Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism, and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat–by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place–and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert…A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale, moving inexorably from the eve of the battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830. (-from the back cover on the Norman Denny translation)
I finished Les Miserables!!!! It took me 79 days, but it’s done now.
You’d have no idea how many times I fell asleep reading it. Sometimes in the morning my mom would walk into my room to wake me up, and find me slumped over that book(I call it “that book”, because “Les Misérables“ is getting tiresome to type). I was at page 900-something a few days ago, and planning to finish it some time before December ended, but then I thought, “You know what, I’m just going to finish this now,” so I spent, like, 5 hours each day, pushing through it. I even stayed up till 2:30 one night(impossible without black tea and my Pirates of the Caribbean Pandora station). Wow.
Oh, and one note before things get started, spoilers will mainly be marked, so feel free to read even if you haven’t tried the book yet!
To kick things off, I’d like to address some the common concerns one hears for Les Miserables.
Firstly, you’ve probably heard someone complain about the length. And, that someone would be right to do so. Admittedly, Les Miserables is a thick novel. In fact, it’s over four times longer than Pride and Prejudice.
In a way, the length can be attributed to Hugo’s tangents, which, I must write, are inexcusable. While visiting the library Thursday, I found a copy translated by Norman Denny(mine was by Charles Wilbour). Being in a strong Les Mis-craze, I read the introduction. I’ll quote it here, as many of his points parallel mine.
But some of the digressions, or interpolations, are still indefensible, the most flagrant being the account of the Battle of Waterloo, which occupies the third book of Part Two. It is sub-divided into nineteen chapters filling sixty-nine pages of the closely printed French text, and only the last chapter, seven pages long, has any real baring on Hugo’s story…tremendous though it[Hugo’s account of Waterloo] was, [it]had no more to do with the story of Les Miserables than any other major historical event that had occurred during the century. -Norman Denny
But, without the longer tangents, the work would still carry on for 1,000+ pg., which leaves the rest to be attributed to the pure scope of the narrative(also, perhaps, general wordiness on his part). Hugo skillfully worked multiple characters’ stories together, introducing new plot twists every other page(yeah, that was an exaggeration).
So, was it too long? Yes.
Should it have been pages, and pages, and pages shorter? No.
Another popular concern(quite possibly the most popular) relates that the story is toomiserable, too sad, and too many characters die. Also, tied into that, are the disturbing morals of some of the main characters.
Yes, the story is miserable, but please don’t forget: it is named Les Misérables(poor wretches). Hugo didn’t intend to write a happy novel, bursting with smiles, or ending with a contented-sigh-worthy conclusion. Quite the contrary; to preface one 18 pg. digression over French slang, he writes–
When thirty four years ago the narrator of this grave and gloomy story introduced into a work written with the same aim as the present, a robber talking argot, there was amazement and clamour.
However, I will concur that certain sad aspects could’ve been avoided.
For example, I believe Hugo should have killed off the barricade boys. Even Enjolras. He spared Marius, for which I am ever so grateful, but more than one survivor of that failed 2nd French revolution would’ve been going to far.
Character deaths which I didn’t find necessary?
1. Madame Thénardier
2. Jean Valjean
And that’s only three!
Eponine should have died because she never would’ve been happy without Marius,
Fantine should have died because she never would’ve been happy without Cosette, and
the Bishop should have died because he was old and already happy.
*End of Spoilers*
Don’t misinterpret this, the character deaths hurt me just as badly as they did any other Les Mis fan, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have done the same if I were Les Miserables’s author. Sorry.
Lastly, readers(myself included) dislike Hugo’s disregard for the “show me, don’t tell me” skill. I have nothing to refute this. That, and the tangents were his largest flaws.
Now that I’ve scratched the surface of those ideas, I can move to praise for Les Mis.
One of my top favorite characters ever. Just wow.
Fantine– I do wish he’d spent just a wee bit more time on her. She’s pretty well-developed, anyways.
Mehhhh. It’s not that I hated her or anything, but, I wish she had done something a little more than fall in love and marry Marius.
Um, did I need to read his 50 page biography?
No, he was my favorite at first, I just got tired of his life after a while. (Wow, that sounds rude.)
Eeeep! Second favorite character.
Contrary to the opinions of many fans, I appreciated Marius. I even liked him. But, at the same time, he made me SO MAD.
I can’t decided whom I liked better between the two, but I completely respect the opinion of anyone who likes Enjolras better. He was pretty awesome.
He was sinful, too. But, his carefree, selfless disposition really touched me.
Other Parts I Liked/Loved
When Jean Valjean dragged Marius through the sewers. The guy who had fallen in love with Jean Valjean’s favorite person in the world, daily visited Valjean’s garden without his permission, AND Jean Valjean still exerted everything he could towards the fragment of hope that Marius would survive. That is why Jean Valjean is my favorite.
The scene where Marius watches the confrontation between Thénardier and Jean Valjean. That had to be one of the most well-constructed pieces of literature I’ve ever encountered. I mean, look at the dilemma Marius was in!
Would I recommend Les Misérables? Most certainly. It’s one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read, and if one considers Lord of the Rings as three separate books, then it’s my favorite. Les Misérables trumps any of the individual Lord of the Rings installments. (But, if you’re like me, and you see them as one whole book, then LotR is still my favorite.) 🙂
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Favorite Character: Jean Valjean
Thank you for reading!! If you’ve gotten thus far, I’m impressed. Please tell me your thoughts!
Note: All quotes, unless otherwise marked, come from Charles Wilbour’s translation.