Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was in the sixth grade I was placed into the “challenge” class. This was a special program for academically “gifted” children, meant (as its name would suggest) to give us more stimulating schoolwork. If memory serves, most of our classes were given over to logic and math problems. But our major project was to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

We were, of course, assigned a student version of the novel, though even this abridgement seemed immense to me. I am really not sure whether I read the whole thing. If I did, I barely understood even the basic outline. (Maybe I didn’t deserve to be “challenged.”) My only memory of the book is of a description of the streets of Paris, which struck my 11-year-old mind as unbelievably and impenetrably detailed.

The year culminated with a visit to see the musical on Broadway. (Living close to NYC has its perks.) I was stunned that such a long and boring book could be transformed into an exciting performance. Was this what we had been talking about all year? The music was stuck in my mind for days—weeks. And ever since then, I have had the vague intention of making another go at this literary challenge.

The perfect opportunity presented itself when I signed up to run a marathon. If I listened to the audiobook during my training runs, I could tackle two challenges at once. It turned out that Victor Hugo had even more stamina than an endurance runner, since there was still a substantial chunk of the book left by the time I ran my race. But even the longest books submit to persistence!

It is tempting, when finishing a book of this size, to sing its praises. After all, if the book was not brilliant, then spending sixty hours on it hardly seems worthwhile. But I had quite a mixed reaction to Les Miserables. And I think I would be doing my sixth-grade self a disservice if I did not attempt an honest, accurate report.

The book opens with a long and loving portrait of a character who plays a very minor role in the plot: Bishop Myriel. This is Hugo’s version of the thoroughly good man, a living saint, someone who emulates Christ in word and deed. And though this section was (as usual with Hugo) unnecessarily lengthy and (also typical) highly sentimental, I admit that I found this portrait of human goodness thoroughly moving. Bishop Myriel, indeed, is the heart of Les Miserables, the culmination of the sort of humanitarian goodness that Hugo hopes to inculcate.

This high sense of moral obligation is what prevents the novel from devolving into a long exercise in romantic windbaggery. Hugo writes, not just as an entertainer, but as a reformer—even, perhaps, a revolutionary—and he urges his readers to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, clothe the poor, educate the ignorant, to pardon the guilty, and to lift up everyone who has been cast off by society. And Hugo is not merely paying lip service. The most moving parts of the novel are also the places where Hugo illustrates his social vision.

I think this goes a long way to explaining this book’s lasting appeal. The world is still full of Jean Valjeans, born into poverty and then receiving only punishment from the law.

But of course Les Miserable would not have been made into a musical if it were a long sermon. It is also (at times) a cracking good story. At his best, Hugo is able to raise the tension of the novel to a fever pitch, and then hold it there for page after page. I am thinking, in particular, of Jean Valjean’s long ride to attend the trial of the falsely-accused Champmathieu, or when Valjean is taken prisoner by Thénardier in the apartment.

These high points are, however, compensated by many, many slow sections. By modern standards (and probably at the time, too), Hugo is longwinded in the extreme. Partly this is because he does not abide by our strict notions of the novel, simply narrating the deeds of his characters. Rather, he is constantly analyzing, opining, and moralizing, in a rhetorical style which, at its worst, could sound very much like a self-important politician giving a speech to his donors.

Hugo was a romantic in the full sense of the word, and this also made him prone to a kind of sickly sentimentality which the modern reader can scarcely tolerate. There were times when I felt as though I could not roll my eyes hard enough. This is most apparent in Hugo’s characterization of Cosette, who is portrayed as very sweet, very beautiful, very pure, very innocent… very nothing, in other words. She is hardly given any personality at all, which makes both Marius’s infatuation and Jean Valjean’s adoration dramatically dull.

Now, I am probably achieving some sort of apotheosis of stupidity by saying this, but Les Miserable is just too long. This is not just owing to Hugo’s prolixity, but to his roaming digressions. Perhaps a quarter of the novel could be excised without doing any damage to the story. There is, for example, an entire section on monastic life, one on the sewers of Paris, another on slang, and an unbelievably long one which narrates the Battle of Waterloo. Admittedly, some of this material is interesting (I particularly liked the essay on slang). But it struck me as, to say the least, rather clumsy to insert these opinions as essays—and especially at some of the most dramatic turning points in the book.

To put the most generous interpretation on these digressions, however, they can be considered a mark of the book’s great ambition. And this is ultimately a winsome quality. As with many of the great novels of the 19th century, one feels that the author is attempting to reform the whole society, from the sewers to the schools to our very souls. And if the novel can seem a little flabby and bloated, it is also strong enough to confidently take its place among its peers—War and Peace, Bleak House, The Brothers Dostoyevsky, Middlemarch… This is a high bar, to say the least.

One hardly imagine two authors less alike than Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, and yet Victor Hugo somehow manages to combine elements of both writers. He has Tolstoy’s sense of history and his focus on realistic detail, while being just as committed to social reform (and just as prone to sentimentality) as Dickens. If he does not quite reach the artistic heights of either writer, Hugo remains an inspiring figure—intellectually ambitions, socially committed, and dramatically compelling. At the very least, his book presents a worthwhile challenge.

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One thought on “Review: Les Misérables

  1. Reminds me of Balzac when he goes into sociologically interesting but irrelevant asides. But I can deal with Balzac doing that, whereas you haven’t sold me on Hugo….

    Liked by 1 person

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