Les Miserables 1: Initial Observations

Today is the beginning of my next serious long-term blogging project, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

One of the very first observations which anyone attempting to read this book will make is this:  It is long.  The Signet Classic unabridged edition which I am currently working my way through clocks in at a whopping 1463 pages.  But don’t let that discourage you.  What else are you going to do while you kick back at the beach or the pool this summer?  You might as well read something good, and for my money this is one of the best books you can read.  There are many abridged versions out there which are half that length or even less, but don’t bother with those.  Get the unabridged version and read it.  Consider this a personal challenge from me:  you will be less of a man or woman if you cop out by reading the abridged version.

Les Miserables is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict freshly out of prison after serving nineteen years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread.  (The original sentence was five years; unsuccessful escape attempts and the resulting additional time pushed it to a grand total of nineteen years.)  He believed that his sentence was grossly out of proportion to his crime, and by the time of his release he had built up a tremendous bitterness toward society.  This bitterness was only intensified by the rejection and scorn which he experienced in attempting to find work and lodging immediately after his release; he was determined to have his revenge against society and against God in some form or fashion.

But an unthinkable act of mercy and generosity by a saintly small-town bishop drastically alters the trajectory of Valjean’s life.  From that point on, Valjean determines to live as an honest man, and through the rest of the story he struggles–quite imperfectly at times–to become an honest man.  Javert, an extremely zealous police chief who once supervised Valjean’s work gang, is never far behind, and is determined to have Valjean back in prison for breaking parole.  Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, the owners of an inn in Montfermeil (then a small town way out in the country, now a suburb of Paris, just as Cumming, Canton, or Lawrenceville is to Atlanta), are also pursuing Valjean, for their own corrupt and dishonest ends.

The story takes us from one end of France to the other, from the very top of Parisian society to the very bottom, from Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830 and the student-led uprising of 1832 which serves as the story’s climax.  Along the way we meet a whole host of unforgettable characters:

Fantine – a working class woman who grew up as an orphan and traveled to Paris to seek her fortune.  Innocent yet inexperienced in the ways of the world, she fell in love with a man who proved to be a worthless scoundrel.  Abandoned with his child, Fantine is forced to make a series of very hard choices which lead her deeper into misery and ultimately to prostitution, sickness, and an early death.

Cosette – Fantine’s daughter.  Fantine entrusts her to the care of the Thenardiers so that she can find work in her hometown of Montreuil-Sur-Mer; the Thenardiers repay this trust by charging exorbitant and fraudulent bills for Cosette’s care and then pocketing the money, while abusing Cosette horribly and indulging their own daughters.  Valjean meets Fantine as she is dying and promises to find Cosette and take care of her himself.

Marius – a young aristocratic college student, living in poverty because he is estranged from his family over political differences.  Marius meets Cosette when she is grown, and becomes profoundly enamoured with her.

Eponine – the Thenardiers’ oldest daughter, whom they indulged while Cosette was in their care.  After Valjean rescues Cosette, the Thenardiers’ inn fails and their fortunes plummet; Eponine does not make out well at all during this time.

Gavroche – a street urchin who owns nothing but controls the entire city of Paris through his wit and insolence.  You will be surprised to learn who Gavroche’s parents are; you must read the book for this.

The Friends of the ABC – a student political group that Marius becomes loosely involved with while in college:  Enjolras their fearless leader, Combeferre, Jean Prouvaire, Feuilly, Courfeyrac, Bahorel, Joly, Laigle de Meaux (nicknamed Bossuet), and Grantaire.

Monsigneur Bienvenu – the bishop of Digne, a small town in the Alps of southern France.  He endears himself to his parishioners through his extensive charity and generosity.  It is his encounter with Valjean that prompts Valjean to become an honest man.

Monsieur Gillenormand – Marius’s grandfather, a feisty, curmudgeonly old-school Royalist who is determined to singlehandedly bring 18th-century bourgeois back.  He took Marius away from his father and raised him as a Royalist while concealing his father’s true identity; he did not want his grandson to be corrupted by the influence of a father who fought valiantly for Napoleon at Waterloo.  Read the story to see how well that worked out (heads up: not very well).

Father Fauchelevent – an old man whom Valjean rescues from under his cart after a carriage accident.  Later on in the story Fauchelevent’s assistance proves critical to Valjean as he is attempting to elude Javert.

Monsieur Mabeuf – an aging churchwarden whose two passions in life are rare books and exotic plants.  Monsieur Mabeuf was friendly with Marius’s father; he helps Marius discover his father’s true identity and becomes good friends with Marius as his circumstances are deteriorating.

…and many others.

Les Miserables is also known for several lengthy expository passages during the story, including a full-on, blow-by-blow account of the battle of Waterloo, an account of the history of the Petit-Picpus convent and an essay on the merits and problems of the institution of monasticism as a whole, a study of the sewer system of Paris, accounts of the history leading up to the revolutions of 1830 and 1832, and even an analysis of “argot”–the corrupted French which was spoken among the lowest of the lower classes of his day (the closest present day equivalent would probably be ebonics).  The abridged versions leave most of these sections out altogether, and people who read them in the unabridged version usually wonder what possible relevance these sections can have to the story.

My answer would be this:  David Crowder spoke at a Passion gathering several years back.  His talk was all over the place, and you frequently wondered where he was going or what this had to do with anything.  But at the end he tied it all together and you realized “Ahh!  That’s what that was all about.”  Well, it’s the same way with the expository sections in Les Miserables.  For example, at the beginning of the book entitled “The Year 1817”, there is a chapter entitled “The Year 1817” which is four pages listing all of the fashions and fads that were big in Paris in 1817.  You read this, and you wonder “What does this have to do with anything?”  But at the end, you get to the sentence “And in the year 1817, four young Parisians had a laugh on four others.”  From there, Victor Hugo goes on to introduce us to Fantine and relate how she fell in love with Tholomyes and wound up with his child.  We will talk more about this, and about the other expository passages, when we start digging into the story.  But for now, trust me that the expository passages serve a purpose, and if you hang with Victor Hugo even when he goes off on some tangent that seems to be completely and totally irrelevant, by the end of the story you will see how it all fits together.

Even if Les Miserables was just a good, well-plotted story about Jean Valjean and friends, that would be more than enough to recommend it.  Victor Hugo is one of the finest plot novelists of our day, and his genius at creating compelling conflict shows through on several occasions in this story.  Put away those Left Behind books, they are just not worth your time.  Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are not even worthy to kiss the ground upon which Victor Hugo has trodden.

But Les Miserables is much more than that.  It is Victor Hugo’s attempt to speak into what was going on in France during his lifetime.  This, by the way, is why I say that you must read the unabridged version: because most of the abridged versions are put together on the premise that Les Miserables is nothing more than just the story of Jean Valjean and friends.  If you read the abridged version, you will miss a lot of the flavor that is the result of Victor Hugo attempting to speak into the life of his country, and you will miss a lot of what Victor Hugo had to say then that could apply to us today.

So in order to gain a full understanding and appreciation of Les Miserables, it is essential for us to also understand:

–What was going on in France during Victor Hugo’s lifetime that he was attempting to speak into,

–How Victor Hugo got to a place of prominence where he could speak into the life of an entire nation, and

–What was going on in Victor Hugo’s life that brought this out of him.

These considerations will be the subject of the next posts.