Victor Hugo: Les Misérables (review)


‘To love or to have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.’ (p. 1354)

We all know the story. Jean Valjean is sent to prison because he steals a lump of bread to ensure his and his family’s survival. But this is no ordinary prison. This is the gallows where men are worked and worked and where the smallest offense just gets them locked up some more. And Valjean is locked up for nineteen years because he tries to escape this hell hole.

When he’s finally released, he is an angry bitter man, not the least because no inn will let him stay the night because of his yellow convict passport: ‘A convict may leave the galleys behind, but not his condemnation.’ (p. 103).

But Valjean is lucky. He meets Bishop Myriel who kindly gives him shelter for the night. And just as kindly – or not – Valjean repays the favor by making off with Myriel’s silverware, the only luxury the old Bishop allows himself. Of course he’s caught – but when he is brought in front of the Bishop against, the Bishop claims that he gave the silverware to Valjean and forgot to give him the silver candlesticks. Valjean is then sent on his way with this extra loot and an awakened conscience. Unlucky for him – but lucky for the reader since it gets to be of vital significance later on – Valjean hasn’t quite quit his criminal ways yet and so he steals a coin from a 12-year-old boy.

After a couple of year has passed, we are back with Valjean who is now living under an alias as a wealthy factory owner who does good wherever he goes. One of these good deeds is helping a young woman, Fantine, who after having been a young and beautiful woman living the good life in Paris, has a child. She tries what she can to protect the little girl names Cosette by leaving her with a couple owing an inn whom she thinks she can trust. Fantine never runs out of bad luck and she sells whatever she has – her hair, her teeth – to pay for her daughter’s upkeep.

Fantine comes to live in the same town as Valjean and is eventually fired from his factory because of her having a child. Valjean meets her when Inspector Javert arrests her for attacking a man. Javert is Valjean’s evil spirit. He has been working in the gallows too but as an inspector and he knows Valjean from then. When Valjean one day lifts a cart off a man, Javert recognizes him – but Valjean escapes, together with Cosette.

Now, Valjean takes care of Cosette and is as close to being her father as it’s possible without it actually being so. But again and again, he crosses paths with Javert and of course, we will get a final showdown because Hugo is the master of chance meetings.

When reading about Fantine, I can’t help but wonder if Victor Hugo read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Story of a Mother and became inspired by that to write Les Misérables. I know that a mother giving up everything to save her child, is a common theme but still. Fantine gives up her teeth and her hair to help her child, the unnamed mother in the fairytale gives up her eyes, her hair and her warmth to find her child and rescue it from the cold hand of death. It is possible – especially since Andersen and Hugo met each other in 1833 so at least Hugo has been aware of Andersen’s existence. The Story of a Mother was published 1845 so it was published before Les Misérables. I can’t find any confirmation but it’s an interesting connection, I think!

Hugo’s writing style is so impressive. He writes pages and pages about something and you just can’t see the connection to the rest of the novel, and suddenly there it is, and everything becomes so clear. He starts the novel writes pages and pages about the Bishop Myriel and I just kept wondering why he wrote about him when Jean Valjean is the main character of the book. But of course, it made sense. And he did that throughout the novel and even though it surprised me, even irritated me at some points, it works. He just has a way with language (or I assume that it’s him and not just the translator) – even (especially) when he’s writing about the sewers: ‘These heaps of garbage at the corners of the stone blocks, these tumbrils of mire jolting through the streets at night, these horrid scavengers carts, these fetid streams of subterranean slime which the pavement hides from you, do you know what all this is? It’s the flowering meadow, it is the green grass, it is marjoram and thyme and sage, it is game, it is cattle, it is the satisfied low of huge oxen at evening, it is perfumed hay, it is golden corn, it is bread on your table, it is warm blood in your veins, it is healthy, it is joy, it is life. Thus wills that mysterious creating which is transformation upon earth and transfiguration in heaven.’ (p. 1234-1235). At another point, he writes about what it would be like to drawn in a pit of quicksand at the bottom of the sewer – magnificently written!

It also surprised me that he was funny. Especially in the beginning, he made me smile several times and I definitely hadn’t expected that from this book. See this way of characterizing a man: ‘The senator /…/ was an intelligent man, who had made his way in life with a directness of purpose which paid no attention to all those stumbling-blocks which constitute obstacles in men’s path, known as conscience, sworn faith, justice, and duty; he had advanced straight to his object without once swerving in the line of his advancement and his interest.’ (p. 35). I love this – it’s spot on and just nails (a lot of) politicians!

Throughout the book, you can see Hugo advocating for education among other things. ‘The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’ (p. 21). According to the introduction in my edition (Everyman’s Library), Hugo saw himself as a politician and therefore, from time to time, inserts himself into the text to talk about how he feels about Waterloo, the state of France, Napoleon, convents and gallows, and how a just society ought to be. In the end, I think he tried to write a truthful account of France as he saw her. And it’s beautiful and well worth taking one’s time with.

‘/…/ truth is a nourishment as well as wheat. A reason, by fasting from knowledge and wisdom, becomes puny. Let us lament as over stomachs, over minds which do not eat. If there is anything more poignant than a body agonising for want of bread, it is a soul which is dying of hunger for light.’ (p. 984)

  • Title: Les Misérables
  • Author: Victor Hugo
  • Publisher: Everyman’s Library #239 – Alfred A. Knopf
  • Year: 1998 (original 1862)
  • Pages: 1432 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

9 thoughts on “Victor Hugo: Les Misérables (review)

  1. I’m reading this right now. I love it so far, although I just finished reading his detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo and it almost put me to sleep. Ugh. The rest of the book has more than made up for that, though. I’m looking forward to reading more of it.

  2. I just finished this a few days ago and ended up really enjoying it, even with all the tangents that he went off on. You are right though, all those tangents meant something in the end, but I can’t help but think it would be a very different book if it was published today.

    • It would never have been published today! I don’t think any editor would allow an author to go out on that many tangents – even if he does bring it all together. It’s a rather sobering thought!

    • Thank you! I haven’t watched the movie (or the musical) either but am really looking forward to it. I don’t think the movie is in the cinemas here yet though so I’ll just have to wait a bit further.

  3. Thanks for your review. I’m just starting the novel. I’m trying to get some dialog going while I read it on my blog. If you get a chance, check it out. I’d love to hear some thoughts on my questions. I don’t know much about the history of France. I just finished A Tale of Two Cities and became fascinated with that time period. I have many questions and I’m only on page 120! Thanks.

  4. could you please let me know what chapter the “to love or to have loved” quote is from? I have a book with different page numbers for my girlfriend. would appreciate the help thanks!

    • In my edition, the quote is in Book Sixth – The White Night, chapter II: Jean Valjean still has his arm in a sling. It’s the last line of that chapter. I can see that I’ve put the wrong page number – in my book it’s actually p. 1354.

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