I am finally feeling more capable of writing a few thoughts about Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I love this book. I am in awe of this book. I am still a little intimidated by it. And I hope I can make sense of my jumbled thoughts.
First, this novel is incredible in scope, fascinating in its details, and epic in influence. I cannot do it justice in a review. But I will try to synthesize a few thoughts here. First, a few thoughts on the final 4th of the novel. You can also read my thoughts on part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Initial Thoughts on Part 4:
- This was the quickest part of the novel for me to read. I was invested in the story and eager to read it for hours at a time.
- I love the ending! It’s different than the musical (or at least much more detailed), and it’s fascinating to get inside the heads of everyone. I knew what happened ultimately, but the little details that lead us to the climactic ending were intriguing.
- Jean Valjean is a remarkable character. There are so many reasons why Jean Valjean is a timeless character, one of the most complex and compelling in literature. Wow, I am in awe of Hugo’s incredible characterization.
- I actually preferred reading from my hard copy of the book for the last section. Perhaps it’s because I could see the end goal more clearly. I really loved holding the physical book in my hands in our family room reading by the lights of the Christmas tree. It was very peaceful and lovely.
- I feel so proud that I finished before the end of 2017! I feel like I belong to this sophisticated, profound club now that I have read the unabridged Les Miserables. It’s really neat actually 🙂
Les Miserables follows the complex redemption of Jean Valjean. Goodreads summarizes, “Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables 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 to 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 that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope—an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.”
I thought I would start with a few favorites.
- Jean Valjean is my favorite not just of this novel but one of my favorites in literature for so many reasons. I am fascinated by his journey to faith and his complexity as he interacts with other characters. His love for Cosette is pure and admirable. His sacrifice for Marius is awe-inspiring and courageous. His acceptance of Javier is remarkable and humble. There are so many traits that I could discuss for pages–Valjean’s goodness, his humility, his fear, his identity, his redemption, his strength, his love, his sacrifice, his honor. The list could continue. Valjean can represent parts of all of us. He is not perfect. On the contrary, he is flawed in many ways. But he aspires to better ways and better thoughts. I admire him. I am in awe of him. I respect him.
“Because things are unpleasant,” said Jean Valjean. “that is no reason for being unjust towards God.”
- Surprisingly, I came to really like Marius as well. I was surprised by how destitute and unromantic Marius was earlier in the novel. Frankly, I didn’t really like him early one. But his decision to fight at the barricade and his marriage to Cosette redeemed him for me. He too was imperfect. But I think his last decision to bring Cosette to Valjean was beautiful, even sacred. That ultimate act of love and forgiveness redeemed him for me. Also, he goes on a complex journey to become a strong, independent, respectable man through the novel. I appreciate the ways he changes and progresses.
- The priest and his background are absolutely fascinating early in the novel. I love that we get so much background on the man who changes the trajectory of Valjean’s life. We do not even meet Valjean until nearly 100 pages into the novel. But that is a tribute to the importance of this priest. It is because of the priest’s kindness and genuine love that we have a story at all. His is a life and character truly worth emulating.
- Fantine is a tragic but compelling character. I was overwhelmed by her love for her child and the drastic means that she took to support Cosette. My heart was constantly heavy for Fantine as I knew what happened to her. But I rejoiced in her connection with Monsieur Madeleine and the way she is saved through his compassion. Her sacrifice and trust on behalf of her child solidifies Valjean’s transformation through the novel.
- The scenes in the barricade were easily my favorites. The complexity of the rebellion and all the necessary parts to make it a success were fascinating. The uprising of 1832 is not as famous as the French Revolution or the reign of Napoleon but Hugo creates his scenes with such emotion that it felt almost more important to the evolution of Paris. The way the barricades are created, the insurgents soon understand their ultimate fate, yet they continue to fight for the ideals of the rebellion is truly profound. Enjolras is a truly gifted leader who dies a hero’s death.
- The sequence that situates Valjean and Cosette in the convent was potentially the most enjoyable. It was full of action, and the suspense when he is chased by Javier is palpable. I enjoyed the dramatic irony when Valjean is carried to the cemetery and the plans to get him secured as a gardener in the convent. I felt so relieved when they are safely at home away from Javier’s grasp.
