Book Review: Les Miserables

Yes, I finally finished it! All 1,400+ pages!

I’ve read a couple of different abridged versions of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and made it my goal to read the unabridged version.

les-mislA brief synopsis for those who might be unfamiliar with the story: Les Miserables at its most basic is the story of Jean Valjean. He lived with his sister and her family in extreme poverty in France after the French Revolution. In one act of desperation he broke a window and stole a loaf of bread. His sentence was lengthened by multiple escape attempts until he was finally released 19 years later. His hardness and bitterness increased by the response he got when he was required to show his papers at each new town he visited, resulting in lower pay and refusal of the townspeople to rent him a room or serve him a meal because he was an ex-convict. An act of grace by a bishop resulted eventually in transforming him.

When he traveled into a new town, his help in saving someone’s life and the confusion and excitement around the event resulted in the town officials’ forgetting to ask him for his papers. He was hired on in a factory and devised a way to improve the factory’s production, leading to his promotion, eventually to the head of the factory, and further still to his being elected the mayor. He was known as a quiet but kind and and benevolent man, using much of his wealth to aid those in need.

Thus it would seem his life was set on a new course of usefulness and happiness, except…except…

Except for Javert, a former prison guard who became the new police inspector in Valjean’s town, who thinks he recognizes the mayor as an ex-convict who has broken his parole.

Intersecting Valjean’s story is that of Fantine, a young, naive girl who gave herself to a man who only wanted to use her as a diversion one summer, leaving her with child, Cosette. In that day a single woman with a child was a scandal, so Fantine found an innkeeper and his wife whom she paid to keep her child while she went to another town to look for work. She ended up in Valjean’s factory, where she was fired after it was discovered that she had a child. In the meantime, the innkeeper, Thenardier, made up stories about Cosette needing more clothes, needing medicine, becoming very ill, all in an effort to extort money from Fantine. Fantine, worried and desperate, sold her teeth, her hair, and eventually her body (which is handled discreetly, without explicitness, in the book and was viewed by Hugo as a form of slavery). She became gravely ill from neglect of her own care, and an altercation in the street brought her to the attention of Valjean. When he heard her story, he felt responsible for her situation since she was dismissed from his factory, and he paid her her care and promised to take care of her daughter. The Thenardiers resented Valjean’s rescue of Cosette and the subsequent loss of income.

The rest of the book details the pursuit of Valjean by Javert, and, at times, Thenardier, his care of Cosette, her growth into a young woman, her falling in love with Marius, much to the dismay of Valjean, who has never loved anyone else and is afraid of losing Cossette.

That is the basic plot, but there are so many more layers, subplots, and characters in Les Miserables. There are discussions of poverty, politics, French history. One of the major themes is the righteousness of the law, as represented by Javert, versus the righteousness of grace, represented by Valjean. While not a Christian book in itself (it portrays the innate goodness of man, whereas Scripture portrays the innate sinfulness of man, and it includes some strange philosophies, and its politics are much more socialistic than I am comfortable with), it does portray Christian themes of redemption, forgiveness, sacrifice, and selflessness, and Valjean does depend on God for salvation and strength.

I have mentioned here before that I had read a couple of different abridged versions and had wanted to read this unbridged version for a long time. Though normally I am a book purist, wanting a book to remain as untouched as possible, I can see now why this book is abridged. The sheer 1,463 page length of the book is not so much the problem as the frequent asides. It is rather like rush hour traffic in some places — very slow going interspersed by brief interludes of acceleration. It’s like a mini-series interrupted at the climactic moments by a documentary. Valjean’s escape with Cosette to a convent leads to a discussion of the history of convents in general, this convent in particular, whether convents are right or wrong. An incident at the end of the battle of Waterloo which has repercussions for two characters later in the book is preceded by a 57-page description and discussion of Waterloo. A student revolt at the barricades leads to a discussion of the differences between an insurrection and a riot and which, in the author’s opinion, is right and wrong. Valjean’s escape from the barricades with a wounded Marius through the sewers involves a detailed description of the history of sewers and the author’s suggestions for how they could be made better (and I never knew there were so many different synonyms for sewage). Hugo must have been an intensely curious man as well as a thinker and a philosopher, but the asides do get tiresome. Though at times I found myself interested in them in spite of myself, particularly the battle of Waterloo section, a few times I was tempted to skip through them, reminding myself that I wanted to read the unabridged version, not skim through it.

