Book #83

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty.

Having spent so much time with this monolithic masterpiece, I find myself mystified on how to articulate my thoughts. How does a person of little consequence encapsulate her feelings on one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century? But then the whole point of Les Mis is to portray the small man and the monolith. So we try.

Hugo shows us one of literature’s most conflicted men in the portrayal of Jean Valjean. His original sin, stealing a loaf of bread, sets things into motion that one could never begin to concoct. The events which transpire, the people he meets, all conspire unconsciously to change his dark bitter heart, scorched by the justice system, into something entirely pure and celestial.

Contrast Valjean with Javert, the police officer seeking to catch him, and we truly have ourselves a healthy serving of polarity. While Valjean is conflicted on who he is and what he believes, Javert is a single-minded man with a strong belief in law and order. He knows his duties, and his entire life is a straight line as he carries them out to the letter. His obsessive pursuit of Valjean is an existential necessity; to call off the pursuit would mean questioning his lifelong beliefs and his reason for being.

And although this game of cat and mouse is a large part of the plot, it is only a part. We see so many doomed and flawed characters, and it feels at times as though there’s no one in Paris who hasn’t been wronged in some way. The depth Hugo adds to each of them is unreal, and we’re able to understand and fathom exactly what their motivations are, hero and villain alike.

Hugo’s views are made clear here on a number of social and political issues facing France at the time. From exploring the cause and effect of Waterloo, to portraying how the impoverished cope with daily life within an inescapable system, he manages to paint a vivid, if dismal, portrait of les misérables - the miserable ones.

His intricate style here is possibly best of all. We examine his characters so deeply, and yet he flicks between their stories effortlessly, leaving characters behind for pages and pages to allow us to wonder, then brings us back to their fate. The links between everyone are astounding, and the depictions so wonderfully wrought that even when a character is lurking in a gloomy corner in disguise, we intuitively know who they are, simply by the subtle way in which Hugo describes them.

It’s entirely possible that a proper collection of my thoughts on this novel can never be assembled completely. No doubt I’ll be thinking about this for a very long time. It’s an incredibly worthwhile examination of what makes us human, of justice and redemption, and most importantly, at least for me, of the importance of having people to love.