- Surprisingly, the description of the Paris sewer system and Valjean’s incredible journey through it were also some of the most compelling scenes for me. The sewer is complex and disgusting. Valjean and Marius should be stuck there forever. They shouldn’t escape the labyrinth of passages. They should die of starvation or disease. Yet Valjean manages to traverse it through his incredible strength and God’s grace. So many times I gasped and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. What a relief when they finally make it out–and both still alive!
- Again, I enjoyed the ending of this novel. I am happy that we get a wedding and a happy ending for Marius and Cosette. I am glad the Marius is reconciled with his grandfather and his marriage to Cosette begins with financial stability. I find Valjean’s actions fascinating as he begins to withdraw himself from their lives. And the ultimate reconciliation is beautifully and tragically written.
Most thought-provoking characters:
This is a slightly different list because some of these characters were not my favorites but were certainly well
- Again Valjean belongs at the top of this list. His journey from convict to successful businessman and mayor to father to savior is absolutely brilliant. His complexities and his imperfections make him the most compelling character by far.
“The convict was transformed into Christ” ~Page 1452
- Javier is not a character I identify with but his stalwart clinging to justice is fascinating. He cannot accept a world where complete forgiveness is possible. He clings to the past and to the law. But ultimately, it isn’t enough. And he cannot accept a world where the physical law is superceded by a higher law from God. He is absolutely fascinating.
- Thenardier is a character I hated but also found interesting. He lives in a completely different world–a world without morals or laws or absolute truth. He terrifies me and annoys me. But he also fascinates me.
It is difficult to put into words the scope of this novel.
The amount of time that passes is incredible. We begin in 1815 with the climax nearly 20 years later. To write a novel that covers that amount of time with grace, complexity, and interest is a masterpiece. Hugo successfully covers a story of epic proportions but allows readers to connect intimately with his protagonist. It is truly remarkable.
Additionally, Hugo’s gorgeous language and compelling style add depth and complexity to his masterpiece.
While I certainly read a translation of the original French, I was fascinated by the language. There were so many moments when I just sighed and read sentences again. What makes this story so timeless is the language. Telling a compelling story is one thing. But add to that story incredible imagery, complex philosophy, and thought-provoking expression, and you have a truly remarkable work.
There are so many fascinating quotes in this novel. Here is just a sampling of my favorites:
“Perfect happiness implies the solidarity of angels.”
“It is not enough to be happy, we must be satisfied with ourselves.”
“The future has several names. For the weak, it is impossible; for the fainthearted, it is unknown; but for the valiant, it is ideal.”
“Of all the things God has created it is the human heart that sheds the brightest light, and, alas, the blackest despair.”
One of my favorite parts reading the classics is the way they push me to think deeply about people, life, the world, and God.
Les Miserables is absolutely brimming with compelling philosophical ideas and questions. Overall, I really enjoyed the ongoing commentary from Hugo about society, the poor, faith and God, justice versus mercy, and redemption. Sometimes, this was hard to understand and get through but sometimes it was absolutely fascinating. A few favorites are below.
“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
Favorite Philosophical Questions:
- What is identity? Can man create identity? Can man change his identity?
- How can you find truth? Who can you trust with truth or who can you trust to tell the truth?
- Can someone be forgiven for their past? Is there a limit to the depth of forgiveness someone deserves?
- Can justice and mercy both play a part in our lives? Does one overshadow the other? Should we focus on one more than the other?
- What is love? How can love be expressed in different ways? What are the types of love? Is one more powerful than another?
Tips and Recommendations for reading Les Miserables, unabridged:
- Read a little bit everyday. The chapters are fairly short throughout so you can easily read 2-4 a day. This kept me going when it got dense.
- See the musical first! It will help orient you to the story which will motivate you to keep reading the novel when it gets tough.
- Find a good translation. I have the Signet Classics edition translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman Macafee.
- Make smaller goals to help you achieve the ultimate goal of finishing the novel. For me, writing smaller reviews after each quarter of the novel helped me stay motivated.
- Give yourself time! I read it in one year and used just about everyday to do so. For me, reading long classics like this isn’t doable in weeks. In fact, I read other novels simultaneously to give me breaks. A year was definitely doable for me!
This is more than a novel. It is compilation of literature, philosophy, history, and politics. It is a love story and a military history. It is a story of redemption, love, strength, fear, morals and amorality.
It is a masterpiece.
Have you read Les Miserables?
What is most compelling to you about it?
Which novels do you consider masterpieces?