And I am glad that I read it. It did give me a fuller understanding of the story, and I particularly enjoyed learning more of Fantine’s early story than other versions included and more of Javert’s mental struggle that led to his actions at the end of his life.

There are moments of sheer beauty in the book, moments of identification with the very human struggle, such as Valjean’s dilemma when he learns another man has been arrested under his name. One of the most poignant moments iss when he returns home after Cossette’s wedding and pulls out the little clothes he had bought for her when he first rescued her, and weeps into them. One of my favorite sections is when Thenardier seeks to implicate Valjean to Marius, unwittingly clearing his name instead.

And for all of Hugo’s wordiness, there are moments of clever, succinct, descriptive phrasing: “For dowry, she had gold and pearls; but the gold was on her head and the pearls were in her mouth.” “A torn conscience leads to an unraveled life.” “There is a way of falling into error while on the road of truth. He had a sort of willful implicit faith that swallowed everything whole.” “Skepticism, that dry rot of the intellect.” “He suffered the strange pangs of a conscience suddenly operated on for a cataract’.” “This man…was…still bleeding from the lacerations of his destiny.”

Just a word about the musical based on the novel: it was through the musical that I first discovered this story. I was in the library video section one day, saw a video of the tenth anniversary production of the musical, and decided I’d check it out just to see what it was all about, having heard the title for years but knowing little of the story. I was absolutely enthralled. The music is gorgeous and the story so touching. But for the information of those whose standards are as conservative as mine or more so, there is a smattering of four-letter words, and the section dealing with Fantine’s prostitution is much more explicit than the book is. Unfortunately, though I’d love to see a stage production, I could not in good conscience because of that section. As it is we skip the “Lovely Ladies” song on the video and CD. I was delighted to discover, though, that the musical does go back to the original for many things, using even some exact lines from the book. It’s fairly faithful to the book except for the section mentioned, and the fact that Eponine and Marius’s relationship is not as it was in the book, and the scene of Valjean praying over Marius before the battle of the barricade and regarding him as a son was not on the book: at that point, even after rescuing Marius, Valjean hates him for the threat he is to taking Cosette away and is only caring for him for her happiness, though he does come to love him as a son much later. Plus Valjean doesn’t fight Javert after Fantine’s death before rescuing Cosette: he is arrested and escapes again later.

I’ll leave you with a couple of scenes from the musical. The first is the confrontation between Valjean and J avert after Fantine dies.

The second takes place after Valjean learns another man has been arrested in his name, and he struggles within himself as to what to do about it. The number 24601, which is mentioned in both songs, was Valjean’s number in prison.

(This review is linked to Semicolon’s Saturday Review of Books, Callapidder Day’s Spring Reading Thing 2009 Book Reviews, and 5 Minutes For Books Classic Bookclub Discussion of Les Miserables.)

48 thoughts on “Book Review: Les Miserables

  1. CONGRATULATIONS on getting through that!

    I saw the musical first and then read the book. I’ve forgotten most of the musical now and am curious to see it again but, as you say, the issue of prostitution is more heavily emphasized.

    One day I would like to go back and re-read the entire book. However, that’ll have to wait a little while!

  2. Thanks for the review, Barbara. Your description makes me lean toward not reading the unabridged version–I’m not sure I could get through the history of convents section or the 57-pages on the background of Waterloo. The story itself, however, sounds very good. I’ve always wanted to see the musical.

  3. I’m just like Quilly! I tried to read it I think in high school – and it just wasn’t happening. I never picked it up again – and I’ve never seen the musical either. I should probably revisit this whole thing! Sounds like a great story!

