Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – An Overview

For the past three summers, I’ve picked some rather voluminous reads to get me through the hots and humids of North Carolina. Two years ago, it was War and Peace. Last year, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. This year, I decided to take on Hugo’s fabled tome, Les Misérables. Of the three, I have fewer quibbles with Les Misérables. While it’s overlong by today’s standards and, as Tolstoy’s W&P did, it digresses often. However, Hugo’s digressions seem more connected to his story than Tolstoy’s. (A caveat: in both, one gets a sense of the nation’s sensibilities at the time of writing, wrapped in an ample dose of eighteenth century European history.) Based on my read, Hugo was no doubt the preeminent master of creative writing in his day. His characters are vivid, believable, and consistently drawn throughout this long text. There are few “dead spots” here; his story is well paced and it’s easy to follow, despite the length.

If you writers out there have taken years, even a decade, to finish a manuscript, take heart. Some seventeen years elapsed from the time Hugo began to write Les Miz until the book was published, in 1862. It’s organized into five parts; the first part, “Fantine,” was published separately, possibly as a trial balloon. I suspect the book was written to be published in its five parts, as sequels, although this apparently didn’t happen. Why do iI think so? Hugo’s narrator often repeats things at strategic places in the story, reminding the reader of previously introduced characters and events.

Les Miz is reputed to have been the most hyped book of its day, and Hugo’s thinly veiled impersonations of real-life people – the way Hugo depicted them – scandalized certain upper-crust segments of the French populace.

But what can be said of Hugo and his story in an overarching way? My first impression was that, at a time when European literature seemed to dwell on the well-to-do (much as popular American writing does today), Hugo reached into the dregs of society for literary inspiration. He didn’t blink at the tawdry side of French life, nor at the way the lower classes were treated by both the law and by society in general. In fact, this is perhaps the grandest irony in western literature: his view of post-1879-1799, revolutionary France seems all too much like the France of Louis Quatorze and Marie Antoinette. He orchestrates his characters’ actions within the plot to show how they become criminal-like under the duress of acute poverty and oppression. But he also shows that the dimmest lights of compassion among these poor, or by someone outside that poor state, can resurrect the human’s soul’s best qualities.

Secondly, Les Miz is perhaps the most socially subversive novel I’ve ever read. Hugo describes the psychology of the French urge to revolt, this time after the Napoleonic era. He depicts how to hold the troops of his day at bay, how revolutionaries could continually elude capture during and after street fighting. If one were to study how to manage the day-to-day operations of a civil revolt, he/she would do well to use Les Miz as a primer.

Besides these socio-political nuances, Hugo dwells in his asides on the history and geography of France, Paris in particular – even on the engineering marvel that is the sewer system of Paris. This last is perhaps a clearly intended, extended metaphor for the people who lived at the lower reaches of French society.

But a final irony regarding Hugo: the European Enlightenment is in full swing at this time, with secular values surmounting a class structure based on rule by royalty and a religious hierarchy. The French Revolution is all about abolishing this structure and supplanting it with mass rule and non-religious values. Clearly, Hugo is a part of this evolving ethos. But time and again he finds his own examples of Divine intervention in the doings of his characters – and by implication in the evolution of the French Republic.

It struck me that Les Miz has been the godparent to European Modernist literature. This text involved probably the first literary evidence of European anomie, the sociological and psychological unease that seemed to undermine the European urge to rational perspectives and reason prior to World War I. His protagonist, Jean Valjean is both heroic and antiheroic – a vulnerable, deeply troubled man who managed to do good things. Hugo also makes the reader work hard to divine meaning in his story – intending, I’m sure, to say life is that way. Clearly, there’s little in the complexities of Hugo’s characters and the events of their lives to suggest an overt sense of meaning to life in post-revolution France.

An aside: I have nothing but good things to say about Julie Rose’s translation and scrupulous body of underlying notes. She traffics not only in making Hugo’s text work in English, but in taking idioms of that day and transforming them into the feel of modern vernacular.

Over the next five posts, I plan to synopsize the five sections of Les Misérables and, hopefully to use examples to justify the above overview. It’ll be fun for me – hope you enjoy it as much as I will.


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