Thursday, December 27, 2018

Bookish Thoughts: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

In 1815, Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was bishop of Digne. Les Misérables

The Wretched (Original Title: Les Misérables) by Victor Hugo, translated by Christine Donougher
Penguin Classics, 2013 (first published in 1862)
Fiction; 1433 pgs

I fell in love with the musical version of Les Misérables long before I actually saw it performed on stage. My teenage heart swelled with emotion as I belted out “I Dreamed a Dream” more times than I could count. When, as an adult, I finally was able to see the stage production, I cried as the music began, a projection of the title on the curtains. One summer during our college years, my husband-then-boyfriend and I decided to give the book a try. Neither one of us finished it. I liked the book quite a bit, I remember, but classes had resumed and the book had to be set aside. It would be over two decades before I would try again, this time determined to finish it. Nick's (One Catholic LifeLes Misérables Chapter-A-Day Read-Along provided the perfect opportunity to do so. How had I not known the book is written in 365 chapters, one for each day for a year? And so began my reading of Les Misérables.

I much prefer reading a book before seeing its screen or stage version Sometimes though, I do see the book performed on screen or stage before reading the book as was the case in this instance. Given how enamored I am with the musical, I was not sure what I would make of the book. I would be lying if I said I didn't have the soundtrack from the musical running through my head the entire time I was reading it. Even having seen the musical several times and knowing the story so well, I still found myself crying in spots, getting angry at particular characters, and even holding my breath a time or two in the more tense situations.

At its heart, Les Misérables is a novel about redemption and good overcoming bad. What makes it all the more richer is the author’s attention to detail and depth that he takes not only his characters, but also in his digressions with his own thoughts about the history, society, and the politics of the times. There was the occasion or two I found it a bit overwhelming. But in the main, I found Hugo’s writing very accessible, and I was caught up in his narrative. This was a very hard book to read just one chapter at a time, and I often would find myself reading several in one sitting not realizing I had read ahead.

I always find it intimidating to write about a classic novel. Whereas once I might have taken a more academic approach to my reading of the book, wanting to dissect it’s every nuance and theme, I am no longer that type of reader. And so you will not find a deep analysis of the book here, but rather just some general thoughts. Hugo takes on such bold themes as social misery and injustice, class division, and the internal struggles of such things as well as the inequalities. Les Misérables was a force of change during its time on the social and political front and, I believe, is still relatable today.

A big portion of the novel is narrated by the author as he weaves his own thoughts and lessons in history, culture and society hierarchies in with the stories of his characters. Being that I am a “character” reader, my favorite parts of the story tended to be when Hugo focused mostly on their comings and goings. Many of the themes conveyed in the novel can be seen in their individual and combined stories. Hugo does not leave much for coincidence in the novel, with so many of the characters and events being connected somehow, everyone and everything coming together again and again as if fated to be so. I loved that aspect of the novel. I was curious to see Hugo’s original portrayal of the characters I have come to love through song. Would I still like them? How different would they be?

In a departure from my usual review style – I am sharing some of my thoughts on the main characters (trying to avoid spoilers):

  • My heart ached for dear Fantine, whose misery in life seems so undeserved. Her dreams are dashed in an instant when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, setting in motion a series of tragedies. The one bright spot in her life is her daughter, Cosette. Only, that soon takes a turn for the worse when she puts her young daughter in the care of a pair of inn keepers she barely knows. She trusts in the wrong people out of desperation and hope and falls victim to men’s lusts and women’s petty jealousies. She ends up giving a piece of herself away a little at a time just to survive, all the while holding onto her love for her daughter. Her story is a sign of the times of how women were treated during the time period the novel takes place.

  • Madame and Monsieur Thénardier are despicable people. These two value the dollar and the next con over their own children. There is no love lost between me and the senior Thénardiers. I might have empathized with Madame given her lot in life, but the way she mistreated Cosette and her own children was enough to smite any kind feelings I might have in her direction. The two are certainly cunning, and not people I would want to come across in the street.

  • While Inspector Javert is not a particularly sympathetic character, his inner turmoil towards the end of the book struck a chord with me and makes me feel a bit sorry for him even if he himself has little to no compassion for others. He is not an evil man. He is a law officer who believes fervently in the law and good versus evil with no gray in between. He is the epitome of a zealot, narrow-minded and unable to accept anything that may threaten his belief system.

  • Eponine is one of my favorite characters in the musical. I wondered if she would live up to my expectations in the book. I think Eponine is one of the better developed characters in Les Misérables. She, like her siblings, is a product of her environment, raised by two despicable parents. She is intelligent and cunning, and I was not sure there was much hope of redemption for her given her circumstances and how ingrained the con and street life were in her. I did feel for her—she dared to love, went against her own interests to help him, knowing what it meant and yet still hoping he might turn her way and notice her. While in my teens Fantine's “I Dreamed a Dream” was my favorite song from the musical, in later years it would move over for Eponine's “On My Own”. I heard that song so clearly as the rain fell on Paris that ever fateful day in 1832. 
  • Of all the characters in Les Misérables, both the book and the musical, little Gavroche is my favorite. The son of thieves, unloved by his parents, left pretty much to raise himself on the street, he somehow holds onto a sense of conscience and kindness. It comes out in his actions—how he cares for others and the decisions he makes. His optimism and zest for life can, I suppose, be chalked up to his youth, but I like to think it is more than that. In another life and under other circumstances, Gavroche would have done great things in his lifetime, I think. As it was, he was a bit of sunshine on the otherwise grim and dreary Paris streets.

