Classic Book Review: Les Miserables

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables
by Victor Hugo

4 out of 5 stars
Jean ValJean is an ex-convict. Everywhere he goes he is shunned and reviled, but one old priest is kind to him. ValJean undergoes a change of heart, and determines to become respectable and good. He conceals his past, and becomes a philanthropist. He gives to the poor, supports the elderly and the orphaned, and shows kindness to a dying prostitute, Fantine. However, the police inspector Javert has not forgotten ValJean’s criminal past. Javert pursues ValJean into the crowded streets of Paris, stubbornly intent on bringing ValJean back to the galley prison for his past crimes.

I loved so many things about this book! The dramatic storyline was wonderful with so many compelling and complex characters. The writing is so powerful!

I loved that we get a very in-depth look into the inner struggles of each of the main characters. We see into their heart. We hear their thoughts. We look right into their innermost souls. And then when they make a decision and take action, it really means something profound because we have experienced all those internal workings that led up to that moment of action.

The writing does take a LOT of rabbit trails. There are entire chapters and massive sections that dive into the etymology of slang words, the history of the Battle of Waterloo, how the sewer system below Paris was constructed, the history and organization of religious convents, and many more subjects. If you are interested in history and non-fiction, you might enjoy these long passages that have very little to do with the actual fictional story. But if not, you might be better off with an abridged version of this book. I mostly skimmed over these rabbit trails. They weren’t at all necessary to the story.

However, the rest of the writing is wonderful! The majority of the book is full of powerful writing that captures your attention and is never boring. With one sentence, Hugo can tear your heart out.

I adore Jean ValJean’s character. He began with nothing: No future, no education, no status. And through his own ingenuity and persistence, he created a good life for himself. I really admire the high ideals and high morals that he hold himself to after his reformation. He educates himself and reads a lot of books. He shows kindness and generosity to everyone. He lives a very frugal life so that he can give more to the poor.

The only thing I don’t agree with is how Valjean never really forgave himself for his past crimes. He punishes himself and isolates himself from others in a really unnecessary way. If God forgives you, then you can certainly forgive yourself! Christ paid for those sins when He died on the cross. You don’t need to keep punishing yourself! It made me sad that ValJean could never quite find peace from his own self-inflicted guilt.

I loved the old priest, Bishop Myriel. Most of the first part of the book is just a lengthy description of the Bishop and his life: how he gave to the poor, how he counselled the foolish, how he forgave the sinners like ValJean with fatherly love and advice. The writing made him such a real person to me and I was flooded with feelings of admiration and respect. Some people might say that he was too good and too perfect to be true, but I have been blessed to know people very similar to Bishop Myriel in real life.

I was distressed by Fantine’s story. She was so poor and lonely and desperate. Her story left me feeling disgusted at the terrible circumstances she was in, and made me feel such a strong pity for her. I can’t say that I ever really connected with her character though. To me, she was just a plot device to connect us with Cosette and to show evidence of the extent of Valjean’s goodness and generosity.

Cosette is another character that I didn’t particularly connect with on a deep level. She is pitiful and sweet and innocent. I loved her because ValJean loved her. She was like an extension of his life, but without any life or personality of her own. It annoyed me that she was always content to go along with whatever was happening. I wish she had more independence of thought. Her main characteristics are that she is beautiful and sweet, but there is not much depth there. However, she is just so adorable and childish and cute! I like her despite her silliness.

I have conflicting thoughts about Marius. I did not like him very much. He is an airhead. He is lazy and doesn’t work to improve himself or his circumstances. He moons around daydreaming instead of doing something with his life. However, I do admire his high ideals. He is resolute in his morals and ideas about duty, and I really love that about him. He is quick to defend the helpless and to aid anyone in trouble. He is loyal to his friends. But he makes really dumb decisions! Oh, Marius, you adorable idiot! I can’t help but like him because he is charming and stupid and sweet.

Javert is one of the most complex villains in all of literature. He thinks he is doing what is right by upholding the law of France. He shows no mercy. There is no room in his mind for anything other than the letter of the law. Hugo says that “He [Javert] had… the intention of restoring Jean Valjean to the law of which Jean Valjean was the captive, and of which he, Javert, was the slave.” Javert’s entire life, his thoughts, his motives, his emotions, his soul, his entire identity is wrapped up in enforcing the earthly laws of France, which (judged by heavenly standards) are entirely without mercy or tolerance. Javert ignores the higher laws of God, while Valjean obeys the laws of God in showing mercy and charity. I loved hating this villain!

Thernardier is another villain that I loved to hate, but on a different level. While Javert is a very cerebral villain, Thernardier is primitive and coarse. His evil comes from his base instincts to the point of savagery. He is utterly crude and he does not have any kind of natural emotion or higher feeling that would usually prompt people to kindness or love. He even despoils his wife and children for his own selfish profit. I was completely disgusted with Thernardier, which just shows how powerful the writing is. And yet, he plays such an important role in the story on many levels. A brilliantly written character!

Eponine was certainly a pitiful character, but I didn’t really feel pity for her. She was just so icky. I couldn’t get a grasp of what was going on in her mind. I couldn’t relate in any way. She reacted in all these mindless ways that must have been a result of her abusive childhood and her wicked parents. I found her greedy and coarse. She is in every way the opposite of Cosette, and yet their fates could have been the same. While Cosette is sweet and elegant, Eponine is awkward and cloddish. It is definitely a powerful contrast!

Poor little Gavroche was a pathetic young boy who really broke my heart. Abandoned on the streets, he makes his living as a pickpocket, and yet he is full of bravado and songs. He is one of these innocents who were a victim of the injustices of society. His story made me cry!

Overall, I loved this book! It was so dramatic and emotional, and it really tugged at my heart strings. I liked that while there is certainly a lot of misery, there are also moments of sweetness and light and laughter.

SPOILERS:
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I thought the ending was really touching and emotional. It made me cry! I wish that ValJean could have lived, but then I remembered…. it’s French literature. Somebody (usually multiple people) have to die at the end. Or if they don’t die, they have to go into a convent as a nun or monk. And as a literary device, it is fitting that the end of the book is the end of ValJean’s life, since the entire book is about him. I’m just glad that he was vindicated and appreciated at the end.

One thing that I was disappointed about at the end was the unresolved storyline of Thenardier’s two little sons who were abandoned. I kept thinking that Marius would inquire more into Thenardier’s life and find the boys and adopt them. But we never really find out what happened to the boys.

3 thoughts on “Classic Book Review: Les Miserables

  1. Les Misérables really means a lot to me- as in BOTH musical and book. If I didn’t fall in love with the musical, I never would have read the book.

    Okay- about the characters, I have different opinions. Love Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Eponine, Enjolras and the students. Plus emotionally connected to all of them. Of the characters who actually do survive, Marius is my favorite.

      • Prior to Les Mis—–I really thought I would NEVER love a tragedy. The musical decided to prove me wrong. In more than one way. If it wasn’t for the musical, never would have touched the book.

        Well, also prior, the love for musicals was sparked, but still wasn’t a musical theatre fanatic- Les Mis changed that. It was the combo of Wicked and Les Mis that made me a musical theatre nut.

        Basically, obsessed with Les Mis

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