiting Les Miserables.
Granted, I daresay there are at least 50,000 words that, were the book published for the first time today, a judicious editor would cut out, or at least trim back. Victor Hugo liked his distractions, but I’m not sure I needed to know quite how many objections he had to monastic life, and I don’t know if such a detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo was necessary just because a subsidiary character shows up at the end. And I don’t think I needed to learn the history of the Parisian sewer system simply because two of the characters find themselves in it at one point.
But perhaps the biggest criticism I can make of the novel is not one that can be levelled at Hugo, except in the sense that he is as conceited and as self-assured as many of his contemporaries. “The twentieth century will be happy”, he insists at one point, because of the struggles, sacrifices and victories of the people in the nineteenth, as depicted in the novel. It is as much a manifesto for people power as The Grapes of Wrath, which was still necessary to write almost a century later, and in the middle of modern history’s unhappiest epoch.
I remember someone telling me once that they had no interest in reading the novel because of the musical, which now, having read the novel myself, seems like a great shame. Looking at all the one–star reviews on Amazon from people who picked up the novel because of the film of the musical, I can only assume what they’ve done with it bears little resemblance to its source material. Indeed, glancing at the cast list of the film, I see they cast young whippersnapper Hugh Jackman as a seventysomething man, and a morbidly obese woman with a beard became Helena Bonham-Carter. I haven’t seen the film, or its theatrical antecedent, but I still think it would be a pity if this became the Les Miserables that survived in the public consciousness. Read the novel. The ebook is free. The only thing it will cost you is time, and it will be time well spent.