Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

February 12, 2011

Plot summary (with spoilers): Well, it’s impossible to sum up a book of this length in any reasonable amount of space, so let me just give the barest outline possible. The book is mostly about a man named Jean Valjean, former convict who spent 19 years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family (5 years for the theft, and 14 extra years for various escape attempts). Once he gets out he steals again out of desperation (an offense that could send him away for life), but then realizes what he has done and vows to change. He becomes wealthy by modifying a manufacturing process, and devotes himself to helping the poor.

His life is changed by a woman named Fantine, who used to work in one of his factories before getting kicked out because of having an illegitimate daughter. As Fantine is on her deathbed, Valjean promises to look out for the girl. But a police officer named Javert is hot on Valjean’s trail and gets to him before Valjean can go and collect Cosette from a family called the Thenardiers.

From there, the book spins off in many different directions, but mostly deals with Valjean escaping from custody yet again, running from Javert, finding Cosette, and raising her while constantly looking over his shoulder for the police.

Liked:

  • Fantine was such a wonderful character. She only appeared very briefly in the story, but was extremely sympathetic. My heart ached for her when she had to give up Cosette in order to work and survive. And then to sell her hair and teeth when she thought her daughter needed medication? Wow. That she became a prostitute and died without ever seeing her daughter again was the ultimate tragedy.
  • The Thenardiers were terrific villains. They were so mean, greedy, and despicable that I hated them — and yet was fascinated by them at the same time.
  • The whole extended scene where Jean Valjean arrives at the Thenardiers’ Inn to collect Cosette was riveting. I loved how he bought that doll for her when the Thenardier girls wouldn’t let Cosette play with theirs and how he put a Napoleon in Cosette’s shoe on Christmas Eve. Hugo’s description of Cosette’s broken and battered shoe practically hidden in the fireplace, as well as his words about the undying hopes of a child — even one as miserable as Cosette — tugged at my heartstrings.
  • The part where Javert dressed up as a beggar to see if Jean Valjean was the “poor man giving alms” was great! What a suspenseful moment for the protagonist and the reader!
  • The Marius/Cosette love story won me over in the end. At first, I couldn’t stand Marius, especially when he was fascinated by Jondrette/Thenardier and almost let the man murder Jean Valjean because of an inability to act. But I eventually grew to like him, and rooted for the couple to get together.
  • Aw, I loved little Gavroche, even if he did have Thenardier blood in him. Yet another memorable character in this book — with a memorable death scene to boot. Poor kid.
  • Javert’s suicide was oddly touching. I didn’t ever like the character or anything, but still. It was weird to think he did that because he couldn’t come to grips with the gray areas of the justice system. Everything had to be black and white for him, so when Jean Valjean, this supposedly hardened criminal, let him go from the barricade when Valjean had the chance to assassinate him, Javert didn’t know how to react. He then responded by letting Valjean escape from custody later on — and of course that did him in.
  • Call me sappy if you will, but that ending scene made me completely tear up. Thank god Marius realized just in time it was Jean Valjean who saved him by dragging him through the sewers and brought Cosette back to the house for one final reunion before Jean Valjean passed on. Wow.

Disliked:

  • The novel got off to a rather slow start, what with the extended biography of the bishop and all. I knew coming in that Jean Valjean was the main character, so to have all of Book I devoted to the bishop seemed a little extreme to me.
  • There were several long, boring interludes in the book that took me completely out of the main action. The sleep-inducing account of Napoleon at Waterloo comes immediately to mind, as does the description of the slum where Jean Valjean sets up house with Cosette upon arrival in Paris, the history of the convent where they go to live, the sewers, the insurrection, and on and on and on. I dislike it when authors use their work as a podium to rail against any and all social ills of the day. I mean, seriously, take away that extraneous stuff and the main story about Jean Valjean/Javert/Marius/Cosette/Thenardier would have been far more manageable in terms of length.

Rating:

The main plot of Les Misérables gets 5 stars out of 5, no question. I love the characters and everything they went through. But I simply cannot ignore the fact that the work as a whole is approximately 2/3 filler material, tangents, and rants from the author. Because there was so much extra to fight through, stuff that had little or nothing to do with the actual plot, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Abridged editions were created with Les Misérables in mind.

One Response to “Les Misérables by Victor Hugo”

  1. Good review.I haven’t read the book but I saw the story dramatised on French TV. I think that Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens were both similar in that they used their writing to make their readers aware of the difficult lives that poorer people lived at the time

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