Hi everyone! Hope you are staying cool and more comfortable than me this June!
Today I thought I would share some updates on my reading progress of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I have 5 “huge” novels on my list for The Classics Club so I am reading them one per year. If you recall, when I read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy last year, I posted several shorter reviews of single books to keep me accountable and help me digest Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I want to do something similar with Les Mis, with a few changes.
Logistically, here are my goals.
- Post a short review after each quarter of the book read, 4 total short reviews.
- Post a final review of the full book when I am done.
- Finish the novel by the end of 2017!
Now a few initial thoughts about this masterpiece of a novel.
- First, Les Miserables is much easier to understand and get swept into the story. I have had much more fun reading this so far. I read it because I want to, not because I feel like I should. In the war chapters of War and Peace, there would be days when I read 2 chapters just to keep reading. Not the case nearly as much with this one. I often read several chapters because I want to find out what happens to Fantine or Jean Valjean. The hardest part so far has been the Battle of Waterloo discussion which was heavy on military strategy and away from the main characters.
- I love Hugo’s writing style. He expresses himself with such beautiful language, and I really enjoy reading his commentary on society within the larger story.
- I’m already 25% finished! To me, this book is flying by already. I understand that there are plenty more characters to meet, themes to discuss and scenes to experience. But to already be at this point feels great.
In these first several books of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, we are introduced to several important characters and begin their journeys of discovery, justice, and redemption. First is Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who is given a second chance at a full life by a wise and kind priest. Next is Fantine, a young mother who sacrifices everything for her young daughter, Cosette. And finally we meet Inspector Javert, the justice and law driven police inspector who does not believe either can bend. Their stories connect in this first section of the novel but their destinies are far from decided.
I loved reading the first parts of this novel. It felt like reading about old friends. The story is familiar to me because I have seen the play and movie before. But this was also refreshing because it was different and more detailed. I could see Fantine as she slowly lost everything and felt her hope as she was saved from destruction. I saw the decisive moment for Valjean and his changed destiny. I could feel the intense duty Javert clung to–disregarding anything but justice.
I was surprised by the level of description and the slow pace of the novel. It did not bother me to get so many details but there was much more development than I expected. We get a lot of backstory on the priest who will eventually save Valjean’s soul. But that adds to the importance and climactic moment when he offers the silver and the candlesticks to the ex-convict. It takes Valjean so many chapters to finally get to the trial of the man accused of being 24601. It was a relief to finally read what he decided to do. We also get more background on Fantine before she meets Valjean. But that adds to the tragic nature of her character and the deep emotion I felt as she slowly lost her youth, dignity and nearly her humanity.
It’s hard to pick a favorite character in this section, let alone this novel. I loved Valjean because we get so much of his background. The stark contrast between his character before meeting the priest and afterwards is so intriguing. I find it easy to respect and admire him. I also loved the priest. We get so much of his background and learn how genuinely good he is. I appreciate him so much more than the few moments he gets on stage in the musical. And I loved Fantine, but in a different way. She is such a tragic character, but I felt that we really get to know her so much more in the novel. Perhaps understanding her background and her fall makes her even more intriguing.
Themes I am enjoying/pondering:
- The relationship between justice and mercy. Can they both play a part in our lives? Does one overshadow the other? Should we focus on one more than the other?
- Can someone be forgiven for their past? Is there a limit to the depth of forgiveness someone deserves?
- Judgment can destroy others, regardless if it is based in truth or lies.
- The search for truth. How can you find truth?
- What is identity? Can man create identity? Can man change his identity?
Things that are tricky and/or confusing:
- The only part that I had a hard time understanding was the extended book about the Battle of Waterloo. It felt like I was back in War and Peace. But we do get a clear connection back to the story at the end. I’m glad to be done with that part though.
I seriously already love this novel. So much to digest and discuss. Looking forward to continuing!