  4. Wow, Barbara. Talk about perseverance – you certainly have it. My hats off to you! Thanks for the summary of the book. I have always heard of the book, but didn’t know what it’s really all about.

  5. Great review. Congrats on rising to the challenge.

    I read this in high school, but I’m not sure whether it was the full text or an abridgement. Probably it was an abridgement. My youth pastor was always recommending books, and he recommended this one with great enthusiasm.

    I picked up a used copy of ‘War and Peace’ and was going to read it, but then I discovered it was abridged. I know what you mean about being a purist, yet seeing why, sometimes, these monumental works are abridged. Sometimes I wonder if the author himself might pare it down if he had opportunity to revise it today!

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  7. GREAT review, Barbara! Thanks for the videos too. I would love to get into this once I finish Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. LES MISERABLES is too good to be missed.

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  10. Thank you for your review on Les Mis. I’ve never seen it and I can’t remember reading it in h.s. so when my two girls (14, 15) wanted to audition for the summer theater school edition of Les Mis I didn’t hesitate to say yes (it’s a classic after all). Then a friend mentioned the prostitution aspect so I asked the summer theater director how the school edition handles this and she said, “it’s still there … language and all.” She said she’d cast the older girls or girls who didn’t have a problem with it, but wasn’t sure how she’d do the choreography and costumes. So we are going to find something else to do this summer. Needless to say we are all very disappointed.

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  12. I love listening to the musical – my best friend in high school did his term paper on this and I remember it was huge. I now want to read it because I adore the overall story and would love to see more detail to it.

  13. Les Miserables is one of my favourite books ever. Not always easy to get through, and my hardback copy weighed a ton even though it only ran to 900 pages, but definitely worth the effort.

    I adore the show, too, but there’s so much more to the book that just can’t be squeezed into a couple of hours.

  14. I enjoyed reading your review!

    Les Miz is the very best book ever that I’ve read in my entire life (although I’ve lived only 15 years). I’ve first read it when I was 12, and then it led me to many different abridged versions of Les Miz.

    I’ve seen Les Miz musical in London and Tokyo, but I’ve been longing to see it in Broadway. Now I know I can’t reach my dream, though.

    It’s a great pleasure to share the great impression of Les Miz with others:)

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  16. This was review was very interesting to read. I ama sophomore in high school and decided to read this for an English project. Overall it was an incredible novel but I couldn’t agree with you more about how there were some parts of the story that were difficult to get through. I remember trying to read the section on Waterloo and often found myself drifting off.

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  19. Les Miserables is possibly the most remarkable work of fiction I have ever read. I have read it multiple times, including the full text and many different abridgments. I admit that despite it being my favorite book, I do not enjoy reading the entire original text each time. I am not a French scholar, a war historian, nor do I have any particular fascination with the French Revolution or Napoleon.

    But I love this story. The first time I read an abridged version, I was shocked to see that Fantine was almost an afterthought; she was barely mentioned in the book. There were many glaring differences that I thought destroyed many of the characters, and thus the true power of this book. I have also read longer abridgments which include all the necessary portions, but still find it necessary to include vast descriptions of the sewers of Paris, and the Battle of Waterloo.

    I finally decided to abridge the book myself. I only omitted those parts I found to be completely superfluous, unrelated to the narrative, or distracting from the flow of the story.

    The original text contains over 540,000 words. My abridgment contains less than half that at under 254,000.

    Here is the link:

  20. My son and I went to see the movie on Christmas day since hubby was working and daughter had gone out of town with cousins. I will probably do a review on my blog soon of both the positives and negatives of it. I don’t go to many movies, but this was an experience. The work itself is fantastic. I had heard of it, of course, but was not familiar with the plot.

    • I’d love to hear about the movie. We’ve been wanting to go but wary about how the scenes with Fantine were handled. The musical plays up aspects of that that the book does not. Hugo was realistic but discreet.

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  25. Nice review! You’re right – the real thing is always better than versions and abridgements. I haven’t read any Hugo (’93 is on my “to read” pile for next year).

    (I followed the link in your comment on lisanotes)


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