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Les Misérables

Victor Hugo

(Penguin; US: Dec 2012)

First published in 1862, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables acquaints readers with the story of several characters, and how their choices not only impact their lives but also society at large. Centered on one of the most infamous literary characters, Jean Valjean, Les Misérables is a compassionate yet decisive account of early 19th century France. Here Hugo examines the multiplicity of the oppressive paradigms that inflict poverty and malevolence yet paradoxically creates space for redemption and resilience.


There is no simple or straightforward manner in which to review Les Misérables. As Hugo makes clear, this book represents “consciousness as the labyrinth of illusion, desire and pursuit, the furnace of dreams, the repository of thoughts… the battlefields of passions” (208).  Thus, this work is a celebrated classic on the human condition that engages the reader wholly, while forever altering our perspectives. 


(The following is a brief plot summery of the book and contains spoilers. If you do not want to know the fate of some characters, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.)


The plot of Les Misérables is initially centered on the character Jean Valjean, who was released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her family. Through a series of pious lies and forgiveness, Valjean begins a new life as M. Madeleine who starts a factory and brings prosperity to himself and the village. It is here that he meets Fantine, a desperate and despairing woman who turns to prostitution to support herself and her daughter. However, she struggles to generate enough money and eventually leaves her daughter Cosette in the care of the Thénardiers.


The Thénardiers are innkeepers who neglect and abuse Cosette and lie about her well-being as a means to maximize their income. When Fantine dies, Valjean travels to the Thénardiers’ inn to rescue Cosette. This is one of the most touching scenes of the story and an instance where Hugo reveals the character development of Valjean. As Hugo writes, “It had been a strange day for Cosette… and Jean Valjean felt her hand tug more heavily at his as they walked. So he picked her up and set her on his back, and Cosette, without letting go of Catherine [her doll], laid her head on his shoulder and slept” (384). Clearly Valjean has undergone a transformation from the thieving convict to Cosette’s adoring guardian. Despite this, Inspector Javert is determined to return Valjean to prison, and thus disallows Valjean from truly forgetting his past.


In Part III, Hugo introduces Marius, a 17-year-old student who is constantly forced to negotiate his bourgeois upbringing against his revolutionary ideologies. Marius falls passionately in love with Cosette, who at this point is about seventeen. Too timid and passive to assert his love for her, he temporarily loses Cosette. Through various events including a reintroduction to the Thénardiers, Cosette and Marius meet and fall in love. Valjean is threatened by Cosette’s adoration of Marius and forces her to leave for England. In the throes of a broken heart, Marius becomes aware of France’s deteriorating and volatile political climate.


Concurrently the reader is introduced to Gavroche, the Thénardiers’ oldest son.  A typical Paris gamin who carries “the laughter of his years on his lips [yet] there was only darkness and emptiness in his heart… he was never happier than when he was in the streets, their flagstones seeming to him less hard than his mother’s heart” (509). He does not know his real name and is abandoned by his family because his mother prefers her daughters. Gavroche dies valiantly albeit carelessly during the Revolution of 1832. Likewise in a fit of despair, Marius participates in the insurrection as a means to guarantee his death. But Valjean returns to protect Marius and interrupts his suicide. By doing so, Valjean guarantees Cosette’s and Marius’ love while certifying his own solitude. Without Cosette, Valjean’s life loses its meaning. Yet as he parishes, his final words cement the fact that he “dies happy” (1200).


(If you skipped the plot summery, you can start back here.)


Interconnectedness is a major component of Les Misérables. Hugo artfully demonstrates how the smallest almost most insignificant action could cause a larger effect. Be it stealing a loaf of bread or society’s negligence to intervene in paradigms of oppression, Hugo demonstrates that we are all connected. Thus, mindfulness ensures that no harm is done, whether it is knowingly or unknowingly. At a basic level Les Misérables is a comment on society’s role and an individual’s influence in fostering a society of inequality, violence, and intolerance. Hugo excels at penning strings of events that begin insignificantly. But he implores readers to see even these small occurrences as the possible basis for revolutions.


