At approximately 1, 400 pages, Les Misérables is one of the longest novels in European literature. It is set in post-revolutionary France, and most of the action takes place in Paris, following several characters’ stories whose lives intertwine. There are numerous translations to choose from, and which one to pick is often a bone of contention. I opted for the most recent translation by Julie Rose which was published in 2008. Rose’s version has often been criticised for being ‘too modern’ and not retaining the sense and feel of the original French. I see what people mean by this in some instances, such as referring to the Thénardier’s Inn as a ‘greasy spoon’, but other than the odd occasion such as this I found Rose’s translation to be vibrant and easy to read, which is what a lot of people want when embarking upon this intimidating tome. If you know zero to little about the plot of Les Misérables (like I did), this version is a great starter translation; the older ones might be off putting and too heavy to hold continued interest through such a long and complex plot. I think when I come to re-read Les Misérables I might try an older translation that is closer to the French, but for the unfamiliar this version is a good choice and makes for an enjoyable read of this classic.
The numerous stories contained within Les Misérables occur over a number of years, the novel spanning from 1815-1832. It is split into five ‘parts’, which are each about the length of an average novel, and in previous years have been published as separate books. Within each ‘part’ are several ‘books’ and within each book are numbered chapters; the chapters are usually quite short, which makes you feel like you’re making progress! Except for one (The Idyll in Rue Plumet and the Epic in Rue St. Denis), all of the parts are named after a main character: Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Jean Valjean. All five parts centre around the ex-convict Jean Valjean, who, having been inspired by a bishop at the start of the novel, endeavours to turn his life around. Within his own tale Jean Valjean gets caught up in those of the other characters, as they all connect to him in some way. Jean Valjean is constantly pursued by staunch, justice-obsessed police inspector Javert, who seems to stop at nothing to catch and imprison the man who in his eyes will always be a criminal:
“No human feeling ever manages to be quite as appalling as gloating joy. His was the face a demon who has come to collect his doomed victim.”
The plot is very character driven, and luckily the characters are probably the best aspect of the novel; they are strong and real, meaning you become entangled in their stories as much as Jean Valjean does. My favourites are Éponine - the daughter of the vile Thénardiers who mistreat Cosette as a child; Fantine - Cosette’s ill-fortuned but kind-hearted mother; and police inspector Javert. I liked Cosette as a child, but when she grows older she becomes really drab, lacks personality and acts like a stereotypical sickly-sweet young lady. In Monsieur and Madame Thénardier Hugo successfully creates a pair of truly nasty characters, whom I could not help but hate, especially during their neglectful behaviour towards Cosette in part two. Their treatment of her is heartbreaking; they beat her, force hard labour on her, and deny her not only toys while spoiling their own two daughters, but also proper clothes, dressing her in rags.
“She had a black eye from a punch she had collected from mother Thénardier, which caused mother Thénardier to say now and again: ‘Talk about ugly, with that poached egg over her eye!’”
“Just as birds will make a nest out of anything, children can make a doll out of anything at all.... Cosette for her part had dressed up the sword. This done, she had laid it down in her arms and was singing softly to put it to sleep.”
The story is multifaceted and covers a vast range of topics and themes: sacrifice, abuse, loneliness, grief, loss, love, revolution, peace, hate, justice and redemption are all there. Les Misérables is a tear-jerker; I rarely cry at novels, but I cried at two separate junctures when reading this novel. The plight of the poor is an underlined issue, something which Hugo highlights through the tragic character of Fantine; the abandonment of her precious Cosette at the hands of the Thénardiers in part one is done through motherly love so that she can endure gruelling labour in a factory miles away and thus pay for Cosette to live, but in the end it does few favours for either Cosette or herself. The sacrifices Fantine makes for Cosette are truly heartbreaking. Hugo paints a vivid eye-opening picture of the life of the poor and needy, making the reader empathise and feel strongly about the injustice and suffering endured in Paris at the time; making for an emotional and powerful read.
Les Misérables has a couple of flaws though. There are numerous coincidences which are a little hard to believe; Javert seems to pop up wherever Jean Valjean goes, for example. Moreover, Hugo enjoys going off on long tangents which are often completely irrelevant, sometimes by the author’s own admission. I didn’t mind a lot of them, as mostly they are interesting, such as the book all about the battle of Waterloo at the beginning of part two. Nonetheless it does get a bit tiresome, especially when the main story is so interesting. The worst digression is definitely book two of the final part which details the history of the Parisian sewers. It’s very boring, and what’s more, this particular tangent was dumped right in the middle of an especially exciting bit, which made me impatient to return to the main narrative.
Les Misérables is a novel I have wanted to read for a long time, but I was always a little put off by its sheer size. However it is undoubtedly one of the best novels I have ever read; I would advise anyone who is thinking about reading it to give it a try. The story more than makes up for Hugo’s heavy digressions, and the intoxicating characters are ones I will never forget. Les Misérables is a tale of love and hate, war and peace, sacrifice and loss, redemption and justice; through its study of the French poor it forces you think about sacrifice and suffering and through the transformation of Jean Valjean it compels you to think about yourself and your own selflessness. The timeless themes and relevant messages mean that everyone could learn something valuable by reading this masterpiece.
My other Victor Hugo reviews:
Notre-Dame de Paris