by Victor Hugo (1862)
I bought a copy of Victor Hugo’s masterwork second hand in a Calgary bookstore on the recommendation of one my favorite university profs. Now having finished the book I have discovered it is worth a lot more; not only its material value, but the work’s insight into the human condition. Early on into reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables I knew I was going to love the book. My thoughts upon finishing the book were two—amazement and depression. Amazement at having not read this book sooner; and secondly, a depressed feeling that we will no longer see books attempt the breath and scope of Les Misérables; this ambitious caliber of author having disappeared from Earth and into history.
Even for someone that normally reads non-fiction, I found Les Misérables an exceedingly challenging read. The book was difficult, but finishing it was wholly fulfilling. It took me two months to read, which, I believe, is comparatively long for me (even including a move to Japan in there somewhere). The length of time needed to read Les Misérables should not be surprising—the book is an absolute tomb. My Penguin Classic paperback edition weights in at 1200+ pages. But I want to make clear; the size should not deter anyone from reading this book. Funny story: one time at a local restaurant (here in Hokkaido) I happen to bring Les Misérables with me to read, the owner of the establishment was surprised to learn I was reading a novel, having assumed what I had brought with me was a dictionary to study.
Assumptions aside, the length of the book is one of the main things I really admired about Hugo’s masterwork; even for such a huge book it is—throughout its entirety—well crafted. The length allows Hugo’s attempt of a wide and deep interpretation of the human condition flourish. I have always loved long novels. I find it insightful and engrossing to be able to follow characters’ development in detail; watching the careful play of fate and tracing the course of cause and effect.
Creativity seeps out of every sentence; leading the reader’s eye from one word to the next. The feeling that Hugo carefully choose every word continues throughout. Hugo furthermore uses the length to an advantage by offering detailed and inspiring descriptions of the history, places and people of the novel. Chapters are taken up in the description of the Battle of Waterloo and of Paris.
My impression of the work is that Hugo conceived of it from the top down. He imagined a chronicle of justice, redemption, death and freedom. Next came a visionary, inspiring plot and complex allegorical characters. Finally came his beautiful prose to unify the work. I can’t help but believe when he put pen to paper on the first pages of this novel he new exactly where it was going to end.
A word now about the central theme of social justice that Hugo attempts to give structure to in Les Misérables. Some may find the theme too forward and too preachy in the novel. I think this may stem from some readers’ perceptions or biases that anything at all can be about the wrongs Hugo addresses in Les Misérables. Though I can understand how the reader may perceive that Hugo is gaudily draping his main theme in Christmas lights, spelling out ‘this is the point!’, I do not agree. Personally, I found the theme quite subtle— but in a moment of honesty— I am naturally more accepting of such positions. One reason the theme works so well and subtly is that Hugo manages to create visceral relationships between the reader and his characters. We, the reader, can relate to the injustices that characters face and also feel their desire for justice and happiness.
The quote that follows is particularly representative of the over arching themes of social justice and freedom that Hugo plays with. It is from section v named “The world as seen from the top of the barricade” in chapter one entitled “War Within Four Walls” in part five of Les Misérables entitled “Jean Valjean”. The scene takes place on the barricade of Rue de La Chanvrerie in the Paris rebellion of June 1832… just before everyone dies… It is spoken nobly by Enjolras, one of the rebel leaders and sacrificial lambs, in his last diatribe for progress—and against meaningless death—from his position atop the barricade.