For example, the opening narrative sets the tone for the entire book. Hugo begins with a lengthy tale of the Bishop Monseigneur Myriel, whose altruism and kindness define his reputation. The Bishop harbors Valjean after he leaves prison. The Bishop’s sister expresses reservations, as Valjean’s criminal history and dirty countenance deter her from believing that he is trustworthy. These characters become the allegory for society positioning Valjean as either good or bad. Yet, Valjean proves that he is neither. Hugo utilizes this binary to demonstrate that we organize our lives by polemics but this should not define our actions.


Eventually, Valjean is caught trying to steal the Bishop’s candlesticks. Rather than having him arrested or banning him from the house, the Bishop gifts him the candlesticks and prompts Valjean to “not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man” (111). Accordingly, this kind gesture stays with Valjean and shapes his motivations throughout the rest of the novel. Much as Valjean tested the Bishop’s kindness, so too does Valjean face a corrupt society concertized on selfishness rather than humanity.


Much later in the text, Hugo returns us to the memory of the Bishop and reminds us that “the best solution is the one peacefully arrived at…No violent remedy is called for. To examine the evil with good-will, defines it and then cures it – that is what we urge society to do” (1045).  As the Bishop demonstrates, and Valjean lives out, we are not alone in this world and thus must try to understand the position of those challenging our beliefs rather than banishing them from our existence. And through his characters, Hugo demonstrates how actions and consciousness will impact our future relationships. This is one of the lasting impressions Les Misérables has on the reader.   


Hugo is a master storyteller.  Les Misérables serves as the tool in which he not only engages the reader but forces us to become part of his tale. Consequently it’s almost jarring or upsetting when the narrator addresses the reader directly, and we are forced to remember that we have our own realities to deal with.


The length and detail of the text is a major reason for its legacy. Without the ample narrative and the thick description, the impact on contemporary readers would be lost. How else are we suppose to revisit early 19th century France, align ourselves with anti-monarchal rhetoric or position ourselves analogous to Valjean, Javert , or Cosette?  In order to do this, Hugo’s propensity for long description and rich detail becomes ubiquitous and frequently descriptions will wonder away from the central plot. While some might call these passages tangential or even digressions, I contend they are absolutely necessary. 


For example, at one point Hugo devotes 19 chapters to a recap of the Battle of Waterloo. Here Hugo does not shy away from including the smallest detail such as specifying “the British Infantry, especially Kempt’s brigade, included a great many raw recruits” (290). A passage such as this is easily skipped, as by this point in the novel the reader is not aware of the complexity of Hugo’s narrative style. Rather by circumventing these chapters readers devoid themselves of two central components of the plot. First, it is here that the characters Thénardier and Colonel Pontmercy meet for the first time and slowly but significantly impact the rest of the story.


Second, passages such as Waterloo depict the socio-political culture of France that serves as a major contextual component throughout the book. As a result, this becomes a point where you must trust that Hugo is taking you down a guided path, and all the passages on architecture, scenic landscapes, or moral philosophy will become essential. Though you must remain patient in order to discover that purpose.  But a reward awaits you: as you enter the nineteenth century, with Hugo meticulously ensuring your understanding and controlling the imagery, you are guaranteed an absorbing and riveting tale. One that will surely stay with you for years to come. 


Les Misérablesis composed of antitheses. Hugo utilizes this method to demonstrate the prevalence of binaries and the inherent contradictions: war and peace, love and apathy, humanity and egocentricity, integrity and injustice, redemption and corrosion. For Hugo the belief in one or the other is too simplistic and rudimentary. Throughout the book he makes clear that no element of our society or any being is simply categorize as a single factor but is informed by multiple possibilities and locations.