  • It was nice to get to know Marius Pontmercy more thoroughly in the book. Although I wanted to throttle him at times, especially towards the end of the novel, I have a lot of respect for him and admiration for his resilience and fortitude. He was raised by a wealthy baron who adored him, and yet kept him at a distance. Their relationship grows contentious as Marius grows older. As he delves more into his own father’s past, a father the grandfather disapproved of, and politics come into play, Marius takes to the streets to make his own way. He proves to be a hard worker as he is headstrong, and he is a decent man over all. He believes in justice and fairness.

  • My daughter took a particular interest in Cosette and asked me to read her the early chapters in the book that pertained to Cosette as a child. She is the young orphan girl mistreated by her caretakers and saved by the kindly Jean Valjean, who she would grow up thinking of as her father. Even in the direst of living conditions, Cosette maintained a light within her that, while may have wavered at times, never went out. Jean Valjean adores and loves her—as Marius would later as well. In the musical, I feel as if we do not know her very well—although I get the impression she is close to perfection in every way. Even in the novel, as we mostly see her through Jean Valjean’s and Marius’s eyes, she wears that same halo. I think that is why I gravitate more towards Eponine’s character, who is at least flawed and seems more tangible to me. I do like Cosette, though, and I wanted nothing but the best for her. I could not help but think of Cosette’s mother, Fantine, as I reached the end of the book—how happy she would be at the turn fate had taken for her daughter.

  • Jean Valjean is the heart of Les Misérables. Jean Valjean does not appear in the novel right away. Hugo’s tale meanders a bit before then as he sets the foundation for what is to come. After being released from prison, Jean Valjean, who had been caught stealing bread for his sister's family, is met with challenge after challenge as an ex-convict. John Valjean carries on with his life as best he can, always working to atone for his past crimes. The character of Jean Valjean is a man of conscience and honor. For the bad turns he may have taken, he always strives to do the right thing. My heart broke many times over for him throughout this novel. I wanted so much for him to find the peace of mind he deserved. 
There are many other characters that get more than a passing mention in the novel as well, such as the bishop who comes to Valjean’s aide, Marius's father and grandfather, the Friends of the ABC and their leader, Enjolas, and Azelma, Eponine's sister, just to name a few. Hugo gives the reader a real sense of time and place through his characters as well as his own digressions. When I reached the end of the novel, I felt a bit out of sorts, like I was saying goodbye too soon to a longtime friend. It wasn’t because the ending left me wanting—it didn’t at all.

My family and I re-watched the movie musical version of Les Misérables this past weekend, and I was swept up by the music and songs once again. I appreciate how the musical (and hopefully the upcoming mini-series by Masterpiece Theater) captures the general essence of the book even if not all the details are the same or even present. Now that I have the book in my head, I could not help but fill in the missing backstories as I watched, wanting to explain to everyone watching what they could not know. I did not. Well, maybe a little. Yes, it’s true. I am that annoying person you want to avoid watching a movie with if I have just finished the book the movie is based on.

I tend to gravitate more these days towards books that are fast-paced because it matches my busy life. But Les Misérables is definitely a book that needs deserves to be savored. I imagine a lot of people are turned off by the size of the novel at 1,400+ pages. I know I was. I am so glad though that I stepped out of my busy life to take the year to read Hugo’s classic. It was well worth it.

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  1. Great review!

    I think my change in reading style is the same! After I stopped formally studying literature, I started reading with a much less analytical eye.

    That said, I didn't actually like Cosette, because I found her pretty air-headed (wasn't too happy about the way she could forget her father). But I loved Eponine for her spirit.

    Now I feel like listening to the musical soundtrack! The ending always brings me to tears.

  2. Awesome review! You summed up and gave highlights from this book beautifully. :)

  3. Wonderful review!! This is one that I keep hoping to pick up. Maybe in 2019! :)

  4. Thanks for this! I read Les Misérables about 40 years ago during a Midwest winter band tour, and the story and hot coffee were about the only bright spots in my days. Ha ha. I have the audiobook and I was going to wait until 2020, when I'm planning to read only classics the entire year, but your masterpiece of a review is making me want to read it now! I also love the musical! I was lucky enough to see the original Broadway run, but I would love to see it again. I have not seen the movie musical, yet. 💜✨

    I think it's fabulous that you read the early Cosette passages to Mouse! Eponine is also my favorite character. 👍✨

  5. Wendy, your reviews are amazing. I can't read them all, but the ones I do, I enjoy so much :) Reading your WAR & PEACE and now this, I noticed you said both authors intertwined their narratives with the characters' stories. I'm guessing that was a way of writing back then? I never looked into it and haven't read these myself (and highly doubt I ever will :( ). I never saw the musical, but love the version with Liam Neeson! :)

  6. Huh. 365 chapters? I could do this. Like you I love the performances live and on screen. I'm so behind in the classics club challenge reading a chapter a day could help me finish on time!

  7. I saw the musical on stage many years ago, and the film with Michael Rennie as Jean Valjean. I have only started the book. It is VERY thick and good on you for finishing it.

    Did you know that Javert was inspired by a real person, Eugene Francois Vidocq? He was the guy who founded the French Surete, and was quite a character!

  8. Wow, just reading your review takes me back to when I read the book and even more so, to when I saw a musical production of it a few years ago. It's a beast of a book but is filled with characters that just tugged at my heartstrings and kept me reading. I cry whenever I hear the music too, so I'm glad to know I'm not alone in that.

  9. I read this so very long ago, it's hard to recall any detail- but I do remember how vivid it was, how rich. I would really like to read it again someday.


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