We have tamed the hydra, and its new name is the steamship; we have tamed the dragon, and it is the locomotive; we have not yet tamed the griffin, but we have captured it and its name is the balloon. On the day when this Promethean task is completed and man has finally harnessed to his will the ancient triple chimera of the hydra, the dragon, and the griffin he will be the master of fire, air, and water, and he will have become to the rest of the living Creation what the Gods of antiquity were to him. Have courage, citizens! We must go forward. But what are we aiming at? At government by knowledge, with the nature of things the only social force, natural law containing its penalties and sanctions within itself, and based on its evident truth: a dawn of truth corresponding to the laws of daylight. (page 1004)
But equality, citizens, does not mean that all plants must grow the same height—a society of tall grass and dwarf tress, a jostle of conflicting jealousies. It means, in civic terms, an equal outlet for all talents; in political terms, that all votes will carry the same weight; and in religious terms that all religions will enjoy equal rights. Equality has a means at its disposal—compulsory free education. The right to learn the alphabet, that is where we must start. Primary school made obligatory for everyone and secondary school available to everyone, that must be the law. And from those identical schools the egalitarian society will emerge. Yes, education! (page 1005)
We here affirm it, on this barricade. Whence should the cry of love proceed, if not from the sacrificial alter? Brothers, this is the meeting place of those who reflect and those who suffer. This barricade is not a matter of rubble and paving-stone; it is built of two components, of ideas and of suffering. Here wretchedness and idealism come together. Day embraces night and says to her, “I shall die with you, and you will be reborn with me.” It is of the embraces of despair that faith is born. Suffering brings death, but the idea brings immortality. That agony and immortality will be mingled and merged in one death. Brothers, we who die here will die in the radiance of the future. We go to a tomb flooded with the light of dawn. (page 1006)
It is clear to me that it is Hugo himself speaking these words and his meaning could not be clearer (to the reader). However, the work in its totality does not offer us such a straightforward answer. Les Misérables itself is an example of life’s complexity. Compare Enjolras’s last words to the lives of the main characters in Les Misérables. Hugo offers the reader a clear-cut example in Jean Valjean of the possibility of one changing—fundamentally—to become a force for good in the world. However, it is not Hugo’s fundamental position that such idealism is real or pragmatic. Javert, upon learning of Jean Valjean complete redemption and experiencing, for himself, Valjean’s forgiveness, is unable to rectify this transformation into his existing paradigm (of Justice) and simply self-destructs. Thénardier is a character rotten to the core and is also incapable of change in much the same way Javert is; he never changes. While personally I believe change for the better in absolutely anyone is possible (within several different modalities; [either suddenly or over a lifetime]). Characters that are unable to change in Hugo’s work represent reality rearing its ugly head into our shared vision of social change—and thus utopia—and our inability to overcome such a world. The themes of personal change represent the rich complexity of life that is fitting for a book of such scope. Here his work is more conscious of realism that of idealism.
Tension is a force in everyone’s life and, as such, makes for good literature. In Les Misérables Hugo offers us as a thread traced throughout the work of the opposing wills of Javert against Jean Valjean. Both characters have created powerful worldviews through shear will and if one should ever come in contact or opposition with the other, only one may survive while the other vaporizes. I found the way Hugo opposed these two character’s will a strong foreshadowing of the predictions of Nietzsche some thirty years later. The two characters do their deadly dance together throughout the entire book. It is clear that only one can truly exist even though neither is possible outside the work itself.
A word now about the translation of Les Misérables I read, since it should be clear that I did not read the work in its native language of French. Some may suggest I consider the purist perspective that the English version is a mere shadow of its original French counterpart. But I am not convinced nor am I a purist; I loved the book and respect the translation. There is no point in hiding this work behind obtuse and elitist arguments of purism, and I have trouble myself believing that Hugo would have wanted such a transcendental work to be locked and secluded a way in French. Hugo would have wanted the story to roam free and raise as many questions here today as it did in his own world of Paris 1862. In my skewed, idiosyncratic view of the world I applauded the translation of Norman Denny because of the fact I had to look up words, in my eye’s this is positive. Denny got enough of Hugo’s beautiful prose through to English that I would love to master French simply to re-read the book in its native language.
Les Misérables has become one of my favorite novels, and, in the same vein, one that I will some day read again. A word of warning against judging the novel against the musical. While the musical was alright; reading Hugo’s own words and following exactly his line of thought greatly increased the richness of the story for me. Reading Hugo’s interpretation of his contemporary French society leads to understanding Hugo’s conception of the nature of man; a riddle no less intriguing today then in Hugo’s own time. I will also always be appreciative of the work’s secondary functions after it’s read; that of a defensive anti-robbery device and door-stop.