Book Review: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (Unabridged Version)
“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on the earth, the books of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.”-from the Preface of Les Misérables
During a historical time period of anti-monarchism in France, life goes on. A charitable and deeply religious priest lives modestly. A loving mother named Fantine desperately tries to support her daughter, Cosette. In the midst of them is a person no one expects much of: an ex-convict named Jean Valjean.
One of the most incredible things about this book is the characters. The ones I mentioned in the plot synopsis above are just a few of the main characters. There are several other major characters and several minor characters that have a role in this book’s plot. Since they are so numerous, it is hard to keep track of everyone. However, just about every character is so well-developed (some of them quite beautifully), this reader could imagine them truly existing in the time period that this novel is set in. If you are reading this for the first time like I was, I’d bookmark chapters that focus on certain characters and maybe take notes. My favorite characters include Jean Valjean, Fantine, Éponine, and Little Gavoroche.
Besides the characters, Victor Hugo’s writing style deserves the highest praise. This reader has highlighted many lines and bookmarked a few pages or chapters that stood out because they were either very wise or very beautiful. Sometimes, these qualities combined themselves and it feels like you are reading poetry. In particular, I found it amazing how he came up with an animal metaphor for some of the characters and combined it with a phrase of wisdom to form a motif that is continuous throughout the novel.
While Victor Hugo’s writing style is commendable, the way it was executed is somewhat flawed. There are long paragraphs of description in the book that are sometimes informative and sometimes tedious. Unless you are into architecture, you will end up skipping pages. Also, there are chapters of historical information that will be tedious for those (like myself) who don’t have an interest it. Lastly, there are digressions in the form of essays that have the author discussing his beliefs. While they may not forward the plot, some of it may intrigue the reader. Again, it depends on the reader’s interests.
Overall, this was a magnificent read. Victor Hugo has taken piety (i.e. religious faith), familial and romantic love, and many other things people experience and put them together in a powerful novel. This novel may be inspired by France’s history, but it is truly something for everyone and it is especially relevant to today’s trying times. It may have inspired a musical and a movie, but nothing can surpass this book.
Some favorite quotes from Les Misérables:
“Let us never fear robbers nor murderers. Those are dangers from without, petty dangers. Let us fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices are the real murderers. The great dangers lie within ourselves.”
“Yes, the brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over, this fact is recognized that the human race has been treated harshly, but that it is progressed.”
“The supreme happiness of life consists in the conviction that one is loved.”
“Animals are nothing else than the figures of our virtues and our vices, straying before our eyes, the visible phantoms of our souls.”
“Destroy the cavern Ignorance and you destroy the lair Crime.”
“To teach reading, means to light the fire; every syllable spelled out sparkles.”
“To burn without ceasing to fly-therein lies the marvel of genius.”
“Love has no middle course; it either ruins or saves.”
“An awakening of conscience is grandeur of soul.”
“It is nothing to die; it is dreadful not to live.”