Inspector Javert is a case and point. Rather than a standard merciless villain contrasted to Valjean’s heroics, Hugo emphasizes that Javert is devoted to justice and the law he vowed to uphold. Is he a villain set on oppressing Valjean or is he simply an officer upholding civil service?  While the musical positions Javert as Valjean’s absolute foil, Hugo leaves it up to the reader to determine and color Javert’s character. Another example stems from Hugo’s understanding of the Reign of Terror. He complicates the event to demonstrate it as more than a loutish act but rather a move toward “Progress, that hallowed, good, and gentle thing, and they demanded it in a terrible fashion, with oaths on their lips and weapons in their hands. They were barbarous, yes’ but barbarians in the cause of civilization” (734).


Hugo’s recapitulation of French history is not expansive. He is quite selective of the events he revisits in order to establish one of his primary themes: objection to the monarchical government will benefit France as whole as well as each individual regardless of class or social standing. Primarily, Hugo focuses on Napoleon’s abdication, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Revolution, and the ascent of Louise Philippe. By doing so, Hugo pens implicit critiques of the government and Napoleon III.


Moreover, the author also makes obvious to the reader that our apathy and compliance aided these events. Yet, Hugo is not finger wagging but revisits these events as a means to advocate for explicit political consciousness and action. As Hugo reminds readers, “the man who did not speak out in the time of prosperity does better to keep silent in the time of adversity; only the assailant of success is the legitimate instrument of its downfall” (61). These explicit political motivations draw a major contrast between the book and the musical or film. Whereas the latter present a watered down fight for liberty, Hugo pens an enduring vow for political consciousness and liberation.


In a single review it’s impossible to adequately articulate all the topics that Hugo explores. To name just a few, readers will develop a understanding of selective French history, the contention between Royalists and Revolutionaries, the theories on nature, law, and social conditioning, the limitations of justice – especially as it deals with social and individual forgiveness and redemption—the nature of romantic love, the binds of family structures, the hierarchies associated with class, the envious desire for upward social mobility, hardships, poverty, and ethical fortitude, to name just a few. In particular, I found a mention of animals quite enriching. As Hugo writes, ““It is our conviction that if souls were visible to the eye we would clearly see the strange fact that each individual of the human species corresponds to some species of the animal kingdom; and we would easily recognize the truth, scarcely perceived by thinkers, that from the oyster the eagle, from the pig to the tiger, all animals are in man, and that each of them is in each man; sometimes even several of them at a time. Animals are merely the forms of our virtues and vices wandering before our eyes, the visible phantoms of our soul” (164).


This passage gave me pause. For in the middle of a tome on human character and a commentary of society at large, Hugo takes the time to include this touching parallel between humans and animals. Rarely does a text examine such an array of topics and points of consideration.


This edition of Les Misérables is translated by Norman Denny and stands as a strong and accessible rendition of the French text. Penguin Group touts this as a special edition, however, there is nothing differentiating it from the 1976 edition also translated by Denny. The only qualifying difference is this translation’s cover that features the likeness of Cosette from the film. More so, the information page that came with the book only emphasizes the film and even suggests that “Les Misérablesis the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation…still breaking box-office records everywhere…” Why is the book that influenced the musical not mentioned? Because seemingly this edition is not a special edition but rather a reprint capitalizing on the 2012 film and only made special due to a new cover image.


Above all do not allow the film tie-in or its length deter you from reading the novel. Les Misérables is a poignant and enthralling narrative that will draw the reader into a world unlike any other. Every person who becomes part of Hugo’s storytelling will leave with a distinctive understanding representational of his or her viewpoint. The book is timeless, and without a doubt represents the constant challenges, affirmation, and endurance of the human spirit in the face of sacrifice and redemption. If I could give this book 12 out of ten stars, I would.

Rating:

Elisabeth Woronzoff-Dashkoff is currently a graduate student in the American Culture Studies Ph.D. program at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green Ohio. She is interested in visual and musical popular culture, and wishes to research the ways in which the role of women in music, both contemporary and historically, have shaped the gender, political and cultural boundaries of the independent and mainstream music industry. I love music in all forms - but there is no way to tell what I will or will not like. One thing remains certain: I love everything Morrissey and Bruce Springsteen have created.


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